By Laurence Ani
Watching a football match involving Enugu Rangers always inevitably unleashes memories of the ’70s and early ’80s. This is understandable given that those decades represent the club’s glorious era. Such deja vu was present on July 8, this year, as I watched the club tenaciously hold on to a slim victory against Abia Warriors. The ecstatic mood at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu was on the verge of an anticlimax though, especially when the visitors’ injury time corner kick produced a last gasp shot that struck the upright.
In the end, the home team held on to the 2 – 1 score, keeping alive their fans’ hope for another league title after more than three decades and leaving Abia Warriors and their fans utterly disappointed and pondering what might have been.
Of course, the victory was also a poignant reminder to Rangers’ fans about how few and far between such happy moments have been. In those glorious years when 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 hope to see rekindled each time they swarm the stadium for a home match. But it has been a long, frustrating wait worsened by the somewhat non-committal stance of the owners (the old Anambra State and, later, Enugu State) over the years in the face of competing socio-economic demands.
Other elite clubs (IICC – now Shooting Stars Sports Club, Bendel Insurance, Mighty Jets, Water Corporation, etc) which, along with Rangers FC, had made club football in the ’70s and ’80s a huge thrill for Nigerians suffered a similar dip in fortune. That allure faded further as younger players gradually replaced the older ones whose generation had seemed content with the stipends they were paid and the mere act of donning the club’s white jersey. The country’s grim economic situation today means an even greater funding challenge for Nigerian professional clubs mostly owned by state governments.
However, there is nonetheless an incipient change at Rangers inspired by Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State. His support has helped the management assemble a stellar team whose play has won plaudits and earned the sort of results and position the club’s fans have long yearned.
But beyond the prompt release of substantial funds to the club and recent donation of a 32-seater bus and a saloon car to aid their capacity to attend away matches, the governor is contemplating a move 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 including 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.”
Although it served the interest of club football in Nigeria at its early stage, the increasing rank of professional players has made outright state ownership of clubs an anachronism that hinders the robust development of this sport. This is a well known fact which, ironically, no one could muster the necessary courage to act on. Well, at least not until Governor Ugwuanyi threw down the gauntlet. It is via the context of this stifling bureaucracy which an unmediated state ownership creates for clubs that his intervention should be viewed. “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.”
It is fitting that an idea that is certain to revolutionize football club structure and administration is taking root in arguably Nigeria’s most renowned club. And it is equally salutary such idea bears the imprint of an astute administrator, who understands that society benefits more when politics is not allowed to overshadow a compelling social reality of this century.
The sports summit launched as a precursor to a sports festival was conceived to galvanize youths in Enugu State with sports development as a goal. “This sports summit,” said Ndukwe, “will challenge us to critically analyse why the downturn in sports facilities, development and talent discovery in Enugu State in particular and Nigeria at large. The pertinent question is when did we get it wrong? The second question is when will the glorious days come back?”
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. How did we lost the fervour felt by fans each time those great clubs stake their claim to superiority on the field? Even as a child, I still recall 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.
This sort of passion has returned; but only in relation to matches involving clubs in Europe’s elite football leagues like the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and the Uefa Champions League. It’s common to hear football fans in Nigeria speak of their favourite foreign club in the first person plural despite not sharing any socio-cultural bond that a native will, for instance, experience in growing up and seeing parents support clubs which their own parents had as well supported. So, the Enugu State governor’s plan is a creative response to correct these anomalies. Many cynics would dismiss as preposterous any hope that an average Nigerian youth could regard an indigenous club in the same way they revere a European club. No one who has witnessed how indigenous music became the dominant tune on Nigerian radio and nightclubs will doubt there could be a return to the golden era in football clubs’ fan base. The seed of that revolution is being sown in Enugu.
It’s good to be a witness to a resurgent spirit in Rangers, thanks to the zeal of the state’s sports commissioner, Ndukwe, and the vision of Governor Ugwuanyi. No longer will the fans’ chant of “Up Rangers, Never Say Die,” sound like a rallying anthem sung half-heartedly; it would be recited with pride as we watch our beloved club take its rightful place at the top.
–Ani is Senior Special Assistant on Research and Communication to the Enugu State governor, Rt. Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi.