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June 24, 2024

Enugu Rangers Veterans: Preserving memory and honouring a legacy, by Chidi Odinakalu

Odinkalu, Deborah murder: Odinkalu pulls out of SPIDEL conference in Sokoto

Professor Chidi Odinkalu

Umuawulu, a sleepy settlement in Awka, the capital of Anambra State in the South-East, is the unlikely origin of one of the greatest sporting resumes ever to come out of Nigeria. In the bowels of this village lies Holy Cross High School, the site from which the story sprouted. 

Until the politicians contrived to destroy education generally, Nigeria’s High Schools used to guarantee an interminable production line of rarefied sporting talent. This role pre-dated Independence. Historian, Peter Alegi, recalls that in territories – such as Nigeria – ruled by the British, missionaries and colonialists steeped in Victorian traditions, anchored their mutually complementary missions on “a belief that sport forged physically fit young men of sound moral character.” In the pantheon of sporting activities inspired by this belief, football was the undisputed king. 

In 1963, a young man arrived Holy Cross Umuawulu to begin his secondary education. Emmanuel Okala was 12 when his goalkeeping career began in Umuawulu. Born in May 1951, his contemporaries from then remember him as a rather spindly figure whose height took him to the lower reaches of the heavens. Even as a new arrival at the beginning of his High School journey at the time, those who beheld him acknowledged that they were in the presence of a generational phenomenon. 

In 1970, Emma joined a football club created around the talents of a few young men most of whom had been demobilised from the war. Its name was Rangers International Football Club of Enugu. At the time, the leading continental footballing super-star was Robert Mensah, the legendary goalkeeper of Ghana’s Black Stars and also of Ashanti Kotoko Football Club. After Mensah was killed in a stabbing incident on  November 2, 1971, the continent cried out for a new goalkeeping supremo.

From his humble beginnings in Umuawulu, Emmanuel Okala rose rather effortlessly to become the country’s undisputed goalkeeper over the next decade, ultimately growing to fill the void created by the untimely passing of Robert Mensah. Emma’s influence grew to outstrip the role of the solitary minder at the rear of the outfield players. In 1978 the African Sports Journalists Union, ASJU, voted him as the African Footballer of the Year, the first person and the first Nigerian to win that distinction. By then, he was better known as the “Man Mountain”, a moniker invented by leading football commentator, Ernest Okonkwo.  

Two years later, in 1980, Okala was goalkeeper of the national football team, then known as the Green Eagles, which won the African Cup of Nations, AfCON. The captain of that team was Christian Chukwu, who, like Emmanuel Okala, also began his footballing career as an “Academical” at the National Secondary School, Nike, on the outskirts of Enugu. Like Emmanuel Okala, Christian Chukwu was also born in 1951. From Nike National, he also joined the Enugu Rangers. As a footballer it was said that his  “outstanding will to lead and motivate others earned him the nickname ‘Chairman’, as his colleagues saw him as an anchor of hope.”

That story of hope was not confined to the soccer pitch. The Rangers Football Club for whom both Christian Chukwu and Emmanuel Okala were leading super-stars, embodied the hopes of the people of South-East Nigeria as they emerged from the ruins of an utterly destructive civil war at the beginning of 1970 bereft of both capital and dignity. 

The core of that team also included Johnny Egbuonu described by a leading sports publication as “a classic dribbler” who could “do anything with the ball.” Popularly known as “School Boy”, Johnny’s career also began in the High School. He was destined for a great career in the colours of his country but left early for Germany to pursue qualifications in veterinary medicine. 

That Rangers team would become the mascot of the race and region as they embarked on the reconstruction of the Igbo identity and will after the war. That team also evolved to become the backbone of Nigeria’s national football team that went on in 1980 to conquer footballing heights in Africa. 

Of the members of that original Rangers International team of 1970-1975, fewer than 13 are now alive. In addition to Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala and Johnny Egbuonu, the others still around include Dominic Nwobodo, Francis Nwosu, Kenneth Abana, Patrick Ilouno, John Uwanaka, Godwin Adimachukwu, Johnny Azinge, and Sylvester Onwuekwe. At the time of this writing, the remains of two leading members of that side – Stanley Okoronkwo and Harrison Mecha – lie in the mortuary, awaiting the final earthly rites for their mortal remains. 

At the peak of their powers, these men could have played for nearly any team in the world. At the time, however, the sport was poorly organised in Nigeria; management was non-existent; football administration was poor; attention to wellbeing of the athletes was haphazard at best; and sports science was only just beginning to receive attention globally. Neither fully professional nor indeed amateur, their careers were spent in a vocational no-man’s-land. Their wealth in public adulation did not easily or at all translate into material comfort.

At that time also, football administration was mostly run as part of the public sector. At the end of their sporting careers, some of them went into sport administration and management but, even then, their careers also suffered from the debilities of a disorganised public sector. As senior citizens today, the public sector has forgotten them and the legacies of that generation of great sporting attainments are at risk of being lost. 

At the personal level, Segun Odegbami, himself a leading member of that 1980 AfCON winning team, notes that these men – now senior citizens all – are today “slowed down now by arthritis – the ailment of retired footballers.” Some of them suffer a combination of even more serious ailments too and now spend considerable sums on medical bills.

To address this neglect and also preserve the sporting and civic legacies of the original Enugu Rangers International, it has become necessary to establish the Enugu Rangers Veterans Trust. This is currently led by the trio of Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala and Johnny Egbuonu as incorporated trustees with the mandate to provide a convening framework for mobilising and governing the resources required to address pressing wellbeing needs of the living members of the Rangers originals and to preserve and document their legacies for the digital age. 

Last week in Enugu, I joined Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala and Johnny Egbuonu, together with leading chartered accountant and former Chair of the Enugu Sports Club, Bennet Etiaba, in putting the final touches to preparations for the launch of this undertaking. Media partners also support this Rangers Veterans and Legacy project. Over the next month, there will be a formal rollout of this project. 

Although self-evident, the point of all of this nevertheless bears restating. There was a time in which sports generally and football in particular provided a glue for coexistence in Nigeria and many parts of Africa. The lessons from that age deserve attention in a time such as the present when advocates of coexistence are endangered and the people who made that age possible deserve acknowledgement as well as appreciation. In calling attention to their lives and distilling their stories, it is possible to hold out lessons that can make a significant difference to the fate of succeeding generations.