After the end of the Nigerian/Biafran civil war in 1970, the Igbos shrugged off all travails of the war, picked up their lives and resumed their trades across the nation.
The renaissance of the Igbo nation was headlined by the indomitable exploits of Rangers football club, also known as Flying Antelopes. In this interview with Dan Maduagwu of News Echo in Umuahia, a former Rangers and Nigerian international, Harrison Mecha recalls the glorious years of Rangers, Spartans FC among other things.
Q: Can we meet you?
Ans: “I am Coach Harrison Mecha, a former Enugu Rangers player and a former Nigerian international player. I am from Bende town, Bende LGA of Abia State and am presently, the team manager of Diamond football club in Umuahia. Our academy produced Samuel Chukwueze and other great footballers.
Q: How did your football career start?
Ans: The East Central State was created after the civil war. Enugu was the capital of the Igbos and it was also the capital of the East Central State. So, most of the pilot players in Rangers were civil either ex- young Biafran Army boys or young civil servants or those seeking employment in the new State.
I was first employed on 1st August 1970 as a civil servant before I joined Rangers in 1971. In 1972, I entered Rangers team A, to replace their former left back, Willie Nwosu. That year, we were preparing for the first National Sports Festival, called Lagos ’73.
Q: So what happened next?
Ans: Majority of the players that represented the East Central State were picked from Rangers and Vasco da Gama of Enugu. The East Central State, (the Igbos) won the first National Festival in Lagos to the surprise of other tribes and I was a key player in the team.
Q: What was Rangers to the Igbos?
Ans: First, Enugu Rangers FC to me, was an offshoot of the civil war and resilience of the Igbo man’s spirit . During the civil war, the military battalion that followed Odumegwu Ojukwu during the war was most times called Rangers. And if you know what a Ranger is, you will understand how the name suited the team on its formation. Most of the players who made the first generation Rangers team actively fought in the civil war.
Most of us played two games in one. One, we played for the enthusiasm of the football. Second, we played for our love for the Igbo nation, to win our opponents in the field of play and achieve victory for Easterners. These made our people proud and helped them heal the wounds of the civil war.
Q: Did Rangers encounter rivalry?
Ans: Yes, not just rivalry but envy. We were envied for being the best. There were conspiracy against us by enemies of Igbos. But we maintained our winning streak, beating shooting stars of Ibadan, Mighty Jets of Jos and other teams. We dominated Nigeria league scene. We won the league back to back in 1974 and 1975. We also won the challenge cup in 1974.
We beat shooting stars 2-0 in Enugu and also beat them 2-1 in Ibadan. After the match, our bus was burnt down and we the players were smuggled out to safety. I also remember our victory against Ashanti Kotoko of Ghana in 1974, where the opposing fans set their field on fire because they lost to Rangers. It was after the match that Rangers signed Christian Madu.
Q: Despite the glorious and victorious performances, your Rangers team did not win CAF Champions cup?
Cuts-in, we were sabotaged from home and abroad.
Ans: many Yoruba people did not want Rangers to win the CAF trophy before shooting stars. After we beat Mehala of Egypt 3-0 in 1974-75 the semi- finals of Champions cup and later reached the finals, those in sports house in Lagos did not support our plea to play the second leg of the final match in Enugu. We played it in Lagos and lost 0-1 in Lagos to Hafia of Guinea. Even after drawing 1-1 in first leg in Guinea, so painful.
Q; How did the Igbo nation feel after Rangers loss?
Ans: The propaganda against old Rangers stadium in Enugu made the Igbos to organise a fund raising for the building of the Nnamdi Azikiwe stadium Enugu which was achieved and commissioned on 18th January, 1986. That was the Igbo spirit in action.
Q: Who were your team mates?
Ans: So many of us. But unfortunately, some are now dead. Emmanuel Okpara, Nwabueze Nwankwo, Christian Chukwu, Dominic Ezeani, (Captain), Godwin Achebe, Martin Obianika, Kenneth Abana, Francis Nwosu, John Uwanaka, Ernest Ufele, Ogidi Ibeabuchi, Emeka Onyedika among others. Our coach was Dan Anyiam.
Q : Apart from playing for Rangers, did you also shine for Nigerian national team?
Ans: Absolutely! I was selected for the Nigerian national team by our white coach, Father Tiko, even when he did not know me. I was an important player for Nigeria and Rangers. I suffered a big injury but it was the East Central State that sponsored me and Emeka Onyedika for treatment in Germany. After my treatment, I did a coaching course in Germany before returning.
Q: You said your football career spanned beyond Enugu Rangers?
Ans: Yes, Imo State was created in 1976 and we returned to Owerri, the capital. Jerry Enyeazu returned to Imo State as the Director of Sports. Most of us who were indigenes of Imo State (now comprising Imo, Abia and partly, Ebonyi) returned to Imo State. I galvanized our players like Chimezie Ngadi, Goalkeeper Umelo and others and we formed Spartans FC. I ensured that our brothers from Bende, Umuahia, Owerri, Mbano, Ngwa etc who were playing for Rangers and Vasco da Gama returned to Owerri to play for Spartans. Dan Anyiam again, became our coach but unfortunately, he died so soon. Imo State was created a year before the 2nd National Sports Festival called Kaduna ’77.
Q: Were you part of the Imo contingent to Kaduna ’77?
Ans : I captained our football team known as the Trojans to the festival. Most of the Trojans were from the Spartans. Jerry Enyeazu was wonderful. Imo State won gold in the competition by defeating the host State, Kaduna.
Q : Was your football career motivated by the fame you enjoyed or was it buoyed by any monetary incentives?
Laughs… There was no money in football as it is today. In those days, the honour of adorning Rangers Jersey or playing for the Nigerian national team was so great. We the players were so popular and widely loved by sports lovers, especially Igbos based at home and abroad. In Lagos, Ibadan, Jos, Benin, Enugu, Kaduna, Kano, anywhere we played, the stadia were filled to the brim.
Q: Are you impressed by the pace of sports development in the country?
Ans: Our governments have failed in our sports development and management. We are not where we are supposed to be. But I thumb up Anyansi Agwu for his strides in Enyimba FC.
Q: Most former players in the country claim they have been abandoned by the government, are you one of them?
Ans: Let me start by informing you that my former club, Rangers has risen to the challenges. We have our association known as ex-Rangers. We meet every last Tuesday of the month. Our chairman is Davidson Owumi. We receive support from Anambra State. We are paid some monthly stipend. Peter Obi supports us with enough cartons of Hero beer. Apart from Anambra, other South East State governments have refused to recognize us despite our repeated letters.
Q: What is the way forward?
Ans: Ex-players should be cared for. Governors of the South East State and rich individuals should assist retired players. They should remember how we used we helped Igbos heal the wounds of civil war while playing for Rangers, East Central State and Imo State.
Q: You have retired from civil service. What are you now doing for a living?
Ans: I am the team manager with Diamonds football academy Umuahia. We produced Samuel Chukwueze for Nigeria and Villarreal and are still producing more players.