By Ken Ugbechie
I saw it in its dour state, void of grandeur. And last week, I saw it in its new splendour, full of radiance. The Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba, Delta State now wears a new look, a befitting status for a man we call Skippo. Keshi was Nigeria’s most benevolent footballer and easily the most cosmopolitan Nigerian player.
He was also a national team coach who made history by winning the African Nations Cup both as a player and as a coach, an honour he shared with Egypt’s Mahmoud El-Gohary. But the man died. He died of heart attack on July 7, 2016.
For all that he stood for and lived for, many sports buffs have entreated the Federal Government to honour Skippo by naming one of our national sports monuments after him. It was not an honour too much to ask for, especially for a man who in his days as player and manager brought glory to Nigeria.
You could say since his death, he never really rested in peace in the country of his birth and to which he gave so much, sacrificially. But now, he rests. He rests in Asaba, the rapidly transforming capital of Delta State, his own state. His soul has found rest with the completion of a modern stadium in the capital city named after him. The Asaba stadium now fittingly christened Stephen Keshi Stadium has profited from the SMART agenda of Governor Ifeanyi Okowa.
It is normal to wonder, just a stadium? What’s the big deal? A lot! This is not just a stadium. It is a monument buried in the sand dunes of time; tucked in the bowels of history. Almost forgotten, turned to a development pawn and treated like an orphan. Its history reaches to the regional era of the old Midwestern State. Birthed by Asaba natives in the 1960s as a recreational facility for their sons and daughters who excelled in those days and still do, in sports and academics. It was conceived to be a watering hole to hone skills and kindle competitive spirit. But it suffered neglect. Not even its takeover in 1974 by the illustrious government of Samuel Ogbemudia did much to add veneer of modernity to its vanquished vastness.
And all through the hands of 19 military and civilian leaders, Asaba stadium was tossed and teased on the chessboard of development; a lame pawn. At a time, it became the haven of street urchins and hemp vendors and their patrons; a hideout for criminals. In the military days, it served even a morbid purpose. A shooting range where crooks were treated to a small fatal feast of fire. They were executed in the bushy and wildly grassy fields of the stadium in orgies of jungle justice. Such was the lot of the stadium; a history of harrowing moments of horror. But the stadium endured the pains. It struggled through time and was lost in the maze of identity. Was it truly a stadium or a mere playground?
And to his credit, James Ibori as governor built an indoor sports hall in the stadium but even this restricted its use. It could not host any major competition because it was much difficult to grade it a stadium.
But all that misfortune of a monument has ended. Were it a human, a being, the stadium would by now be wiping her tears to mark the end of horrifying decades of rapacious rape and brutal abuse. And it’s all thanks to Governor Okowa. Upon the death of Keshi, the governor named the stadium after the man who opened the floodgate for African players to Europe. Keshi was the forerunner of all the good things that happened to most African footballers in Europe. He was the harbinger of fortune and fame for Nigerian players especially. He, it was, who pointed the way for others. He was not the first Nigerian to play professional football in Europe. But once he got his chance, he democratized the opportunities. He opened the door for others players. From Nigeria to Ghana, Togo to Mali, Skippo ensured that a strong contingent of African players found their way to European clubs. Till this day, remittances from these players and their latter-day joiners to their respective African nations have been bewildering. Poverty has been wiped out permanently in many homes through his effort and benevolence.
Keshi was not just a leader, he was a talismanic leader. A winner on every front. He rocked the Belgian league; was a popular African ambassador in Europe. He captained Nigeria to her first ever and best World Cup appearance (USA 1994). The only Nigerian player-turned-coach to take another African nation (Togo) to World Cup. As coach, he did not only win the Nations Cup, he also qualified Nigeria for the World Cup. A man of such impressive profile deserves a resting place after kicking the inevitable ball: death!
And now he got one. A colourful stadium in his own state. Thanks to Okowa who pledged to break the Asaba stadium jinx and went ahead to exorcise the voodoo and the spell that long tethered the sporting facility to the manacle of dormancy. The Stephen Keshi Stadium is no longer a fairy tale. It is real. It sits on Nnebisi Road in Asaba in full finery and majesty. And it comes with some firsts. It boasts the first nine-lane track in Nigeria.
Next month, precisely from August 1-5, the stadium will host the Africa Athletics Championship. Over 52 African countries are expected at this Senior Athletics feast. Asaba has never seen such. Ethiopians and Kenyans, those gifted long-distance runners, are already talking tough. They are coming to dominate, they boast. This would never have been if a befitting stadium was not available. Imagine for a moment the impact this event would have on the Delta economy. Hotels, food vendors, sundry service providers, transporters, airlines, markets and marketers will all witness a surge in revenue. This is what development does to a people.
For those who still wonder why a stadium could attract so much rave, think again. Think of the place of Delta State in Nigerian, nay African, sports. Delta is the tendon that holds Nigerian sports. Athletics, soccer, basketball, you name it. The state has a verdant history of producing champions and legends of the mould of Keshi. A good, modern stadium can only accelerate the production line.
Right from the days of Midwest through Bendel and now Delta, two things have always separated the state from others. It is the nursery of academic and sports outliers. With a stadium of this stature, watch out for the making of tomorrow’s champions in global sports. Delta youths should take ownership of the stadium. It is for them hence their duty to treat it with care, protect and preserve it.
Stephen Okechukwu Keshi has found rest at last. It is an enduring honour for a man who gave his all for his country. He deserves more, no doubt, especially from the Nigerian government. But this one wrought by his governor in his honour suffices for now.
* First published in Sunday Sun