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Captain Okey Odita lifts the Nigeria Premier League trophy

Enugu Rangers crowned champions of Nigeria

It’s been a long time coming, but the trophy finally came to Enugu yesterday in front of a delirious crowd that included state governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi and Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, all decked out in the white of Enugu Rangers, as possibly Nigeria’s best-supported club ended its 32 year wait to win the league title.

Success has many fathers: Ekweremadu and Ugwuanyi celebrate
Success has many fathers: Ekweremadu and Ugwuanyi celebrate

Rangers won 4-0 against El Kanemi Warriors in the last game of the season at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium – aka “The Cathedral” – to create scenes of ecstasy that were flashed across the world via social media.

“The Flying Antelopes” just needed a draw to finish as champions, but had to do it in the emphatic style of Rangers of folklore. Chisom Egbuchulam set up the victory party with a penalty after three minutes. The champions-elect doubled their lead after 42 minutes with a strike from Osas Okoro. Then Egbuchulam got his second and the team’s third from a brilliant build up in the 61st minute. He completed his hat-trick and his 16th goal of the season in added time from the spot after the El-Kanemi goalie broke sub Ifeanyi Egwim’s leg with a very nasty challenge.

Egwim’s injury soured what was a glorious day for Rangers as an ambulance took him straight from the pitch to hospital. He is said to be in stable condition, with a suggestion that he may be flown abroad for further treatment.

The jubiliant crowd couldn't contain themselves
The jubiliant crowd couldn’t contain themselves after the final whistle

Long-suffering fans in the “Coal City”, who had waited so long for Rangers to lift the title, spilled on to the pitch after the final whistle. The last time Rangers won the league General Muhammadu Buhari was in power as a military dictator in 1984. Buhari is back in power as a civilian president and Rangers are back as the kings of Nigerian football. Apart from skipper Okey Odita, no other Rangers player was born the last time Rangers were champions.

Some of the legends that helped to build the Rangers brand were there to witness history in the making, including the club’s greatest captain “Chairman” Christian Chukwu, “Bulldozer” Nwabueze Nwankwo, “Don’t Dirty” Stanley Okoronkwo, Harrison Mecha, Godwin Uwalaka, Ifeanyi “Ahidjo” Onyedika, Johnny Egbuonu, Mike Ogbuodudu, Jude Agada, Ben “Surugede” Ugwu and several others. Many other fans that couldn’t be at the stadium watched the game in big screens across the Ogui area of the city, which seemed to be on lockdown teaming with thousands of supporters.

The good times are back!
The good times are back in Enugu!

Coach Imama Amapakabo had predicted in August that he would end thirty decades of hurt for Rangers fans. “Nobody gave us a chance at the beginning of the season. However, I have never been under pressure. Fans of Rangers International have waited 32 years. We have a new hashtag which is to believe. We believe we will win the title.”

They surely believed and yesterday they did it. Amapakabo tweeted last night: “Feel a book has been closed and need to start another voluminous book. Does somebody know that feeling? Hmmmmmm!!!”

Coach Amapakabo writing a new book
Coach Amapakabo writing a new book

The “book” of waiting for 32 years for a league title has been emphatically closed for Rangers with their record-equalling seventh league title (Enyimba of Aba also has seven titles). The hope is now that the new book would be one that revives the glory, glory days of the past.

The Rangers that literally rose “from the ashes” of the Nigerian civil war in 1970 bestrode the Nigerian footballing landscape like a colossus and were serial champions. The emotional and harrowing history of the club’s formation is captured in the book: Rangers International: The story of Nigeria’s all-conquering clubside (pages 6-7):

In a bid to consummate its formation, [Jerry] Enyeazu proceeded to lay a philosophical foundation for the team. First, he fashioned the team’s motto, “through difficulties to the heights”, conceived as a reminder of the teams origins [from the ashes of the civil war] as well as the daunting challenges that lay ahead. The motto was to become handy in the years ahead as Rangers sought to register its presence, bulldozing every obstacle in its way.

The motto became the motivation behind the legendary fighting spirit, which ensured that the team never gave up even in the most difficult circumstances until the referee’s final whistle. The spirit has survived as an eternal source of inspiration in its most trying moments.

To complement this was the call name, ‘Flying Antelopes’. The Chambers 20th Century Dictionary (New Edition 1983) characterises an antelope as “a fabulous, fierce horned beast.” According to Chief Enyeazu, the name conveys an imagery of fabled excellence and amazing prowess; the combination of fierce horns and an antelope in top flight could not but produce devastating speed. The message this carried was clear, “catch us if you can.”

Very few could catch Rangers in the 1970s as they became serial winners of league titles and represented “more than a club” to many of the Igbos that were defeated during the civil war.

Since the last league trophy in 1984, Rangers have come close to the top on a few occasions and have also been middling along in mediocrity. They should have been champions in 2012, but were denied when the authorities awarded belated points to Kano Pillars. In 2001, Rangers finished top in the regular season, only for the football federation to introduce a playoff between the top four teams, which was won by Enyimba.

Now, Rangers were not to be denied and they are sitting pretty on the throne. But staying at the top is a task more difficult than getting there. The success of today has many fathers, as Governor Ugwuanyi and co try to milk the glory. But he must put structures in place for the success to be sustained.

Amapakabo must be retained and planning should start straightaway for next season or, in the coach’s flowery words, to write “another voluminous book”. This needs investment in the team, training facilities and so on. The club should tap into the massive goodwill it has in Enugu, southeast Nigeria, the entire country and the Diaspora. This is a huge revenue stream that could bring sponsorships and other money sources for investment in the team.

The crowds are back at "The Cathedral"
The crowds are back at “The Cathedral”

The availability of replica shirts is a welcome development, but these are restricted to fans in Nigeria. They should be marketed globally and a website is the most effective way to do this. It remains a disgrace that Nigeria’s best-supported club does not have a website. The current engagement with fans via Twitter should be seen as just a small step towards further interaction with supporters and marketing the club online using social media and a functioning website.

The work to replicate the successes of the past should start with this league win, inspired by the philosophical foundations laid by Jerry Enyeazu and co 46 years ago.

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