Sports

June 22, 2024

Rangers: Mbah’s Antelopes Fly to the Mountain Crest

Rangers: Mbah’s Antelopes Fly to the Mountain Crest

By Reuben Onyishi

Enugu Rangers International Football Club last Sunday, emerged the champions of Nigeria, having defeated Bendel Insurance FC by two goals to nothing, a feat that makes it the 8th time the Flying Antelopes would win the the Nigeria Football Premier League(NPFL), formerly known as Nigeria Football Professional League since the inception of the league in 1972 when the Mighty Jets of Jos won the title, as the first champions. Rangers overtook all and won the title in 1974, 1975, 1977,1981, 1982, 1984, 2016, and 2024.

Rangers was a post-Nigeria Civil War invention, symbolizing the indomitable spirit and strength of the Igboman, and had aroused with its sterling performance in the mundial a sense of pride in the psychology of the vanquished people of the Southeast emergent from a bloody 30-month civil war that saw to the killing of about 3 million Igbos. The never-say-die irrepressible spirit of Ndigbo as symbolised by Rangers would find expression in the likes of Christian Chukwu, Ehilegbu Chibuzor, Emmanuel Okala, Sylvanus Okpala, Okey Isima, Alloysius Atuegbu, Segun Odegbami, to mention but a few.

It was this same spirit that aroused the creative genius in the commentator, Ernest Okonkwo, who would ascribe aptly descriptive epithets to such players as Chairman Christian Chukwu, Iron Gate Emmanuel Okala, Quicksilver Silvanus Okpala, Mathematical Odegbami, and would describe powerful shots often delivered into the opponents’ goal posts as intercontinental ballistic missile.

As a matter of fact, Rangers players constituted much of the national team, and Ernest would transfer his descriptive skills in commentating to the national team. He would, for instance, run thus: “Iron Gate Emmanuel Okala throws the ball to ‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu. Chukwu taps the ball to the ‘Dean of Defence’, Yisa Sofoluwe; Sofoluwe sends a telegraphic pass to ‘Midfield Maestro’ Mudashiru Lawal. Muda Lawal dribbles two defenders and sends the ball to ‘Mathematical’ Segun Odegbami. Odegbami dilly-dallies, shilly-shallies, and locates ‘Elastic’ Humphrey Edobor.

The storms are gathering near the opponent’s goal area, and it will soon rain a goal. Edobor turns quickly to the right and returns the ball to Odegbami. Odegbami kicks the ball towards ‘Quick Silver’ Sylvanus Okpala, who shoots an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile from outside the penalty box. It is a goal; it is a gooooal! Nigeria has scored.” Ernest Okonkwo, may his soul continue to rest in peace.

Rangers would win the title consecutively between 1974 and 1975, and 1977 when the much cherished and loved, effervescent young Igbo millionaire, Jim Ifeanyichukwu Nwobodo, became its chairman. Jim brought to bear on the team his aura of uncommon excellence, a spirit that was to earn Rangers further titles in the league in1981, 1982 and 1984 during which he had become the governor of the state, old Anambra State. Rangers also won the African Winners Cup during Jim’s time as its Chairman. But that spirit died no sooner than Jim left, as Rangers would not come close to the title for 32 years, until another Ifeanyi came on board as the Governor of Enugu State, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi. Rangers broke the 32-year jinx and won the title in 2016. Rangers was to lift the cup in 2017 but lost it to Plateau United, who beat them by 2.0 in the final match.

For another 8 years, the title eluded Rangers as would the shadow to its owner until Peter Ndubuisi Mbah brightened the horizon yet again, paving the way for the victory of Rangers as the winner of the title in 2024.

What is playing out in Enugu in the last one year since Mbah became the governor of the state is a deliberate implementation of a well-thought out blueprint that captured Peter Mbah’s governance objectives. Besides the economic transformation of the state, Mbah’s disruptive innovation has rubbed off on all sectors of the state, leading to excellent delivery on all fronts. No wonder Mbah won the Governor of the Year Awards of foremost newspapers in Nigeria: New Telegraph, Sun, Vanguard etc.

In Mbah’s Enugu State, dry bones are rising again. All dead and moribund assets are receiving abundant life. It even began with the right choice of human capital, which Mbah has a knack for discovery and placement of capable hands in the various sectors. Gov. Mbah appointed Amobi Paulinus Ezeaku, the General Manager/ CEO of Rangers International. Ezeaku is a FIFA-certified sports lawyer/manager. For Mbah, it is a disinterested endevour to engage the best that is known and available in the state. He also brought into the sports arena youthful Lyold Ekweremadu, whom he made the Commissioner for Youth and Sports. Fidelis Ilechukwu was also engaged as the Head Coach of Rangers. The synergy brought to bear in this combination has a compelling effect on the victory on Rangers.

Meanwhile, Governor Mbah rehabilitated Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, which had, before his election as the governor, been in a parlous state of ruins with the Flying Antelopes playing their home matches in Awka. This boosted the morale of the players, who now enjoyed the home advantage of playing at the Cathedral, before the mammoth crowd of fans who emptied into the stadium and filled up every space of the 22,000- capacity stadium on each occasion when Rangers played at home. The supportive crowd always surged to the extent that if you threw up a grain of sand in the stadium, it would not find a space for landing. The crowd gave a reminiscence of the old good days when lizards were few and far between. It was a re-enactment and rejuvenation of the Premier league.

From the inception to the end of the 2023/2024 season, Rangers never lost any match at home. Mbah made available necessary facilities to the club, and the welfare of the players was top-notch. Before now, the players travelled by road on away matches, but since Mbah came on board, they travelled by air, preserving them from the topsy-turvey exhaustion of travelling on Nigerian bad roads. All needed motivation to the team was adequately provided, and that paid off in the performance of the team.

He is not also relenting, as he is poised to turnaround sports infrastructure in the state, particularly taking the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium to the next level. Speaking after Rangers’ victory, he said, “I want to assure Ndi Enugu that they have not seen anything yet. As you are aware, our goal is a total turnaround of the sports industry in the state, and that includes the sports infrastructure – building world class facilities and upgrading existing ones to world class also.”

Governor Peter Ndubuisi Mbah is a spirit, a fine one at that, a spirit of excellence, a spirit of success, a spirit of superlative performance, a spirit of uncommon achievement, an indomitable spirit, such that irrepressibly never says die. It is this fine spirit that has taken the state to higher heights; that has taken Rangers to the mountain crest, to the zenith; to the football apogee, to the tip of the Iroko. Indeed, tomorrow is here.

Onyishi writes from Enugu