*The untold story of Arthur Egbunam
By Onochie Anibeze
Immediately I saw Arthur Egbunam I remembered his 1979 story that has not been written till date.
He had left Enugu Rangers with Okey Isima and Humphrey Okechukwu and the trio joined Standard of Jos. Remember that transfers were not common in those days when the Nigerian league enjoyed the kind of followership we now associate with the English Premiership.
To Rangers fans, the transfer of their stars was unbelievable. And they expressed themselves the day that Standard were at Nsukka to play Rangers. Enugu Stadium, Rangers home ground, was undergoing repairs. Fans laid siege to Premier Hotel where Standard lodged.
Late popular musician, Oliver De Coque, was in Nsukka to play and at the same hotel. When he saw a crowd of people outside the hotel, he first thought he was the attraction until he noticed that the fans were sending emissaries to room 202 and not his room 203. Arthur and Isima were in room 202. The fans were there to plead that they return to Rangers. And after the match more fans besieged Premier hotel. To them, Arthur and Isima, once brilliant stars of Rangers, had committed an abomination. They had betrayed the Igbo man and damaged the only thing that gave a befitting name to their identity.
Rangers was the name of Biafra’s guerrilla group during the Nigerian civil war. It was a deadly group that caused nightmares to the federal troops, sneaking into their camps to maim and kill. They were guerrilla fighters. And when the war ended, the easterners named their football team Rangers. Rangers were, therefore, more than a football team to the Igbo man. It was a movement that gave them identity, that boosted their ego deflated by the war defeat. It was therefore very exciting to the Igbo man that Rangers became a hit on formation in 1970, winning the league in 1974, 1975, 1977, 1981, 1982 and 1984 and five Challenge Cup victories.
In fact, they dominated Nigerian football with IICC Shooting Stars and Bendel Insurance. Rangers lifted the Igbo man. It became their pride.
So, you can imagine the outrage when Arthur Egbunam laid superb assists that saw Bala Ali firing the first goal for Standard and Humphrey Okechukwu sealing victory for the Jos side in the league cracker that ended 0-2 in favour of the visitors. Okey Isima played in the defensive midfield or what was called 4, Humphrey Okechukwu 8 and Arthur in jersey number 10.
They tormented Rangers and were a real delight to watch in the midfield. Tunde Adedara was in goal for Standard, Onyebuchi Abia and Sola Popo manned the full back positions. Musa and Achampong were in the central defence while James Neto, another Ghanaian in the team, played from the right flanks. Kola Adejide was on the left while Bala Ali was the central striker. It was an average squad but with strong character. However, they were no where in the class of Rangers. But that day in Nsukka, the former Rangers boys in Arthur Egbunam, Isima and Okechukwu played as if they were possessed and the story was a shocking 2-0 defeat of almighty Rangers that had Emmanuel Okala in goal, and the likes of Christian Chukwu, Amaechi Igwobi, Paulinus Ezike, Michael Ochiagha, Adokiye Amiesimeka and Chimezia Ngadi in the line up. It was a shocker.
Arthur Egbunam’s father worked in Enugu Sports Council at the time. He was transferred to Onitsha and he went to work from his home, Obosi. That appeared not to be enough punishment and he was further transferred to Abakaliki. I wouldn’t know if it was a mere coincidence that his transfer came immediately his son led a Jos team to beat Rangers at home. But there was a campaign for the trio to return to Rangers. That’s the untold story of Arthur Egbunam’s father.
Last Friday, February 12, Arthur Egbunam was among the array of stars that visited my village in Aguobu-Owa in Ezeagu Local Government Area of Enugu State for the burial of my elder brother, Thomas Anibeze. Immediately I saw him, I remembered his father’s story.
There were many big names in Nigerian football whose presence thawed my heart. Chairman Christian Chukwu led the team that had Dr. Johny Egbonu, Stanley Okoronkwo, Michael Ogbuodudu, Francis Nwosu alias German War, Harrison Okagbue, former national team coach of Uganda, Quick Silver Sylvanus Okpala, Godwin Nosike, Fancy Ewulu. There were also Bartholomew Izozuru, Collins Udeh, Onumonu Aparadede, Christian Kubah, Napoleon Handsome and the current spokesman of Enugu Rangers, Foster Chime.
They came in a Rangers Bus and added colour to the burial ceremony. Later, Louis Igwilo, the commander of Super Eagles midfield in his time came. It was amazing. Ex-Rangers players have a strong union that keeps them together. Only last year, they held their convention in Atlanta, USA. They always attend weddings and other functions as a team. They are still united in retirement. I did not play for Rangers and I couldn’t imagine the honour, last Friday. Okagbue, as usual, thrilled all with his dance steps when the sound of the gongs charged the atmosphere. Interestingly, Okagbue gave me the chance to be noticed in football.
Rangers had come for training at Enugu campus of University of Nigeria and somehow, they were not complete. Mmimi, as Okagbue is fondly called beckoned me to complete them. I was among the players who left the field to give way to Rangers for their training. Mmimi had seen me play a few times and among the young players around he called me to complete the team. That chance to train with Rangers, to me then, was like playing for Nigeria. In one move that I blocked Aloysius Atuegbu, known for his physical attributes, he fell to the ground, their coach Mathew Atuegbu yelled “Ebe ka onye nka sikwe bia” (Where did this one come from?). Mmimi was a fine central defender and now a fine MC whose jokes entertain people at events. My brother’s burial brought them to my village.
I asked Mike Ogbuodudu about Segun Odegbami. He just smiled. I did not expect an answer. He became a national star for superbly checking the forays of Odegbami in the 1977 Africa Cup Winners semi-final tie with IICC Shooting Stars. Odegbami was a thriller at the wings and Ogbuodudu marked him well. Fans sang songs with his name. He became an instant hero for marking out Odegbami. Rangers went on to win the Cup.
I thank them all for the honour. Special thanks to Sylvanus Okpala, who was so good in Portugal that late Rashidi Yekini told me that years after Okpala left Portugal fans still talked about him. He excelled playing for Moritimo, Uniao and when he was injured at Nacional they offered him a coaching job because of his brilliance. He preferred to return home. He is a brilliant coach. When Maigari disengaged him as Stephen Keshi’s assistant we all saw of what became of the team, Super Eagles.
The presence of these superstars of Nigerian football in my village really meant a lot to our family. My late brother must be happy where he is. Chukwu and his team were also delighted to meet their senior in my uncle, Ben Anibeze fondly called Little Ben when he played for the Railways and the national team long before them.
Little Ben was later to be chairman of Enugu Rangers and Chukwu led the stars to greet him at his stand where the Igwes sat. My village had never seen such array of stars and I lack words to describe how grateful our family is to these great men. Commissioner for Local Government Matters, Chijioke Edeoga, was there. So was former Commissioner for Special Duties, Emeka Ugwuokpa. Current Deputy Governor of Enugu State, Cecelia Ezeilo was also there. Chris Orji came with the Okwomma group whose gongs charged up the atmosphere.
Chief Ben Ezeibe, the tennis buff also surprised us. He read the tribute I wrote in Vanguard that Friday, February 12 and dashed to my village.
Louis Amoke, the Special Adviser to governor Ugwuanyi on media was there too. There were many friends of my brother, Professor Chike Anibeze. Space may not allow me to mention all of them. But special thanks to Johny Adimkpaya, Emma Eneoli and Tony Igboji. When I told Tony Ubani, our sports editor how successful the burial was and the array of stars that attended, he said “part two of the tribute must be written”. And here we are. Manpass, my late brother, is really resting in peace.