Ex-international Paul Okoku, childhood friend and teammate of ex-Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi, talks on his relationship with the fallen legend in this chat with ’TANA AIYEJINA
How did you feel when you first heard the news of Stephen Keshi’s death?
I have not recovered. My eyes are still heavy for lack of sleep. I could not have been prouder to be a friend of an iconic personality, the pride of Nigeria, Stephen ‘Bobby Moore’ Keshi. People were calling me to find out if it was true in the early hours. I was also calling to confirm. When it was confirmed, condolence messages kept coming in. Stephen was a friend, a brother, a teammate and a captain. When he was in St Finbarr’s College, Yaba, Lagos, people never knew how studious he was; he never joked with his books right from the primary school. He never skipped classes to play football; classes came before football. The principal gave us boys quarters to stay together. We cooked and ate together, we went out on weekends. We played for Johnson White together before he played for ACB.
When was the first time you met Keshi?
I can’t remember because we were so young. We were rivals in primary school but we were very friendly. He actually started out as a striker scoring goals. After school, he would come to my house and vice versa. Stephen was a mummy’s boy; he loved his mum, who used to trade at Tejuosho market in Yaba. We would walk from Constain to the market. We attended St Paul’s Catholic Church in Oyingbo. On Sundays, we went for 6am mass, then we went home, ate and then go to Morocco (a football pitch) to play football. My mum used to sell bread while Keshi’s mum sold yam. When I wanted to eat yam, I went to Keshi’s house and when he wanted to eat bread and beans, he came to my house.
What sort of person was your late friend?
Stephen was a down to earth person; he was very honest. So, when people say Keshi is arrogant, I don’t listen because I knew who he was. Keshi would fight for what is right. Even if I did something that was wrong, he would call me to order. When we started playing for Seven Planners, the owner of the club, Mr. Gomez nicknamed us. He named me Johnny Rep, after one of the best Dutch players in the 70s. Keshi was nicknamed after English legend Bobby Moore. Right from that moment, we didn’t even know what our names were. We started calling each other the nicknames. He was a workaholic.
How did both of you make it to the top of Nigerian football?
When we left primary school, we started playing for Greater Tomorrow, a team organised by the Nigeria Football Association then. When the big clubs like IICC, Rangers or the Eagles wanted to play, we would entertain the crowd first before they came on to play. Nigeria Football Association brought Yugoslav coaches Father Tiko and Rocky. Rocky was in charge of Greater Tomorrow and he was the one that converted Stephen from striker to defender because of his height. It was during that time that Pele came; we met him together in Ibadan, where he had us a coaching clinic. While we were playing for Greater Tomorrow, we were both invited to the Flying Eagles in 1978. It was (Chris) Udemezue who was the coach but we told him that we couldn’t honour the invitation because our Principal at St’ Finbarr’s College wanted us to face our studies. Again, we were both invited to the Green Eagles Team B in 1980 and he was also my captain. We were a feeder team to the Eagles. We were in practice in Ibadan when they brought a letter that they needed Keshi in Lagos in 1981. That was how he started with the national team. I joined him later and we won silver at the 1984 AFCON.
You were with him in South Africa on the way to winning a third AFCON title for Nigeria after a 19-year wait…
Before the 2013 AFCON, Stephen called me and said, ‘Paul, we are going to get to the final and I want you to be there.’ I was there. Two hours before the kick-off of the final match, I showed him my silver medal that we won together in 1984 in Ivory Coast and I said, ‘Keshi, this will not be your portion. You will win gold for Nigeria today.’ After he had won the biggest trophy in African football, I got to his hotel, there was no entrance to his room; people were everywhere. I was trying to get in but the security won’t let me in, but I got a way through eventually. There were media men everywhere from all over the world looking for Stephen. Someone said they were having dinner. I went to the dining hall but I didn’t see Stephen, I saw the players. Then Sylvanus Okpala told me, ‘Big Boss is in his room upstairs.’ He told the Nigerian security officer to take me to Keshi’s room but he said, ‘Coach wants to be alone, he doesn’t want visitors.’ Okpala insisted that he must take us to the coach. So, he went in to confirm if we could see him. Then he ushered us in. Do you know that Stephen was alone with a pastor? This is a guy that had just won the AFCON, every journalist in the world wanted to interview him but there he was alone in the room with me.
keshi and okoku
Okoku and Keshi
There was an incidence before the AFCON. A pastor, Tunde Emmanuel, was on a visit to Oklahoma and a friend of mine invited me to Redeem Christian Church of God there. After service, I met the pastor for prayers. I told him I would like him to pray for a friend, who would be leading a team to the biggest tournament in Africa. Pastor Emmanuel said, ‘Mr. Okoku, you are not even asking for prayers for yourself, you are asking for prayers for a friend. Stephen Keshi will win that trophy. Do you know why the country has not been winning? It’s because coach Amodu Shuaibu placed a curse on them because of the way he was treated. Give Keshi my phone number and tell him that he should make sure that in every interview he grants, he must use ‘by the grace of God.’’ That was why at the AFCON, every time Keshi was interviewed, he always used the phrase, ‘by the grace of God.’ The pastor said Stephen must make peace with Amodu for him to win (the AFCON). I told Stephen about it and he said, ‘That’s not a problem. Amodu is my friend, we will talk.’ So, that issue was sorted out and Stephen went to South Africa and won the competition. I have never spoken about this to anybody before.
But Keshi resigned few hours after winning the AFCON, citing interference from NFF officials. Did he tell you he was going to quit the team?
Right after the tournament, we discussed his resignation in his hotel room. I already knew what was going to happen but I wasn’t going to tell anybody. He was not a happy person. A man just won the AFCON and he is not happy! Something was wrong because of what he had been put through during that particular moment. Do you know that Stephen didn’t even know how the final goal by Sunday Mba was scored? He just saw everybody jumping and celebrating the goal and he started jumping with them.
Some say Keshi was arrogant and troublesome. Was that the friend you knew?
The Stephen I knew was not arrogant, he was not a troublemaker. When I inaugurated my foundation in Nigeria, Stephen was supposed to be there but because of the trouble he was facing as coach, he forgot. Stephen is not my friend. We were like brothers. When he became Eagles coach, he was still as humble as ever. My village Ogume is about 30 minutes’ drive from Ilah, his hometown. When my mum died, we were supposed to go to my village together. But he got a call to report to Abuja; that was when they wanted to hire a Technical Director for the team. They wanted him around and that was how he ended up in Abuja instead of my village for the burial of my mum. He was apologetic; he called me to know how I was faring.
Do you think he was fairly treated by the NFF?
Even Stephen wouldn’t allow me to speak on that. Many times I would call him and say I wanted to respond to certain issues but he would object. There have been so many stories attributed to him; Stephen was the most misunderstood person on earth. Do you know that the people Stephen gave contracts to while with Togo are the same people who were his loudest critics in Nigeria? But Keshi never fought back; he never liked it. So, why would I do the same thing now that he’s dead?
Is it true he was unable to get over his wife’s death?
It was a deep blow for Keshi; he was never himself after his wife’s death.
How do you think he should be immortalised?
NFF should forget about any misunderstanding or personal issues they had and do the right thing to immortalise this guy. Stephen was the face of Nigerian football and they need to properly immortalise him. I trust Amaju Pinnick to do that.