To put today’s all-but-certain crowning of Rangers International Football Club as champions of Nigerian Professional Football League in its proper perspective, it’s necessary to look at the ages of the team’s players. With 23 years as the average age, it means none of the players had been born the last time Rangers lifted the league in 1984.
To the presumptive champions, the feat is a personal career highlight; but to the fans especially of the older generation it rekindles a pride rendered sterile for over three decades, a period characterized by a few near-misses and many embarrassing seasons’ performance.
The history often recalled with fondness is of the years when the club seemed like a synonym for the Green Eagles, as Nigeria’s national football team was then known. Those days, nearly all the national team players were drawn from Rangers. The club’s rich trophy chest also gave a strong hint of its dominance. Besides winning the National Football League in 1974, 1975, 1977, 1981, 1982 and 1984, they have been crowned champions of the FA Cup five times (1974, 1975, 1976, 1981 and 1983). And, then, there was a song waxed in their honour by highlife artiste, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, after they won the African Cup Winners Cup, in 1977, giving the club a firm folkloric ardour.
Back then, the sight of players such as Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okalla, Alloysius Atuegbu and other legendary names inspired belief in fans and awe in opposing teams and their fans, the club’s triumph had often seemed like a foregone conclusion. The fond memories evoked by that era is what fans had been hoping in vain to see rekindled each time they watched the team play.
For a club whose past is strewn with so many historic moments the fall from such glorious heights was too dramatic and difficult to grasp, even more so for fans who simply could not come to terms with their beloved team’s also-ran status. In those 32 years that the disappointing run persisted, there have been eight World Cups, over 10 heads of the Nigerian Football Federation and, to further underscore how much the sands had shifted, a number of club sides founded after Rangers International’s heyday have won the league title, some a couple of times.
There was no doubt that those who had made Rangers such a delightful team to behold and fearsome opponent were immensely-gifted footballers; but it’s important though to emphasize that the later years decline wasn’t for want of talent. Welfare was a big issue as the players were, in part, ill-motivated with salaries and sign-on fees unpaid for months and sometimes years. In the face of competing socio-economic demands for states such scenario was not hard to imagine.
So it has been a long, frustrating wait over the years. For the generation that witnessed the halcyon days, it seemed like the club’s victories existed in a distant era that can only live in the memory – never to be experienced anymore.
Like most events not experienced first-hand it was sometimes a futile bid trying to recount how accomplished the Rangers team of the 1970s and 1980s had been to the younger generation. Even as a primary school pupil I could still glimpse the sullen looks on my parents’ faces that “dark” Saturday in 1978 when Bendel Insurance gave Rangers its most humiliating defeat then: a 3 – 0 thrashing in the Challenge Cup final at the National Stadium, in Lagos. Of course, the gloom was evident in the Olodi-Apapa neighbourhood where we lived as most traders – largely of Igbo descent – seemed just too shell-shocked to open their stalls.
So how did we lose the fervour felt by fans each time those great clubs of old staked their claim to superiority on the field? Equally pertinent is the question why stadiums were always filled to capacity during matches that involved the elite clubs few decades ago, but hardly so today even when the gates are thrown open to spectators.
Today, young and older fans will swarm the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, in Enugu, to witness the rebirth of history. The build-up has been a rather frenzied one, serving as a poignant reminder about how few and far between such happy moments have really been in the last three decades.
The team’s resurgence is reward for painstaking work brought to fruition by the collective skill and discipline of the players. But this season’s return to the zenith of club football stemmed as much from a factor that was just as crucial, even if intangible – the support given by Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State. His support helped the management assemble a stellar team whose grit and skill won plaudits and earned the sort of results the club’s fans had long yearned.
But beyond the prompt release of substantial funds to the club and donation of a 32-seater bus and a saloon car – a huge gesture that boosted their capacity to attend away matches – an important question is how to seize the magic of the moment. How can the management sustain the enthusiasm of the fans which resulted in the unprecedented sale of the club’s replica jerseys, and purchase of tickets in large numbers to attend matches including those played in cities hundreds of kilometers away? What should be done to ensure the club retains and attracts the best talents as it once did in the past?
The answer may lie in a move Governor Ugwuanyi is contemplating that would liberalize the ownership of Rangers. “Before long a bill will go to the Enugu State House of Assembly for funding of sports,” he announced at a sports summit held recently in Enugu which attracted sports administrators from across Nigeria, among them the chairman of the Nigeria Football Federation, Mr. Amaju Pinnick, and ex-Golden Eaglets coach, Mr. Fanny Amun. “This bill will provide a platform for all of us to own Rangers International Football Club,” he added.
Cynics would dismiss as preposterous any hope that an average Nigerian youth could regard an indigenous club in the same way as they revere a European club. But the NFF boss is confident a revolution has begun. “This is digital thinking on the part of Enugu State governor,” Pinnick enthused at the sports summit organised by the Enugu State commissioner for youths and sports, Mr. Charles Chuka Ndukwe, in collaboration with Anjessy Events and Media Ltd. “It is a bill that will reward you. Rangers is one of the biggest and best brands we have in this country. When passed into law, this will enhance sports development in the state and make Rangers Football Club the richest club side in the country.”
Such is the prevailing optimism among fans that the idea of an open-roof drive around the city for the team had, in fact, been mooted even before the season’s penultimate match. As it was with Rangers’ away match to Ikorodu United played last week, the result of the match involving the club’s closest rival is as important as the match in Enugu. A loss for Rangers in the match against El-Kanemi today gives some hope to Rivers United. But they would have to win by as much as five goals to leapfrog Rangers to the top of the NPFL table, which is somewhat reassuring given that it involves a trip to Uyo, the home ground of Akwa United, their last opponent.
It’s credit to the players and their management that they aren’t reckoning with these technical details. This is the sort of infectious confidence the fans have missed for 32 years. It’s kudos too to Governor Ugwuanyi, the man whose support and bold initiatives helped inspire this rebirth. Surely, fortune still favours the bold.
But it’s not a bad idea to temper optimism with a dose of reality. A comment by Rangers International’s head coach, Imama Amakapabo, offers a cautionary tale. “We got the desired victory. We have 90 minutes to play for the trophy. The championship is in sight; we just have to keep our heads on our shoulders. It is not yet over,” he told journalists after last Sunday’s victory over Ikorodu United.
The governor shares such sentiments. Of course, he is just as exultant as every fan has expectedly been, but he would rather that the celebration begins after the final whistle.
● Ani is Senior Special Assistant on Research and Communication to the Enugu State governor, Rt. Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi.