As Enugu Rangers is crowned Nigeria League Champion, Mathematical Segun Odegbami writes a beautiful essay on Rangers!
The Nigerian football legend, Segun Odegbami gave the most vivid, factual and fluid description of the birth of Rangers International Football Club thus:
“With the end of the civil war in 1970, a “starved” East (Eastern Nigeria) came out roaring. A symbol of unity amongst the Igbos … It was as if the football club wanted to regain through football what the Igbo “lost” during the war”!
The team became very popular and was nicknamed the “coal city boys”. They wore an immaculate all-white jersey and their style of play was robust and direct – a complete contrast to the Brazilian pattern that Nigerian football was used to. Although football at that time was under the domination of clubs like Stationery Stores of Lagos and Mighty Jets of Jos, Rangers shot straight to national prominence and became a force to be reckoned with throughout the 1970s.
The team’s first noticeable qualities were leadership and discipline, and their first captain, Godwin Achebe was made Captain of the Nigerian National Team. His successor at the club, Christian Chukwu also became the national captain. That generation of Rangers, with goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala and no-nonsense centre-half Dominic Ezeani, among others like Chimezie Ngadi and Kenneth Ilodigwe, took Nigerian football by storm. Ogidi Ibeabuchi and Emeka Onyedika were fast on the wings while “Alhaji” Dominic Nwobodo and Mathias Obianika scored plenty of goals.
The only team that prevented Rangers from taking total domination of Nigerian football at that time was IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan. Ibadan of course, was the capital of the western region, so IICC was really the symbol of the people of western Nigeria – the Yorubas.
The rivalry between Rangers and IICC is as legendary as that between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Nigerian National Team, the Green Eagles (now Super Eagles) almost became the exclusive property of these two teams. Interestingly, the strongest point of that Super Eagles team was the telepathic understanding between Christian Chukwu and IICC’s playmaker Segun Odegbami on the field.
So, while the players fought like arch enemies when playing for their clubs, they remarkably put all that aside and played as one formidable unit in the national team. Christian Chukwu had a remarkable talent for placing accurate long range passes, and in most cases, the speedy Segun Odegbami on the right wing was his target.
Rangers were the masters of robust football, but the few known ball playing players in the team turned out to be quite spectacular. The best known of them was the left-footed Stanley Okoronkwo, followed by midfield general Christian Madu who was dragged back home from Ghana. The folklore then was that Stanley invented the “banana” shot.
Coached by Dan Anyiam, those guys won the Nigerian title, the “Challenge Cup”, got to the final of the African Cup of Champion Clubs in 1975 and then became African Champions via the Cup Winners Cup in 1977, following on the heels of IICC’s record feat the previous year.
Rangers’ players were dropped from the Super Eagles’ squad to the AFCON in 1976 due to the inability of the then FA to manage the conflicting schedules that required as much as seven Rangers players to shuttle between the national camp and club engagements at domestic and continental levels. Four years later, in 1980, Rangers’ stars returned in full force to help Nigeria win the African Nations Cup for the first time. Some of the dominant players of that historic feat include Chairman Chukwu (captain, from Rangers), Segun Odegbami (playmaker, from IICC), Emmanuel Okalla (goalie, Rangers), and Adokiye Amiesimaka (CMS Grammar School).
1977 was one year Nigerian soccer fans will not forget in a hurry. It was the year that the civil war resurfaced; not with bullets and guns, but on the football field. IICC won the national league but elected to defend their Africa Cup Winners Cup, thus pitching themselves against their local arch rivals. The build-up to the semi-finals was charged, horrific and worst of all, divisive. Rumours had it that players of both sides stopped speaking to each other in the national camp. Eventually, after a “ding-dong” battle in Kaduna, Rangers scraped through and subsequently won the continental trophy.
In the 1978 Challenge Cup final, Rangers suffered a humiliating defeat in the hands of a group of young kids playing for Bendel Insurance and coached by the original “Nigerian Guardiola”, Alabi Aisien. On that better forgotten afternoon, Henry Ogboe, Felix Agbonifo, Kadiri Ikhana and their co-“conspirators” drew rings round the world famous Rangers stars for 90 minutes and won comprehensively by 3-0.
The damage was done and that “disgrace” by Bendel Insurance became the beginning of the end of a truly great and majestic era of Nigerian football. Rangers was forced to change their style of play. A lot more emphasis was placed on ball playing skill when the new players were recruited. Chibuzor Ehilegbu, Sylvanus Okpalla, Kenneth Boardman and Okechukwu Obiora (a.k.a AgariMojo) were the most prominent of a crop of really skillful players of the new Rangers era. Also outstanding was Mike Emenalo (now at Chelsea FC) and Ben Okorogu, the schoolboy defender that was rated world-class but sadly died in the national camp.
The 1980 AFCON victory in Lagos saw Christian Chukwu and Emmanuel Okalla bow out in style, and a new chapter was soon to open with Stephen Keshi as national team captain and Patrick Okalla (yes, Okalla’s junior brother) as the national goalie.
The most significant transformation in the new Rangers was that, as the years went by, the memories and sadness of the civil war gradually faded away and Rangers became more and more “national” in content. Many players of non-Igbo origin were recruited. Adokiye Amiesimaka, a Rivers boy and sensational two-footed winger of the Nigerian national team was recruited to play for the team. Most teenagers of Igbo origin today will not even be aware that Rangers used to be the symbol of unity of their kinsmen way back in time. Worst still, they probably do not even know that Rangers was such a great team – the best in Nigeria.
Coach Imama Amakpakabo has led a crop of history-making players to restore Rangers to its rightful place as the Champions of Nigeria. I am not an Igbo man, but at a time like this, I will be very proud to be one.
Up Rangers !
And after 32years they finally broke the jinx.