By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
When the Nigeria-Biafra war ended in January 1970, there was gloom in Igboland. Even as the then Head of State General Yakubu Gowon made the famous announcement of “No Victor, No Vanquished”, the vanquished ones knew themselves as they sauntered back into Nigeria, hungry and broken, after the end of the Biafra struggle. The legendary football administrator, Jerry Enyeazu, strongly felt that football could lift the spirit. He was ably backed by BSC Nzenwa, and the club named Enugu Rangers was birthed on January 29, 1970.
The rest, as they say, is history – but let’s just do a brief recap here. The eminent Nigerian football administrators of that time, notably the iconic Oyo Orok Oyo, at the end of the war stressed that a team from the erstwhile rebel section must be involved for a true national champion to emerge.
The Nigerian Army football team, Lagos Garrison, was the reigning kings that had to be matched up with the team from the East. In the pulsating match the boys from the East defeated the Nigerian Army team 2-1, a clear case of the vanquished turns the table on the victors.
The Rangers team truly lived up to the club’s motto: “From Difficulties to the Heights.”
A key player from the Nigerian Army team, Paul “Wonder Boy” Hamilton, recalled that Olusegun Obasanjo was so enraged when he saw the army team in the office of the team coordinator George Innih that he nearly had them flogged for “losing to those hungry boys”.
The eastern boys may have been hungry but they were quite determined such that one of their star players, Dominic Nwobodo, who had his head broken and bloodied, completed the match with a completely bandaged head that earned him the nickname “Alhaji”.
It was from the ruins of the war that Enugu Rangers was formed in 1970, and the team represented Nigeria in the 1971 African Cup of Champion Clubs, reaching the quarter-finals, only to lose to ASEC Mimosas of Cote d’Ivoire.
The pioneer Rangers team of 1970 was made up of Cyril Okosieme in goal, Ernest Ufele and Johnny “Wheeler” Nwosu as full backs, Peter Okeke as defensive midfielder, the skipper Godwin Achebe as central defender with Luke “Jazz Bukana” Okpala as his partner, while the forward players were Mathias Obianika, Kenneh Abana, Dominic Nwobodo, Chukwuma Igweonwu and Shedrack Ajaero.
There was a woman who was stronger than men backing the team in the shape and size of Mrs. Julie Alale, the inimitable “Madam Rangers” whose husband had been executed during the Biafra War.
The Rangers team got to the final of the 1971 National Challenge Cup but lost to WNDC (IICC, 3SC) of Ibadan, with WNDC’s goalie Adisa Amusa saving the penalty of Skipper Achebe.
A major addition to the Rangers team thereafter was the goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala who took over from Cyril Okosieme.
In the spirit of rising from the ruins of the war, the schoolboys of East Central State won the 1971 Manuwa/Adebajo Academicals Cup, and star players from the team such as Godwin Ogbueze, Dominic Ezeani, Kenneth Ilodigwe and Christian Chukwu were immediately drafted into the Rangers team.
Crack centre-half Dominic Ezeani who had displaced Skipper Achebe in the gold-winning national team, the Green Eagles, at the 1973 All-Africa Games staged in Lagos equally took over from the legendary Achebe as captain of Rangers and henceforth led the team to winning the double, that is, the League and Challenge Cup, in 1974.
The 1974 Challenge Cup final was between Rangers and Mighty Jets of Jos, a team from Head of State Yakubu Gowon’s Plateau State. Aloysius Atuegbu who was playing for Mighty Jets told me that Gowon came to his home and promised to buy him a Volkswagen Beetle car if he could help beat Rangers. Aloy played like a possessed man. Rangers Skipper Ezeani advised Aloy that he would get injured if he continued playing like mad.
In Aloy’s next move, Rangers hard defender Harrison Mecha gave him a wicked tackle such that Aloy was stretchered out for good. Rangers beat Mighty Jets 2-0 and lifted the coveted trophy. No Volkswagen for Aloy! Rangers won the coveted Challenge Cup three years on the trot, beating Shooting Stars of Ibadan1-0 in 1975, and Alyufsalam Rocks of Ilorin 2-0 in 1976, a team remarkably made up of ten Ghanaian players and only one Nigerian! Due to fixtures pile-up Rangers had to forego defending the cup in 1977.
Playing too many matches caught up with Rangers in 1978 when after playing tough matches against Canon Sportif of Cameroun in the African champion clubs cup and replaying the Challenge Cup semi-final with Raccah Rovers of Kano, the team eventually succumbed 3-0 to Bendel Insurance of Benin in the final.
Rangers had played some truly remarkable matches, like when the team lost 1-3 to Mehalla of Egypt in the semi-finals of the 1975 Champions Cup only to trounce the Egyptians 3-0 in the return leg played in Enugu, even after one of the players, US-import Kenneth Ilodigwe, had been sent off by the referee.
The match was aptly described as “Mehalla saw wahala in Enugu!” Rangers lost the 1975 African Champions Cup final in Lagos to Hafia FC of Guinea after having waited in vain in Enugu for the match to be played there, only to be ferried to Lagos at the 11th hour. In the match, Rangers’ main thrust of attack, Nwabueze Nwankwo’s long-throws were continuously disallowed by the referee. Rangers lost 3-1 on aggregate.
Rangers won the African Cup-Winners Cup in 1977, beating Canon of Cameroun 5-2 on aggregate, and ending up as the only African team to win a competition without losing a match! The semi-final matches of the competition against the Nigerian reigning champions, IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, nearly caused a tribal war.
The first leg was played in Lagos but the second leg had to be re-scheduled for Kaduna where Rangers won through a heart-stopping penalty shootout. Rangers International of Enugu made the Igbo people to regain their pride of place after the debacle of Biafra. Rangers had no time for fancy, and their players would readily tell you: “There are no goal-posts in the midfield!”
There have been conquests and defeats over the years, but the Rangers spirit of “Never Say Die” remains undaunted. Rangers went into a trophy drought from 1982 only to bounce back to win the Nigerian Premier League in 2016. Rangers hold the remarkable record of being the only Nigerian football club never to have been relegated.