Ify Okafor, called my phone from her Dallas home Wednesday morning to know if I had heard the sad news. She had heard even before the news broke to the public in Nigeria.
Stephen Keshi had called her only last week to promise that he would pay her a visit on his return from Benin. Keshi knew that friends usually don’t keep their words to a bereaved family. After the mourning period, people tend to move on, and the bereaved carry their cross alone. Keshi probably wanted to prove to Ify Okafor and her daughter Tochukwu, that he was different. He had as such planned to visit to see how the widow and daughter of his friend and Eagles colleague; Uche Okafor, were coping in their Little Elm home in Dallas.
Uche and Keshi were very close in their days in Eagles. Interestingly, they were both central defenders. Uche paired Keshi on many occasions, and they were close pals on and off the field. Keshi had been devastated when Uche died and maintaining contact with his family was one way of showing to her that not all late husband’s friends had deserted her.
Keshi was to return to the US on Wednesday, the same day he died in Benin where he had made home since his active days as a footballer.
He was from Illah, in Delta but Benin was his home. He loved the city. He became a known star at NNB FC, Benin. After his stay in Ivory Coast and Europe where his soccer career blossomed, Keshi relocated to the United States, but he never disengaged from Benin till death.
“Stephen Keshi couldn’t be separated from his wife. They were inseparable, and he has gone to join her,” his brother, Emma Ado told me early morning Wednesday to confirm the sad news.
His wife, Kate had died in December last year and was buried in Benin. Truly, they appeared inseparable. Keshi always brought up the perspectives of his wife in many discussions. Kate was his adviser on many issues and he appreciated her counsels. There were times he would plan a hard stance but would eventually mellow down and would proudly reveal that his wife so advised. Kate respected her husband’s technical abilities and never delved into that. But she advised and counselled in many other issues. They had a fantastic relationship.
“My wife was wondering what you have been up to all these days and sends her regards,” Keshi would tell me if it had been long we communicated. And even after the Brazil World Cup tournament when it appeared to him that media criticisms were becoming harsh, Keshi called me to say that “my wife was wondering what you and your colleagues have been up to and why you guys are writing all these.”
You would certainly recoil if you had any hard position on him. Anybody who was close to Keshi knew about the positive impact of his wife on him. And Ado strongly believed his brother found it difficult to move on without her. Ado says Keshi masked his sorrow since his wife died and tried to give the impression that he was man enough to trudge on. But the truth, according to Ado, remained that Keshi was no longer the same.
“He was down and couldn’t move on,” Ado says. “They were just inseparable from domestic matters to social matters and other aspects of life; they were one,” Ado says, adding “to Keshi nobody could cook like his wife, nobody could please him like his wife. She was just irreplaceable and when she died Keshi broke down. He could not recover. My brother has gone to meet his wife.”
Truly, Kate meant so much to Keshi. Keshi even owed his success in Europe as a player to his wife. This, he told me more than ten years ago while we were discussing the travails of African players in Europe. I remember his words: “When you are a black man from Africa you need to do more than what the Europeans do to make the team in your club.
It is not easy. You may not rule out racism or how you are perceived. Some months after I arrived Belgium from Ivory Coast, I was almost heading back to Africa. I made up my mind to return to Africa where I was a star. I was already packing my things. I knew what my performance was in training, but they were not giving me a chance to play. Even our club fans who watch training were surprised. I knew I was better than many of the ones playing, but the coach would not select me. I was frustrated and couldn’t believe that I could be rated so low that I could not play for Lokeren.
And I saw myself as one of the best not only from Africa but also in that club based on what I did in training. So, I started packing my things to return to Africa. My wife asked what I was doing, and I told her that I was getting ready to return to Africa Sports if they could sort out my contract. Africa Sports of Ivory Coast were ready to take me back on loan or whatever arrangement that could be reached. My wife shocked me. She retorted “you are not good enough otherwise you will be making the team.”
I asked her what she said, and she repeated the words louder and added that “football no de lie.” I was furious and very angry. I was disappointed that she didn’t understand what was going on. I took that anger to training the following day in the morning, and it showed in my game. I was sliding, tackling, chasing the ball and players out of the field. I was packing legs. My wife who knew me well said I was not good enough. I had to prove to her that I was just good enough. The trainer removed me from training fearing that I could break somebody’s leg the way I was going.
The next match he brought me in as a substitute and after that, I had the chance to start a game when a player had an injury. I did well and even gave an assist and also hit the bar when I attacked from defence. Fans came to the training ground after that singing my name. I scored a goal in one of my early matches, and my fans grew in number. They were carrying Nigeria’s flag to training and stadium on match days. The coach couldn’t keep me out of the team again. I did so well that I left Lokeren for Anderlecht and ended up captaining the big Belgian club. So, you can see the role my wife played in my career.”
Keshi later played for Strasbourg in France and was also captain. He captained the Eagles that qualified Nigeria for their first ever World Cup finals in USA “94 and the team that won the Nations Cup same year in Tunisia, a cup he also won as a coach in 2013 in South Africa. His story is long. He died a legend.
Keshi was not known to be sick before his death. Ado said it was cardiac arrest. Few days before he passed on, he complained of irregular heartbeats. And few hours after complaining of pains in the leg he was rushed to the hospital where he was confirmed dead.
“He planned to visit us and told me so when he called from Nigeria last week,” Mrs. Okafor said on the phone. “This world is all vanity. It is unbelievable. What’s happening? Is this the way life is? I will have to keep this away from my daughter,” she said. She lost her husband and under five years the best friend of her husband passed on. Sorrowful.
Sylvanus Okpala was down in shock when he heard the sad news. Their relationship started from their days in the Flying Eagles when Okpala was captain of the 1978/79 squad.
“About eight of us in that team quickly made it to the senior national team,” Okpala recalled Wednesday morning while mourning.
He meant the likes of Humphrey Edobor, Franklin Howard, Stephen Keshi, George Omokaro and Prince Afejukwu. For the 1980 Nations Cup, Okpala recalled that Keshi was in camp with them but left because of injury.
“I can’t believe that he is gone,” Okpala said. He called me last week and asked after my family. We spoke at length without discussing football. I was surprised he called because the usual thing was for him to receive calls. But he called this time. I was touched. I didn’t know it was going to be my last chat with him. We won the Nations Cup in South Africa together. When he became the head coach of the Super Eagles, he invited me to be his assistant. We were a family. Now death has taken him away. Too sad. May his soul rest in peace.”