By Harry Iwuala
Dateline: October 2, 2016. The surge of human and vehicular traffic on the popular Ogui Road stretched to the Otigba Junction coming from the left side of the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium. It has sometime in the course of the 2015/16 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season been nicknamed the Cathedral.
They were all headed to the stadium with different banners but all proclaiming ‘Rangers International, another champion. By the end of the evening when Rangers defeated El-Kanemi Warriors to lift their first league title in 32 years, there were over 25,000 fans inside the dome and many more outside.
There were all shades on Rangers followers on that day at the stadium, ranging from the very rich to the impoverished, the very important and the proletariat, the popular and the unknown, the old, the youth and children, male and female. It was a scene similar to January 20, 2008, when African Americans watched with teary eyes, smiles of history and sighs of relief as Barack Obama sworn in as the first ever African American President in the over 200 years of Democracy in the nation of Star spangled banner. Rangers’ fans on October 3, 2016 also wept at the renaissance of the club. Tears of joy flowed because just like the African Americans who never believed there will be an Obama having endured over two centuries of slavery and civil rights denials, many of the older Rangers fans confessed; they never knew they will live to see such spectacle.
Sunday, September 3, 2017: At the same Cathedral, seven times champion and eastern neighbours, Enyimba International; were in Enugu for the traditional Oriental Derby but the crowd came in trickles despite the high stakes for both sides in the fixture. But as the encounter progressed with the visitors a goal up, a sudden burst of arrivals hit the stands. Estimates at the end of the match which saw Rangers claw back to a 1-1 draw was put at over 12,000.
As was aptly captured by former Nigerian international and one time African Player of the Year, Victor Ikpeba, one of the pundits for Supersport, the Official Broadcast partner to the league, “we have half of the fans that witnessed the trophy presentation coming to say goodbye to the trophy”.
But earlier before the kick-off, a member of Rangers Management had lamented the drop in Rangers’ fortune on and off the field and while not submitting that the change in Management is a factor, suggested that they had the wrong persons at the helm. He expressed reservations that the club lost an opportunity to build on last season’s greatness because ideas to entice fans to the stadium were not being addressed.
It was learnt that in a bid to shore up the dwindling numbers on the stands, Flavour, the Enugu local who has found continental fame through music was approached to hold up the club’s famous red and white flag as a form of endorsement which he readily agreed. But that huge goodwill was not put to use, it was learnt. This and perhaps, the poor run, exit of key players may explain the huge drop in numbers at the Cathedral which recorded an average of 18,000 in attendance every match day last season.
From Celebrating title win to jumping up for Draw and Survival
From reactions on the stands during the match, Rangers fans must have longed for a valedictory win and indeed to complete a double over Enyimba. Despite what some of them adjudged as unfair calls by the Referee, their glee was not to be denied at the final whistle which saw over 2000 of them breach the security to invade the pitch in light hearted mirth.
They turned the turf to a privileged playground, dancing even when there was no music from the loud speakers. Others executed acrobatic displays, doing continuous back flips and seeking ‘Selfie’ photo shots with the players and with each other. You would think it was a celebration of title.
Catching up with an elderly fan, Francis Ogbodo who sat rooted on one of the state box seats, he surveyed the scene with deep contemplation and when nudged to give his thoughts, said, “I am just wondering how the celebration of nearly a year ago has turned to a celebration of survival of relegation.
“After a 32-year wait to win the title, we have now gone back below where we started from. It is sad and not a good story to tell the young fans. Our support for Rangers has been sustained by the exploits of the past but what will the younger ones hold on to? It is the reason they are Arsenal, Manchester, Chelsea etc etc.”, concluded Ogbodo as he held the arm rest to support his effort to be on his feet.
Earlier in the day at a popular restaurant, Emily off Ogui Road, I had run into
Chibuzor Ozor, the long serving General Manager who superintended the historic win by Rangers before he was relieved of the job. Ozor, called Sayama by some of his friends and associates walks with a bounce. Standing slightly above 4 feet; Ozor who also goes by the nickname, ‘Americana’ dresses to please his senses and not for popular acclaim. At the launch hour encounter, he was dressed in starched Italian linen white short sleeved shirt and trousers and after the pleasantries, exclaimed in his affected American accent, “my men, you guys have forgotten me…oh, that’s the way of life but you are my friend and should not abandon me”.
There are those who believe that the problems Rangers encountered in the about to end season started right from the podium where the Governor of Enugu State, Rt. Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi accompanied by the Deputy Senate President, Ikechukwu Ekweremadu received the trophy from the team captain, Okey Odita. A friend from the media pointed out that the governor delivered no inspiring comments to the players and management. He was admonished by another that the occasion was not for making speeches and promises.
The next news out of Enugu was the city trophy tour of the players aboard a rickety truck that won’t be certified to transport livestock. Thereafter, the blames trading started with some anonymous sources pointing to the direction of the former state commissioner for sports as the brain behind the roadshow of shame.
Finally, shortly before Christmas, the Governor hosted the team and promised cash reward totaling N41.5m and lands. The players went away grumbling. The total money offered the players and officials would come to less than N1m for each of the 35 registered players and 7 accredited officials.
They started the season in tatters, losing 2-1 to Abia Warriors on opening day and prior to that; had finished third in the pre-season tournament, NPFL Super4 which was organized by the League Management Company in Enugu.
So continued the free fall, Ozor was sacked and replaced by former captain and coach of Rangers, Christian Chukwu. Coach Imama Amapakabo was next after initial disagreements over his contract terms. Players like Chisom Egbuchulam, voted MVP of the NPFL left for Sweden and was followed by Obinna Nwobodo, another key figure in their run for the title. Others were in and out of camp and the internal squabbles showed in their performance every match day.