Kenneth Abana, one of the pioneer members of the famed Enugu Rangers football club that made waves in the 70s is not happy presently. Now at almost 70 and still nursing a chronic injury which he sustained in his heyday, the soccer legend said he is dissappointed with the way government at all levels treat ex-internationals who have done the country proud in the round leather game. Abana who scored the historic first goal for Rangers spoke to Saturday SunSports in his country home, Agukwu Nri, Anaocha Local Government Area, Anambra State. Enjoy the interview…
From Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
Can you recall how your journey into playing professional football started?
I was in Rangers for seven years and had to retire as a result of injury. I can tell you that the lack of commitment in Nigerian sports didn’t start today. During our time, it was the same story, no good medicare, no insurance, no welfare package for players. I started playing in 1971 with a local club in Enugu known as Highlanders. After some friendlies and league matches, one Jerry Enyeazu who was Director of Sports was trying to put up a football team then and he spotted me. He was hunting for good players and after one match we played then, two people visited my house one early morning and said they wanted me to come to the stadium to see somebody. I was reluctant but later went and saw Jerry Enyeazu . He started by telling me that I’m a good player and that they want to form a good team for the then East Central state and considering my age and other factors, they want me to come on board. I told him that I had to inform my mother first because my father was late then. When I informed my mother, she said no and insisted that I should go back to school. This was immediately after the war and many people were returning to school. I tried to convince my mother but she said that it will only be on the condition that I must give her assurance that I will be attending school even as a footballer and I agreed.
Eventually, we went and were recruited and that was how Enugu Rangers was formed. I was a pioneer member alongside fourteen others. People like Godwin Achebe who was our Captain, Cyril Okosieme the goal keeper, Ernest Ufele, John wheeler Nwosu, Peter Okeke, Luke Okpala, Sam Nwachukwu, Godwin Adim Nwachukwu, myself, Dominic Nwobodo, Shedrack Ajaaero, Teddy Aniputa and some others.
In the same year 1971, we won the Amachree Cup which is today, the Nigeria Professional football league. We went ahead to win the Challenge Cup back to back and other trophies. We played up to the finals of the African Champions Cup etc.
In my own case, I had to back out of active football as a result of injuries. After the injury, I decided to go back to school at the National Institute for Sports and while there, I emerged the best student and was given scholarship to study in the German College for Physical Health where I obtained my Diploma Certificate in General Sports. When I came back, I worked with the Sports Council until my retirement in 2006.
What was the nature of your injury and why it defied treatment that you couldn’t go back into active play?
It was a very severe knee injury and I’m still suffering from it till date. Arthritis has also attacked the same leg that I hardly walk well. That time, we had a doctor at Apapa Lagos and what he does then was that whenever there was a match on a Saturday, he will put syringe under the injured knee, extract a liquid substance that looked like vegetable oil in colour, bandage the leg and we play. My mother kept crying, telling me to stop because of the leg but I kept using it that way until at the end, it became so bad and painful and I finally opted out. I believe strongly that we were not treated well. Not only me but other players like Emeka Onyedika, Harrison Mecha and even Christian Chukwu. In my own case, I sustained the injury just two years into my playing career and managed it for another five years.
When you won the Challenge Cup and League, what did the government do for the team?
Absolutely nothing, only that few of us that were in school then were promoted to the next grade level. That was the only compensation. They were using us to make money then. During that era, if you see the crowd while we were playing in the stadium, you will marvel at the number and they all pay gate fee. I do not know why people don’t watch local leagues anymore. That time, people so much loved us that they can’t miss any of our matches. If you have a match by 4pm, by 2pm, the stadium was already filled up. Today, people prefer watching European leagues and the likes.
We recite the National Anthem and say that the labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain. What do you think government can do in this regard to some of your mates and others still alive before they pass on?
Our request is not much. Government should take care of us, just basic needs most especially our health problems. They should help our children too and call us from time to time and discuss with us. My right leg is completely finished. But I must commend the former Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi. He was the person that revived our spirits at least. He started giving us monthly stipends and we still receive the stipend under Obiano. Peter Obi also promised to pay my hospital bills and that of late Okwuchukwu Anigbogu. He had already started paying before he left office and Anigbogu later died. Today, footballers earn good pay but in our time, we received only peanuts after matches.
In your days, which position did you play?
I played with jersey N0 8 as a striker. It might interest you to know that I scored the first goal for Rangers in both their first local and international competitions.
What was the secret of your winning streaks, is it charms like some used to speculate?
It was simply hard work and nothing more. We had a bunch of dedicated players. In those days, you don’t just carry your boots and say you want to play. It is not like now where some just carry their kits and go to the field and bribe somebody so that a team can recruit you. In our own days, they come to us to beg us to play because we were good players.
It has always been a case of putting round pegs in a square hole in Nigeria. How do you think sports in general can be revived and made better in Nigeria?
They should endeavour to put the right people in the right places. From Coaches to NFF officials and Sports Minister. They should motivate the players and start early preparations before competitions. In America and other developed countries, as soon as the Olympic Games is over, they start preparation for the next one and not like our own style here where they do fire brigade approach. Imagine that our Super Eagles sometimes assemble just three days to an international match.
Now in retirement, how do you keep body and soul together?
I operate miniature poultry behind my house where I go every morning to exercise myself. I feed the birds and climbing the staircase daily is enough exercise for a man of 70 years. I do brisk walks too.
What is your advice to up and coming players who want to break into the international scene?
They should work hard, be disciplined and focused. No womanizing and drinking if you want to play football. One had to sacrifice many things. Smoking should be ruled out too.