By Onochie Anibeze
PLAYERS graduated from Enugu NEPA to either Vasco Dagama or Rangers International.
Those were the three major clubs in Enugu then.
As players walked out of the pitch at the end of the first half in one friendly match we (Enugu NEPA) were playing then, Paul Chibuzor fondly called Sayama on getting to team mates on the bench said, “Kedu ka egwum di? Kedu ife ana-ekwu makam?” That attracted hilarious laughter. Ernest Ufele was the new coach and every player wanted to impress him. Sayama wanted to know how he was fairing and uttered those words, meaning “how is my game, what are they saying about me?”
Those were the good days in Enugu when the target among many players was to use the platform football offered to earn scholarship in American universities. Going to Europe for professional career was not the attraction then although Sylvanus Okpala and Okey Isima, who were exceptional, were linked to Portugal for professional stints.
They first moved and shortly after that Stephen Keshi left for Belgium in a move that opened the door for many Nigerian players to embrace professional careers in Europe.
However, in the late 1970s and 1980s, going to study in US on scholarship was more attractive to players from the East. And so the likes of Mike Emenalo, Francis and Benji Okaro, Christian Ogbodo, Charles Okonkwo, Arthur Egbunam, Ikechukwu Ofoje, Totty O. Totty, Emma Okonkwo, Kenneth Boardman, Ibezim Ofoedu,Chibuzor Ehilegbu etc, all left to play for American universities and also study.
Before then were the likes of Ikechukwu Anigbogu, Donald Igwebuike, Kenneth Ilodigwe, Chimezie Ngadi, Nnamdi Nwokocha (Camel), Foster Ikeagu, etc. They had gone to America to read too.
Mike Emenalo holds the record of returning to play professionally in Europe on graduation and going on to play in the World Cup, the USA ’94 World Cup. And today he is still in top football directing affairs in Chelsea as technical director after stints as Chief Scouting Officer. The Rangers of their time mostly pursued tertiary education abroad.
There were also players from Vasco Dagama and NEPA who were not national stars but who still moved to USA. Sayama was one of them. Today, he can dine with the big names of Rangers, having served as the CEO of Rangers that won the league 32 years after they won it last in 1984.
Sayama is not gifted with height but he was tall last Sunday at the Nnamdi Azikwe Stadium in Enugu where the Flying Antelopes outclassed El Kanemi 4-0 to win the 2016 league in a stupendous atmosphere that will remain green in the memories of many.
It was colourful. It was amazing. It was a mammoth crowd. The atmosphere was electric. Nigerian club football had never seen a thing like it for years. “This is good for Nigerian football. I’m proud of what is happening here in Enugu,” Salihu Abubakar of the league board said. Everybody was paying glowing tribute to the gathering. Many came to be part of the history. The flights to Enugu were fully booked. And they all had value for their money.
The match was a good promotion for Nigerian football. The players have done a pretty good job and huge credit goes to them; their coach, Imama Amapakabo; technical consultant, Christian Chukwu; Enugu State FA chairman, Chidi Okenwa; and the likes of Obi Ekwo and Foster Chime, spokesman of the team. It was a team work. And the players showed it on the field.
I saw what Nigerian teams lack. I saw their organisation from the rear to the attack and I marvelled at their counter attack. They played with so much discipline and passion. They did not lob corner kicks like the Eagles. They came hard and at head level. The attacking runs were superb and the goals clinical. I was proud of them. But as they go to the continent they must watch their many passes back especially across the goal area. They appeared to be casual passing the ball back and if they face opponents with very fast attackers, who mark defenders there could be slips that could hurt them. Amapakabo must work on this.
Nevertheless, I saw a side that showed attributes of good coaching and I was proud of my Coal City. Rangers also made a good point. That investment and funding play big roles in sports development and making a team formidable. It is the same Rangers that once played a match with dirty jerseys because they didn’t pay the laundry man.
They were that poor under the past administrations. It was the same Rangers that once couldn’t take their players home from an away match because officials had no money to fuel the bus. Players had to contribute money to buy fuel. It was quite a scene. They struggled and their spirit kept them in the top league even in their pitiful state.
However, all that changed with the coming of Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi as the governor of Enugu State. So, huge credit also goes to the governor too. And he must not stop now that he has set the ball rolling. Rangers are in the continent. Enugu is going international.
Enugu will be beamed to the world when international matches take place. It means tourism. It means business for many. Certainly, Enugu will benefit from this and Ugwuanyi himself will earn tremendous mileage politically and otherwise. I saw him dance and celebrate after every Rangers goal and I said this man knows where he is dancing to.
Amiable Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, was with him and shared in the glory. His presence meant a lot to many, who appreciate his leadership qualities. He is a man of the people.
I saw many football faces. Tony Nnachetta was Vice Chairman of the Nigeria Football Association when the rich and famous people with passion for the game constituted the board of NFA. He is now commissioner of Information in Anambra State. Nwabufo Obienu, another former Vice Chairman of NFA was there too. Those behind the transformation of the league were there. Nduka Irabor, Shehu Dikko and my friend, Harry Iwuala.
Ex Rangers players, who came, made a part of the stand on the VIP area a special place. I got emotional when I sat beside Patrick Ilouno and Felix Emordi, who once coached me. Emordi won Champions League for Enyimba and remains one of the respected coaches in Nigeria today.
The array of stars on that stand attracted fans too. Nwabueze Nwankwo, Harrison Mecha, Alhaji Dominic Nwobodo, Christian Isiadinsso, Jude Agada, Benedict Ugwu, Harrison Okagbue (mmimi), Amaechi Igwobi (Darkness), Fancy Ewulu, Emeka Amadi, Joseph Nwafor, Isaac Chima, John Uwanaka, Mike Ogbuodudu, Chike Ikebani, Ifeanyi Ezeji, Paul Obiako, Okwudili Jimoh, Sam Oparamma, Aniedobe Joseph, Napoleon Ilonzu, Ifeanyi Nwazeli, Austin Igwuokolo, etc. Interestingly, Louis Commander Igwilo was there too. He was captain in 1984 when Rangers last won the league.
“It feels great to see this happen again. I’m happy for the boys. They have made us proud,” Igwilo said. He was so fluid Ernest Okonkwo nicknamed him Commander. I still remember many of his games for BCC and Abiola Babes. His presence was a delight to those, who followed Nigerian football in the 80s and 90s.
Christian Chukwu was not on that stand. He was with the team as he is the technical consultant and played a huge role in the success of the current team. He was also the coach in 1984 and what a pleasant year it is for him to be part of this too. “It’s a great feeling and everybody worked hard for this. We thank God for this,” he said.
When Sayama asked about his performance in that friendly match I referred to above people responded with laughter. And we cracked jokes with it thereafter. It is about 36 years on and I can now respond and tell him, “egwu gi di mma,” meaning your game is good.
But it means more hard work to be done. Rangers are a side that has never been relegated. They must fly well in the continent.
To Amapakabo, greater challenges lie ahead.
Ugwuanyi must keep the ball rolling to savour more victories. He appears a lucky man. But he must service that luck for it not to elude him. He must not only ensure adequate funding but must also ensure prudent management of the funds to engender greater professionalism.
Holy, Holy, Holy, Enugu Rangers, Another Champion!