Ex-Rangers footballers suffered the highest harvest of tragedy in recent times with the death of their two old members, Ernest Ufele and Luke Okpala ( Jazz bukana) who died within two weeks interval in hospitals abroad and Nigeria respectively
While Ernest Ufele died in India , in the second week of September 2014, Luke Okpala a.k.a Jazz Bukana died on Sunday , September 21st 2014, at 5.46pm at a private Hospital in Enugu, almost at the dot of time in the premier league match between his former club Rangers International and hard fighting Warri Wolves in Enugu which Rangers won by a lone goal.
The two ex-players were the closest as far as the history of the club, and even football matters were concerned. Both of them played for E. C. N football club of Lagos before the Nigeria/ Biafra war and fought on the side of Biafra during the war. While Ernest Ufele was in the Biafran infantry as a company commander, Luke Okpala was a top officer in the Biafra Organization of Freedom Fighters (BOFF).
At end of the war, both Ufele and Okpala returned to E. C. N football club Lagos to re-unite with their colleagues like Erico, Abeke, Brodrick, Victor Odua, Toafic, Akitoye etc. It’s on record that on June 27th 1970 E.C.N team came to Enugu to play a friendly football match against Enugu Black Rocks team. It was after that match which E.C.N lost 2-0 , courtesy of Dom Nwobodo and Okoro’s goals that both of them found favour with Enugu Rangers recruitment team.
After the match, Ernest Ufele and Luke Okpala were “kidnapped” by Rangers coaches and they joined Rangers International and never returned to Lagos E.C.N again. In Rangers Ufele manned the right full back position which Ojirika conceded to him, while Luke Okpala settled for left full back position.
Ufele and Okpala also featured for the old East Central State team ,the Black Rocks, the eventual winners of gold cup in the 1973 National Sports Festival in Lagos.
In Rangers both of them were in the epoch-making team that won their ever National trophy, the highly coveted Challenge Cup in 1974 hitting Mighty Jets F.C 2-0 in Lagos. Ufele and Okpala were almost inseparable. They were very close friends from their days of active football till they retired. And now that they have died almost at the same time they remain together in death.
“What a pity,” Nwabufo Obienu cried from Enugu. “They have united again. What a great friendship they shared in this world and the great beyond. May their souls rest in peace.”
In what appeared as his last interview on earth, Luke Okpala narrated how he started football , his toughest match and how he rated his colleagues. The interview was held in Enugu ,a month before death snatched him away few weeks after his “twin” brother Ernest Ufele joined his ancestors. He spoke with Enugu based sports guru, Edwin Eze, former Rangers C.E.O, and later image maker.
Q: Sir let’s share with your soccer carrier.
Okpala : Well, Luke Okpala is my name. If you like call me Jazz or Jazz Bukana. Yes , I started playing football in my secondary school at the Notre Dame High School, Abatete, in Idemili L.G.A of the present day Anambra State.. I was born on August 10 in 1941. I played for the Junior Academicals in the old Eastern Region.
Q:sir you later joined E.C.N Lagos. Let’s have an idea about your experience with that famous club in Lagos.
Okpala: It was after the Junior Academicals that I joined E.C.N. The war interrupted me and Ufele and we rushed to the East during the crisis that led to the war. We also fought for Biafra. At the end of the war we returned to E. C. N to meet the likes of Paul Hamilton , Seb Brodricks, Law Omokachi, Inua Rigogo etc. In E.C.N we played like one family. There was no discrimination and we all related like a large family. Our friendly in Enugu with the Black Rocks changed the course of my football career. I give God all the glory.
Q: Recall your return to Rangers and your toughest match in Rangers.
Okpala: We came to Enugu to play against the Black Rocks and the officials of Rangers saw me and Ufele and just kidnapped us. You know what I mean. On my toughest match in Rangers , it was 1970 National league match between Rangers and Mighty Jets of Jos at the Enugu Township stadium.
Q: What made it the toughest?
Okpala: The first half ended goalless, but in the second half, with 20 minutes to go, Mighty Jets scored against us. …Enugu fans started leaving the field with six minutes to end the match…Then we scored two goals in quick succession to defeat Jets 2-1. It was after that match that the phrase “ Never Say Die” became Rangers additional title.
Q: Sir, let’s recall your exceptionally good colleagues
Okpala : Kenneth Abana was simply a magician when we played . His dribbling and thunderous shots made all the difference in difficult matches. Abana was a phenomenon . Dominic Nwobodo was equally gifted in shooting. Our skipper Godwin Achebe was the best stopper I have ever met”. Was it Chukwuma Igweonwu or Emeka Onyedika and Shedrack Ajero from the flanks. That was why we were formidable in those good old days.
Okpala stopped playing active football in 1975 when he travelled to the University of Winnipeg, Canada to further his education . On completion of his academics he returned to Enugu where he worked as a football coach, and later retired as a Director of coaching. Current Saturday Editor of Vanguard, Onochie Anibeze was one of those he coached at Enugu NEPA which was the breeding club for Rangers and Vasco Dagama in the 80s and 90s. Ufele on his part, retired in 1975, after the Champions Club Cup debacle with Hafia of Guinea, in which Rangers had lost 2-1 in Lagos.
He had earlier in the build-up to the finals scored the only goal in Mehalla Egypt in the semi finals when Rangers lost 3-1 in Egypt , only to defeat the Egyptians 3-0 in Enugu in a fortnight. Ufele briefly did coaching before he went into politics, attaining the height of Special Assistant to Anambra state government. He was until his death, a member of the Board of the great Antelopes of Enugu, Rangers International.