Enugu Rangers Rewrite History in Unprecedented Fashion

So here we are. After the long and twisting road to the final there are only two teams left standing in the Aiteo Cup. Never mind that they’re the second best team in Nigeria.

As I watched Enugu Rangers win their second trophy in two years, a first Cup title since their penalty shoot-out win over DIC Bees of Kaduna in 1983, I couldn’t help but imagine what could have been since that win and now. For one, this is the sixth final decided by a shootout in the last 10 years, although none of it involved either team, Rangers had equally lost their last final in a shootout. Everything to play for.

Now there are a thousand and one things I want to talk about; the historic comeback deserves an article on its own, so does the story between Rangers’ last cup win which came 35 years ago, the misery the fans have suffered in the hands of regional rivals and lastly, the NFF whose blushes were saved by a cracking cup final. Okay, I have a better grip on myself now, best to begin with the historic win, eh?

Football has witnessed a number of amazing comebacks in time past, it is why we love the game. In the conversation of comebacks, Liverpool’s triumph over AC Milan in 2005 is easily talked about. Why not? It happened on the biggest football night in 2005, on a venue neither team can call ‘home’, in the final of football’s elite competition with some of the biggest names in football on show. Somewhere down that list will be Newcastle’s remarkable comeback against Arsenal in a 2011 Premier League encounter. The Magpies completed the famous comeback in 19 minutes. Ridiculous numbers, really.

But African football has a game, NO, make that two games in the history books. The first will be Mali’s remarkable comeback against Angola. After 78 minutes, Mali trailed Angola 4-0 then the unthinkable happened, Mali clawed a draw, all 4 goals for Mali came in the final 11 minutes of the match. As if that wasn’t enough, it was the opening game of AFCON 2010 and Angola were the host nation – someone really should have told Mali that it’s not a very polite thing to do to your hosts, embarrassing them like that in their own country. But who cares? We loved it, I bet the Angolans were equally thrilled, disrespect or not.

While Mali ensured the tournament began with aplomb, Enugu Rangers had other ideas, they brought the needed spark to this competition or should I call it a ‘sham’, saving the best for the last eh? You bet.

The first half saw Rangers go 2 goals down and – more than that – utterly outclassed. In reality, it could have been 4, 5 or 6, and Pillars seemed psychologically sure of the win. Any thought of a comeback was quickly put to bed – or so we thought – when Pillars scored a third before five minutes of the second half was played. It’s over now, surely. No team has ever come from 3 goals and buried, totally outclassed to win, not even with the incentive of playing in the CAF Confederations Cup only 40 minutes away. Alas!

Gbenga Ogunbote, one of the nation’s finest coaches who, despite being famous had not won a spoon despite a stint or two at most of the top teams in the country and here he was, watching his team run ragged and at the cusp of a battering. But he wasn’t going to accept this defeat. You could hear him say “not today.” Whilst everyone saw a one-way, done and dusted final, who could blame Ogunbote for imagining a comeback? It was as though fate had conjured this for the flying antelopes.

Before this final, Rangers had overcome a 1-0 deficit in the Quarterfinals, overturned a 2-0 against Nassarawa United to win 4-2 in the semis, it’s okay to think to overturn a 3-0 deficit in the final is overreaching, but if you have done it twice, then it is familiar. Meanwhile, Pillars themselves had twice in the course of the tournament, thrown seemingly unassailable leads away. And they did it again, bizarrely.

Tick tock, the time went on and on, all hopes lost surely they will give up now. And seeing as the patient build-up won’t work anymore, Kelvin Itoya conjured a bullet of a shot from his foot to pull one back. Up until that point, that could easily have been the goal of the match. Interestingly, the goal did more than denying Pillars the opportunity to record the biggest winning margin since Julius Berger’s 3-0 win over Yobe Dessert Stars 16 years ago, it signaled the beginning of the end and they didn’t even know it. By the time that goal hit the back of the net, the time board showed 76:47, 13 minutes left for Pillars to secure their second Cup win, the first in 65 years. Not today!

By the time Ajani Ibrahim leveled the scores, the atmosphere erupted to chants of “Holy!”, “Holy!!”, “Holy!!!”. Enugu Rangers have done the unthinkable, yet all the hard work could still go to ruin and be easily forgotten if they lose the shootout; with the ghost of four consecutive final defeat hunting them, to lose a fifth will be a catastrophe.

“Holy!”, “Holy!!”, “Holy!!!”

Redemption for Enugu Rangers
Once they were the pride of the nation, the pride of the South East, then came the lengthy drought that thronged the club into the deep blue sea, with redemption eclipsing at every leap. Years of frustration, particularly as the fans watched a regional rival, Enyimba, win title after title. By the time Rangers won her 6th league title, Enyimba hadn’t won any, by 2016 Rangers was trailing Enyimba 7-6, the latter winning all seven in 14 years. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they watched helplessly as their worst nightmare won continental honors in consecutive years, they desired the same. Who wouldn’t? But every time they tried, they failed. Miserably too. Now they have another chance. On the night Rangers secured the ticket to play in the CAF Confederations Cup, Enyimba crashed out at the semis.

NFF can heave a sigh of relief, but AITEO Cup 2018 is anything but a tournament
The cliché phrase “saving the best for the last” is the best description of the 2018 AITEO cup. Much Ado about the poor organization leading up to the final. Ignore the shoddy pitch that best fits a rice plantation, ignore the terrible floodlights, ignore the lack of or total disregard for security, ignore the hurried performances of the guest artistes who were brought in to grace the occasion. Let us discuss something entirely different.

Whilst many aren’t fans of the group format adopted this year, I am a big fan of it. I think it makes sense and should be sustained.

First, clubs benefit from playing a string of games and ultimately second chances. In previous formats, Kano Pillars wouldn’t have made it to the final, but not this year.

Secondly, it makes a lot of sense to have four groups in four cities that adore the local league where teams can recoup some money from entry fees and play in the presence of neutral fans. The idea of taking two teams to destinations miles away from home, incurring some cost that cannot be recouped and playing in a city where no one really cares should be discouraged.

How did anyone in the planning committee of the NFF think it is wise to play a game every day during the group phase? Obviously, fixture congestions will only result in a short recovery duration for the players add that to the difficulty of maintaining a physical performance level and an increase in injury rate. It is understandable that Enyimba has to take part in continental games, but if the ‘solution’ the NFF came up with is deemed the best, then we have real issues to tackle.