By Patrick Omorodion
When the crisis that rocked the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF over the leadership tussle between the Sports Ministry backed leadership under Chris Giwa and the FIFA recognised group led by Amaju Pinnck caused the Nigeria Professional Football League, NPFL to be stopped abruptly, many did not know it would come back to cause some dislocation for our football clubs. The managers of the league, the League Management Company, LMC were quick to act as it dawned on them that Nigeria may not be able to meet the deadline of submitting the name of the country’s representative for the CAF Champions League.
It however, did not want to act unilaterally by suggesting a way out. It took the decision to the clubs and their managers and after a protracted deliberation, they came up with a decision to end the league abruptly and allow the leader at the time represent the country. Some club owners, surprisingly among those who supported the decision, later turned around to complain that it was not fair to crown Lobi Stars as the League Champions. The protest would however, have no effect because the majority had their way, even though the minority had their say.
Critics of the LMC had predicted that Lobi Stars would not go far in the Champions League, again making it impossible for Nigeria to get her two slots in the competition restored in subsequent editions of the competition.
The case of the CAF Confederations Cup was however, not the same as Rangers of Enugu qualified from the Confederation Cup, otherwise called Aiteo Cup which was concluded. Despite this, there were still fears that the Flying Antelops may also falter as the stoppage of the league might alo affect them as the players could be match rusty.
The two clubs have however, dumbfounded all doubting Thomases with their performance so far in the two elite continental competitions. They have shown resilience and kept hope of progressing in the competitions alive.
After the first round of matches, both teams qualified to play in the group stage. They were drawn into groups Nigerians tagged groups of death. In the group Lobi Stars found themselves, they are the only side that have not won the CAF Champions League outside Wydad Casablanca, Mamelodi Sundowns and ASEC Mimosas.
Rangers of Enugu could be said to be luckier as they are rated third ahead of Burkina Faso’s Salitas FC. CS Sfaxien and Etoile du Sahel from Tunisia are Rangers other opponents. The Enugu side surprisingly have not lost any game on the road so far and look promising to get to the final. After losing 0-1 at their new home at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu to Wydad Casablanca through a careless penalty gifted the north Africans, Nigerians wrote off Lobi Stars when they visited Wydad for the second leg.
Even their host were shocked when the Nigerians posted a sterling performance that made their victory in Enugu a fluke. That draw in Casablanca restored Lobi’s hope for a quarter final berth as they now have four points, same as Abidjan based ASEC Mimosas. Wydad and Mamelodi Sundows top with seven points each.
Lobi visit Mamelodi for the next leg of the group game on March 9 and the match is the decider for the Makurdi side. If they are able to post at least a draw, it takes them to five points, hoping that their last game at home against ASEC Mimosas on March 16 will fetch them maximum points to end at eight points. While Lobi is meeting Mamelodi, Wydad Casablanca will vist Abidjan to tackle ASEC. Lobi will be praying to hold Mamelodi Sundowns and hope that Wydad could hold ASEC to maintain the lead. That way the last game could be the decider as Wydad could consolidate when they host the South Africans while Lobi could just ice their cake when they host the Ivorians.
All these permutations are on paper and Lobi really have to be practical by taking their last two games to their opponents. Their coach, Solomon Ogbeide is optimistic the quarter finals ticket is still within reach. Like he said before the feat against Wydad in Casablanca, he could just pull the chestnut out of the fire. Rangers have a brighter chance to make it into the quarter finals. They however, will be guest again to another Tunisian side when they travel to Sousse next Sunday to face Etoile du Sahel who are third in their group on one point, same as the Burkinabe side Salitas FC. Some football followers, especially close friends of the LMC are however quick to heap praises on the LMC for taking the decision to end the NPFL abruptly and allow Lobi Stars carry Nigeria’s flag in the CAF Champions League.
The decision, even though laudable, is not the reason the Makurdi based side is holding on tenaciously. It is just the result of the resolve of a determined and resilient set of players to work as a team and put in their best to prove that even though the season did not finish for them to be officially crowned Nigerian champions, they deserve to be the country’s representatives in the continental championship.
Same goes for Rangers. They have been league champions and Confederation Cup champions in the past and have a pedigree. They have the experience both as former CAF Champions League campaigners as well as former Champions of the CAF Confederations Cup when it was still known as the Cup Winners Cup in 1977. Lobi Stars and Rangers have both held their heads high and have once again proved that Nigerian teams have what it takes to campaign in the continent and do well also.