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AS NIGERIA PREMIER LEAGUE CLIMAXES TOMORROW

Ugwuanyi: Breaking the Rangers jinx

BY SHEDDY OZOENE

Tomorrow, the 2015-2016 season of the Nigerian Professional Football League winds up. But from every indication, these last matches are, in a way, mere formalities; Rangers International of Enugu are as good as having won the trophy. In the week 37 match played against Ikorodu United in Abeokuta, the Flying Antelopes spanked 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.

With that goal and the victory it earned the team, the jinx that has dogged the pride of the East for 32 long years, was broken. And the club which means so much more to the Igbo nation, has thrown the people into ecstatic celebration.  That it comes in the first full season of Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi’s tenure as Enugu state governor speaks volumes of the man who, in just 16 months of assumption of office, has become famous for breaking jinxes. There is also a certain political coloration to the turn of events: though Rangers have wandered in the football wilderness for 32 years, the club that provided the ladder for the rise and sustenance, politically, of the likes of Chief Jim Nwobodo, has not lost a grain of its potency.

Rangers
Rangers

Formed from the ashes of the civil war 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.

Within four years, precisely in 1974, Rangers had not only lifted Nigeria’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 theprestigious trophy a recordfive times total, in1974, 1975, 1976, 1981, 1983.  Coming out from a devastating war, the team became a pictogram for the Igbo spirit of industry and resilience.

Rangers became Nigeria’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 Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe — became the slaughter arena where great teams likes Egypt’s Mehalla saw real wahalla.

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 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.

Considering what Rangers symbolized to the average Igbo, their slump did profound damage to their pride; 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 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. 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 victories. 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 plan to liberalise the club and bring in public and corporate individuals to co-own it, is intended to open the floodgates to public funds and, according to NFF President Amaju Pinnick, “make Rangers International the richest clubside in the country”. ““This season, Rangers rediscovered their pedigree, starting the season with much promise and 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 with Wikki Tourists. A new car came for the coach Imama Amapakabo, then he announced the N3m-a-win promise that got team captain, Okey Odita vowing to deliver the cup to him at Enugu’s Lion Building. They ran the last lap of 3 matches so gallantly, winning the first two against Sunshine Stars and Ikorodu United and rendered tomorrow’s match against El-kanemi largely ceremonial.

Rangers have been managed by some of the best in the past 46 years, from Dan Anyiam in the 1970s to the Brazillian Roberto Diaz and the master tactician, Janusz Kowalik who led the team through 1983–84. Bulgarian Kosta Papic would be the last foreign coach before ex-Rangers, Okey Emordi (2008), Christian Chukwu (2008–09) and present Head CoachImama Amapakabo would take their turns. But in spite of the poor runs of recent, Rangers remains one of only two Nigerian division one clubsides that has never been relegated from the premier league. Now with Governor Ugwuanyi’s much-needed turn-around, the flame has been lit again, with bright prospects for the future.


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