By CIC Old Boy
Long before I discovered women, I fell in love with music and then fell in love with Enugu Rangers. Growing up in Enugu in the 70s, supporting Rangers was as natural as a baby feeding on its mother’s breast milk. Today, whenever I see the FC Barcelona motto “Més que un club” (More than a club), I remember what Rangers meant to us back in the day.
Barca was a symbol of the Spanish region of Catalunya’s resistance to General Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, representing their desire for a separate identity from the rest of Spain and even independence. Enugu Rangers came into being after the Nigerian civil war in 1970 and became a symbol of identity for the defeated Igbos who formed the majority in the breakaway Eastern Region that failed in the attempt to become the independent republic of Biafra.
So Rangers were “more than a club” for most Igbos back then, as they embraced an all-conquering team that seemed to be to saying to the rest of Nigeria: “We may have been beaten on the battle field, but we won’t be beaten on the football field”.
To be Igbo back then and not a Rangers supporter was almost seen as a traitor to the Igbo cause or “sabo” – the term used for saboteurs during the war.
Rangers matches at the old Enugu Municipal stadium used to be packed to the rafters by midday well before kickoff at 3pm. There was never a shortage of talent from the conveyor belt that was the secondary schools of the old East Central State. A legend like “Chairman” Christian Chukwu, who went on to captain both Rangers and Nigeria was recruited from Nike Grammar School in Enugu. My old school – College of the Immaculate Conception, Enugu, also contributed its quota to the Rangers roster with Ifeanyi “Ahidjo” Onyedika, Donald “Stone” Igwebuike, Kenneth Boardman, Ike Ofoje, and many others.
This was a time in which Nigeria’s best players usually stayed in Nigeria. Playing in Europe was not really an option because you could earn a decent living in Nigeria. The players that went abroad like Boardman and Ofoje, did so for higher education. I remember meeting Segun Odegbami, arguably Nigeria’s best ever player, at Mama Calabar Restaurant at Wembley, North London, and he said that he was invited for trials at Tottenham in his pomp in 1981, while holidaying in London, but he never bothered to turn up. He saw no point in doing so because he had everything a young man could ask for in Nigeria.
Odegbami played for Ibadan’s IICC Shooting Stars then and their encounters with Rangers were the stuff of legend. Very few Nigerians football fans paid much attention to English football then. Unlike now.
As living standards in Nigeria deteriorated from the mid 1980s, many of us left the country and this brain drain was mirrored in football. The domestic league started losing its best players as they could no longer earn a decent living and the value of the Naira plummeted, making playing for foreign clubs an increasingly attractive option. Sylvanus “Hafia” Okpala was among the first Rangers players to move abroad – Maritimo in Portugal. Very soon this trickle became a flood, as any half-decent Nigerian player started seeing even the backwaters of the footballing world as a better place to ply their trade than Nigeria.
With aggressive marketing from the English Premier League, from around the time it broke away from the old football league in 1992, Nigerian audiences started embracing English clubs and ignoring my beloved Rangers. Now, very few in Enugu even bother to attend Rangers home games as they obsess on Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and the rest.
I want to reverse this trend. We can revive clubs like Rangers by borrowing what works for the Brazilians, Argentinians and even Egyptians. Despite economic situations in those countries mirroring Nigeria’s, possibly to lesser degrees, club football still thrives in those places. The best Brazilians and Argentinians still move abroad. The clubs there have kept thriving because they have had to invest the money they make from selling their best players to European clubs in youth development.
Rangers can easily put structures in place to ensure that all talented kids within a 50 mile radius are attached to the club. They should be exposed to decent coaching from an early stage. This means that youth coaches at Rangers would need to be brought up to speed on modern coaching.
The affection fans like me have for Rangers is a funding stream that needs to be tapped into. This can’t be done when the club does not even have a website. With a decent website, the club can reach out to millions of fans all over the world and sell them nostalgia. Replica shirts should be available online. Rangers legends like Chukwu and Emmanuel Okala should be recruited to market products and memorabilia.
The club needs to start thinking seriously about winning new fans. This can be done through community outreach programmes, getting involved in schools, free entry for schoolkids, running coaching clinics for the kids, etc.
But most importantly, the club is crying out for professional expertise at managerial levels. This would not only bring some of these ideas to fruition, but would also generate the sort of buzz in Enugu around Rangers that would attract corporate sponsorship – another funding stream.
With a bit more resources to play with, Rangers should be looking at attracting Nigerian players that are coming to the end of their careers in Europe. Nigerian players usually finish playing in Europe and just hang their boots or like Jay-Jay Okocha go to the Middle East for a season or two and one last big payday. But we should be getting a season or two out of these players at Rangers. Having such players around in training would be of immense value to the youngsters coming through. They would also generate the sort of interest that puts bums on seats.
Rangers must be restored to their former all-conquering glories to wean fans in Enugu of their English Premier League addiction. If no one else would do the job, I may have to do it myself and I plan to do it for free.