Football goes beyond the game itself. It is also a story of rivalries. And rivalries are usually fiercer when it is between clubs based in the same city. It is like the city is not big enough for both clubs. There always seems to be more at stake in a derby and some of the world’s major cities are also known for the biggest derbies.
Milan has AC Milan and Inter Milan. London has Arsenal and Tottenham as bitter local rivals. Turin has Juventus and Torino. Buenos Aires comes to a standstill when River Plate play Boca Juniors. In Cairo there is Al Ahly and Zamalek. In 1970s Enugu, the battle for supremacy between Enugu Rangers and Vasco Da Gama fired up similar passions. The lowdown on this rivalry is told in the book: Rangers International (the story of Nigeria’s all-conquering clubside) by Sam Mbah, Ikechukwu P Okoye and Okey Ezea, published in 1993.
Rangers and Vasco: A sabre-edged rivalry
The seeds of the often bitter rivalry that has existed between Rangers and its sister clubside, Vasco da Gama FC also of Enugu appeared to have been sown at the inception of both clubsides in 1970. Vasco’s founding father and mentor, Jonathan B Ogufere then territorial controller of P and T [Post and Telecommunications] in Enugu arrived Enugu during the war from Benin where he had established a successful local clubside, the P and T Rockets of Benin.
Upon his transfer, he sought to carry over to Enugu his remarkable experiment in Benin. It was an idea he nursed from day one, and he would not rest until it came to fruition. His willingness to participate in the efforts to revitalise football in the old East Central State and Enugu in particular at the end of the war therefore, was a product of his own desire to utilise the opportunity as a stepping stone for the realisation of his ambition to establish a clubside.
And no sooner had the efforts started generating a momentum of its own than Ogufere assisted by the then P and T Area Engineer in Enugu, Austin Otiji cornered a group of players to form the P and T Vasco Da Gama football club of Enugu. The club had as objective the projection of the image of the P and T department as well as overall contribution to the promotion of the game of football in the state in particular and Nigeria in general. Among the first set of players were: Christian Ezekwesili (Captain), Okezie Maduekwe, Mba (both goalkeepers), Charles Nwobodo (Wawawa), Patrick Obinwa, Francis Okorie (Old Ghana), Charles Aneke, Ndukwe Dike, Charles Okoroigwe (Mortimor), Michael Igbokwe, O.J. Chukwu, Okoronkwo and Tony Uzoka.
By this time Rangers FC was equally in the making. There was, naturally, a scramble for the star players available. As a federal department, P and T had the edge in terms of financial resources. Ogufere employed the weapon to telling effect. But even that was not without its limits. Rangers players were employed as civil servants by the state’s sports commission (later Sports Council). They enjoyed an advantage in the sense that they were employed as full time footballers cum assistant coach-in-training which gave them a certain measure of professional status. Players of Vasco, on the other hand, were regular staff of the P and T department and played football only on part time basis. Besides, while Rangers were seen as a property of the state, Vasco was treated with benign contempt, what a commentator characterised as a feeling of “not belonging to us; not being our own”. As a matter of fact, many Rangers players including [Christian] Chukwu and [Emmanuel] Okala were first approached by Vasco but they turned the offers down.
That not withstanding, Ogufere was appointed an ex-officio member of the Sports Council board and he took an active part in the activities of Rangers. As a matter of fact, it was widely alleged that the ECS Administrator, Ukpabi Asika had a soft spot for Vasco due principally to the fact that he had worked closely with Ogufere during the war. The populace’s apparent preference of Rangers to Vasco did not go down well with many Vasco officials and faithfuls.
The management of P and T in response tried to enhance the allowances and conditions of service of the players. It went further to enlist the support of all P and T staff for the team. To this end, P and T staff within the territory registered as members of the team’s supporters club and paid annual dues towards the maintenance of the players. The staff were expected to attend all matches involving the team, and some of these matches were not without skirmishes and constant face-offs with Rangers players. Whenever both teams moved into the arena, accusations and recriminations characterising that relationship often tended to develop into full blown confrontation. Matters were not helped by Rangers instant success on the national scene either. Vasco was not content playing second fiddle. In 1971, it qualified along with Rangers to represent the state in the Amachree Cup. After an initial brilliant run the Ogufere Boys fell 3-4 to ACB of Lagos. The loss was a most painful thing, as Vasco led 3-0 during the interval only to lose concentration in the second half.
Vasco was also one of the eight teams that took part in the first ever National League on home and away basis organised by the NFA [Nigerian Football Association] in 1972. It beat city rivals Rangers 2-1 inside the Enugu Sports Stadium in one of the most memorable matches of the season and followed that up with a 3-0 spanking of WNDC away at Ibadan. The team finished third on the final table behind Rangers and Jets, a position one analyst says, hardly reflected the actual performance of the team. The boys took solace in winning the 1972 Bisalla Cup for clubs in East Central State by beating Neptune FC of Aba 2-1. Vasco’s line up in the match comprised: Patrick Obinwa, Kenneth Igboanugo, Francis Okorie, Charles Adimorah, Charles Aneke, Joe Onuorah, Tony Uzoka, Ahamefula Umelo, Innocent Nwankwo, Okey Nnadi, Paul Agu, Mbakemkpe Obigbo, Victor Egbuniwe and Matthew Nwokeji. They had as coach one Egbuna.
The team was passing through a transition phase at this period. A second generation of players was being integrated into the team. These included: Ahamefula Umelo, Patrick Ekeji, Felix Emordi, Ignatius Ilechukwu, John Nwadioha, Obed Ariri, Innocent Nwankwo, Anyiam Osigwe Paul Agu, Nnamdi Egbukichi, James Udemba, Alphonsus Dike and Stanley Okoronkwo. This strengthened the team as it went on to win the 1973 Chidi Ebere Cup as league champions for clubsides in Enugu.
There was a mutual understanding between both teams not to poach each other’s players. This was informed by Vasco’s fears that the Sports Council might use its muscle to lure away some of the team’s dependable players. The fears were played out when one of Vasco’s most reliable midfielders, Mortimor Okoroigwe joined Rangers in 1973. Rangers insisted they were not in breach of the understanding, since Okoroigwe left Vasco earlier to join a Calabar based clubside, from where he enlisted for Rangers a few months later.
Once Mortimor’s defection was allowed to stand, it marked a precedent that would persist till this day. Rangers swooped on Vasco’s second generation players, capitalising on its public goodwill and popularity rating. A number of the players fell for the bait and joined Rangers. They included Charles Adimorah, Felix Emordi, Stanley Okoronkwo and Ignatius Ilechukwu. The trend continued through the years. A roll call of former Vasco players who later defected to Rangers reads thus: Sylvester Akametalu, Sylvester Onwuekwe, Mike Ogbuodudu, Nnamdi Nwokocha, Emma Okocha, Patrick Ekeji, Francis Nwosu, Ibezim Ofoedu, Uche Nwachukwu, Ejiofor Okolo, Ndubuisi Ajomiwe, Chibuzor Ndubueze, Ifeanyi Onyedika, Obioha Achilefu, Akeem Ashiru, Gabriel Okonkwo, Charles Ohagwu, Emesi Okereke, Tony Orji, Israel Anuna, Edmund Okafor, Chiedozie Obodozie, Okwuchukwu Obiora, Ikechukwu Enwezor, Murphy Leonard, Ikenna Ogenna, Bishop Phinan Ozonweke, Steve Aneke. The list is endless.
There were, however, two players who resisted vehemently the temptations to cross over to Rangers; John Nwadioha and Obed Ariri. The latter a member of the all-conquering ECS Academicals initially joined Rangers late in 1971 with colleagues [Godwin] Ogbueze, Chukwu and [Dominic] Ezeani. Together with Chukwu and Ezeani, they were in the Rangers team that lost to ASEC of Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals of the 1971 Champions Cup; whereas Ezeani played, Ariri and Chukwu sat on the bench. That was his only known appearance for Rangers. He joined Vasco immediately after and turned down subsequent offers to rejoin Rangers. Nwadioha who trained as a plant officer in P and T, on his part, was approached by Rangers on several occasions, and on each occasion, he turned them down, preferring to keep faith with the team that nurtured him into national limelight.
Rangers constant poaching of players from Vasco inevitably worsened the relationship between both teams. Each match between them was fought with bitterness and hate comparable only to what obtains between teams like Great Olympics and Hearts of Oak of Ghana, Simba and Young Africans in Tanzania or Ahly National and Zamalek in Egypt. In 1975, the founder and president of Vasco Da Gama FC, J.B. Ogufere was transferred to Lagos. This left a big vacuum which for a long time could not be filled, not even by Ogufere’s successor in Enugu, Mr Patrick Uchidiuno. Interestingly, when the then Anambra State Director of Sports, Mr Clifford Eneli was removed from office in 1976, he blamed his fate partly on machinations of Vasco officials who repeatedly accused him of not doing much to encourage the team, accusations which he denied.
The 1978 Anambra State Challenge Cup finals will go down in history as, perhaps, the keenest and the most bitterly fought match between the two sides. The match played at the Akanu Ibiam Sports Stadium in Nsukka was replayed twice. In the first match, both sides drew 1-1. [Aloysius] Atuegbu scored for Rangers, while Akutekwe equalised for Vasco. The first replay produced no winner either and no goals. In the second replay, however, Atuegbu decided matters in Rangers favour with a dying minute goal.
Vasco has won the state’s FA Cup on three occasions – 1984, 1989 and 1991. That of 1984 was actually by default. Vasco had qualified for the final by beating PRODA FC of Enugu in one of the semi final matches. In the second semi-final Rangers took on NEPA FC also of Enugu. NEPA went into an early lead. Midway into the second half Rangers scored what should have been the equaliser, but the referee disallowed it. Rangers refused to continue the match. The NFA disqualified both teams and Vasco went on to represent Anambra State in the national preliminaries. The Ogufere boys lost 0-3 to Abiola Babes in the semi-finals in Lagos. In 1989, the team re-Christened NITEL Vasco Da Gama FC beat Rangers in the state’s finals 2-1, but lost to IBL Ilesha in the national quarter finals in Bauchi in a penalty shoot out after the first ended 2-2 and the replay 1-1. Vasco rode roughshod over Rangers again in the 1991 state Challenge Cup final. The Ogufere boys won via a penalty shoot-out.
Vasco’s fluctuating fortunes lately, particularly its overly long stay in the second division has done a lot to whittle down the rivalry in recent years. But the rivalry appears fated to continue. In recent years, there’s an emerging pattern to rivalry whereby many former Rangers retire to Vasco in the twilight of their careers. The list includes: Emma Osigwe, Patrick Okala, Kenice Chime, Emeka Akabueze, Ifeanyi Onyedika, Christian Isiadinso, etc.