Stephen Keshi, Nigerian soccer’s charismatic and outspoken “Big Boss” who won African Cup titles as both captain and coach of his country, died early Wednesday. He was 54.
Keshi, one of only two men to win the African Cup of Nations as a player and a coach, died after being rushed to the hospital in Benin City in southern Nigeria late Tuesday night, the Nigerian Football Federation said.
“This is devastating. We have lost a superhero,” NFF president Amaju Pinnick said in a statement.
The federation said Keshi died of suspected heart problems and was experiencing an irregular heartbeat and pain in his legs when he was taken to the hospital. He was preparing to fly back to his home in the United States.
Keshi had lost his wife to cancer late last year.
The South African and Ghana federations, and English club Chelsea, were among those to pay tribute to Keshi.
Keshi captained Nigeria to the African Cup title in 1994 and was coach when Nigeria won again in 2013. He also coached the Togo and Mali national teams. He had immediate success when he turned his hand to coaching, guiding Togo to the World Cup for the first time in 2006.
Although he brought success back to Nigeria, his time in charge of his home nation was marked by disputes with his NFF bosses. But Keshi was so popular that former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan once personally intervened to make sure he remained as national coach.
As a tall, heavily-built central defender, Keshi led Nigeria’s golden age of players to the African Cup title in Tunisia in 1994 and to the brink of the World Cup quarterfinals the same year in the United States. That team contained the likes of Finidi George, Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh and Rashidi Yekini.
“Horrible news & Sad day as Our legendary Captain & brother Stephen Keshi dies,” Oliseh, Keshi’s former teammate and successor as Nigeria coach, wrote on Twitter. “We lost an iconic Hero 2day.”
When Keshi and Nigeria won in South Africa in 2013, he was the first black African coach in two decades to claim victory at the continental championship. A big believer in giving African talent a chance, Keshi then criticized national federations for continually hiring foreign coaches and not giving African coaches a chance.
Sometimes his love for his country and his continent went a little too far: When Malawi’s Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet expressed safety fears over playing a qualifying game in Nigeria in 2013, Keshi took the criticism of his country personally and got himself in trouble by calling Saintfiet a “crazy white dude.”