Sunday, October 2, 2016 12:21 pm
By Sheddy Ozoene
The 2016 edition of the Nigerian Professional Football League has finally wound down. The last matches which took place today, Sunday October 2 were, in a way, a mere formality; Rangers International of Enugu were as good as winning the trophy since the week before. In the week 37 match played against Ikorodu United in Abeokuta, the Flying Antelopes defeated their rivals 2-1 with the winning goal coming off the right foot of Chisom Egbuchulam. That single shot is, perhaps, the most important kick by a Rangers player since 1984. Today’s 4-0 spanking of Elkanemi Warriors of Maiduguri in Enugu only added the icing on their victory cake.
By becoming champions of the 2016 season, Rangers ultimately broke the jinx that has dogged the pride of the East for 32 long years. It was a victory that has several ramifications, considering the social and political importance of the team in the affairs of the Igbo nation. That it comes in the first full season since Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi assumed the governorship of Enugu state gives it a certain political colouration, too. Only a few people, including the sports-loving governor who has in just 16 months become famous for breaking jinxes, expected that that of Rangers would come so soon.
For the football club founded from the ashes of the civil war in 1970, the first fifteen years were glorious indeed; the team ruled the fields, in Nigeria and across Africa before decline set in to the dismay and consternation of its ardent fans. Increasingly, many came to accept that their days of dominance were indeed over. Considering what Rangers symbolized to the average Igbo, their slump and the concomitant damage it did to their pride, was profound; more troubling was that efforts to return the team to their winning ways were either half-hearted or lacking altogether.
So, are there things Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi did for the Flying Antelopes that his predecessors didn’t do? The answer is not far-fetched, considering how the players’ morale were lifted by the incentives laid out by the governor in the past year alone. Under his watch, even the poor state of finances did not affect prompt payments of transfer fees, salaries, bonuses and other allowances. With better welfare package, Rangers players became better focused and developed an unusual hunger for a trophy; no longer were they distracted by mundane issues like their travelling bus breaking down on the way for an away match.
Ugwuanyi also planned for the long haul: In the past year alone, he has set out what is easily the most elaborate plan to ensure the team’s rejuvenation. The restructuring plan entails sending a bill to the state House of Assembly for a law to liberalise the ownership of the club and bring in public and corporate individuals to co-own and fund it. When passed into law, the bill will open the floodgates to public funds by enthusiasts which, according to NFF President Amaju Pinnick, “will likely make Rangers International the richest clubside in the country”.
This season, The Flying Antelopes rediscovered their pedigree, starting the season with much promise and managing to sustain the tempo and focus till the end, unlike in previous seasons when they would usually lose steam midway. And as the league entered the final lap, Governor Ugwuanyi’s handsome donations were like shots of steroids to their legs. A 30-seater Coaster bus came ahead of top-of-the-table clash at league leaders Wikki Tourists.
A new car came for the coach Imama Amapakabo, then he announced the three million Naira-a-win promise to the players that got the team captain, Okey Odita vowing to deliver the cup to him at Enugu’s Lion Building. This time they ran the last lap of 3 matches so gallantly, winning the first two against Sunshine Stars and Ikorodu United at a time fellow contenders Wikki Tourists and Rivers Angels, hit a rough patch that made victory look so obvious for the Coal City outfit. Tomorrow’s match against El-kanemi will largely be ceremonial.
Formed in 1970, Rangers became one of the two institutions that played inestimable roles in healing the Igbos’ wound – physically, socially and psychologically — from the devastating 3-year civil war. The other is the highlife band called the Oriental Brothers International. Those two were more than symbolisms; they became the region’s rallying points and within a short time captured the imaginations of the people like nothing before. They earned the respect of all, including the war-time ‘enemies’ against whom bullets and Ogbunigwes were trained few months earlier.
Within four years, precisely in 1974, Rangers had not only lifted the nation’s league title, they went ahead to repeat the feat five more times in 1975, 1977, 1981, 1982 and 1984. Their series of conquests did not stop at the league, they replicated it in the FA Cup, winning the prestigious trophy a record five times total, in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1981, 1983. Coming out from a devastating war, the team became a pictogram for the Igbo spirit, industry and resilience.
Rangers became the nation’s most recognizable flag-bearers in international competitions, conquering both at home and afar, and bringing to our shores such great teams like Asante Kotoko of Ghana, Union Douala, Al Ahly of Egypt, Etoile Sahel, club Africain of Algeria, El-Marriek of Sudan and so on. In those glorious years, the Enugu stadium — later remodeled to 30,000 capacity and named after the journalist and pugilist-turned politician, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe — became the slaughter arena for great teams.
Not only were the team entertaining the teeming fans with flowing soccer artistry, they ensured that the likes of Egypt’s Mehalla will always see wahalla in Enugu, never mind their goalkeeper’s outrageous claim after the goal rain, that he was seeing heads of palm fruits and not the round leather flying towards his goal.
In those giddy days, Rangers provided the bulk of players to the then Green Eagles, like giant goalkeeper Emma Okala, skipper Christian Chukwu, Aloysius Atuegbu, the Onyedikas (Emeka and Ifeanyi), Christian Madu and Ernest Ufele and many more. By 1984, just within 14 years of its formation, they had triumphed in the African Cup Winners’ Cup in 1977, after reaching the finals of the African Cup of Champions Clubs two years earlier in 1975.
Remarkably they recorded an unassailable distinction of a record nine appearances in the African Cup of Champions Clubs / CAF Champions League and seven appearances in African Cup of Champions Clubs from 1971 to 1985. In local parlance, Rangers earned the title of Akwaa Akwuru! They were indeed, doughty and indomitable.
Managed by some of the best in the past 46 years, Rangers have had the likes of Nigerian, Dan Anyiam in the 1970s, the Brazillian Roberto Diaz and the master tactician, Janusz Kowalik who led the team through 1983–84. Bulgarian Kosta Papić would be the last foreign coach before ex-Rangers, Okey Emordi (2008), Christian Chukwu (2008–Aug 09) and Alphonsus Dike (Sept 2009–11) would take their turns. After years losing their clout due to poor management, a lack of focus and poor funding, the team only twinkled a few times: in the 2011/12 season, for instance, they came close to winning the league crown, only finishing second with 58 points.
But in spite of the poor runs, Rangers remains the only Nigerian division one team that has never been relegated from the premier league. Heartland of Owerri, the other team that enjoyed this spot along with Rangers recently went down to the lower division. Now, under Head Coach Imama Amapakabo, the flame has been lit again, with bright prospects for the future.
It is safe to say that Rangers has finally returned, bringing with it positive political impact on Governor Ugwuanyi who has brought about the much-needed turn-around. Starting from the more-focused coaching and management team, to the introduction of fresh hands into the technical crew and the professional recruitment of players from within and outside Nigeria, the present euphoria appears sustainable.
Though Rangers may have wandered in the football wilderness for 32 years, the club that provided a ladder for the rise and sustenance, politically, of the likes of Chief Jim Nwobodo, has not lost a grain of its potency.