JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Big-framed and with a strong character to go with it, Stephen Keshi was the man Nigeria needed to overcome two decades of underachievement and send it back to the Confederations Cup as African champion.

Despite regularly exporting talent to the major European leagues over the last 10 years, Nigeria had failed to match the great expectations of millions of fans in Africa's most populous country.

Then came Keshi, Nigeria's 1994 African Cup-winning captain and now African Cup-winning coach after the triumph in South Africa in February.

Imposing his will on the squad and standing up to the national federation, which has a reputation of ruthlessly discarding coaches, Keshi put Nigeria back on top of African football in a two-year spell since his appointment in 2011, and after the team had left the 2010 World Cup without winning a game and then failed to even qualify for the 2012 African Cup.

He did it with a mixture of strength and guile, discarding troublesome talent in favor of developing home-grown players like midfielder Sunday Mba, but also managing delicate decisions like the dropping of longtime captain Joseph Yobo to the bench at the African Cup.

It worked, with Keshi leading Nigeria to victory over top-ranked Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals, a 4-1 hammering of Mali in the semifinals and then to a 1-0 win over Burkina Faso in the final.

Through it all, Keshi remained central to Nigeria's story for his ability to deal with the enormous expectation at home, and even the attempts by Nigeria Football Federation officials to fire him just before the Ivory Coast game. They eventually pleaded with him to stay after the tournament.

"I'm an optimistic person. I rarely think about negativity," Keshi said. "Even when it goes bad, I still think it's good. There must always be a lesson to add to my future to make it better."

An absorbing character, Keshi fills the image of a rugged former central defender — tall, well-built and with a shaved head. But he's also articulate, fluent in French after coaching stints with Togo and Mali, and possesses delicate managerial spells, as proved by the successful relegation to the bench of Yobo, who accepted it for the good of the team.

With his victory in South Africa, Keshi became the first Nigerian coach ever and the first African coach in 20 years to win the African Cup, and just the second man to claim the title as player and coach.

Big achievements for the man called "Big Boss," a nickname even his employers are starting to respect.


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