Sports

Living Next Door to Stars of Enugu Rangers

Veteran editor, Okagbue Aduba, recalls his youth and privilege living next door to the house where pioneer Enugu Rangers stars frequented in their heyday.

My son has recently been showing an interest in Nigeria; from asking questions about my childhood to a self-driven effort to learn Igbo.

“Which Nigerian language do you speak?” he sometimes asks and I would respond with Igbo and my smattering Yoruba.

A recurring subject in our conversations is always Soccer, a game he loves and plays. So he makes me tell him how we played on the streets with everything round and movable in my childhood. I tell him that every Nigerian child could play soccer. I also boast about how I would spend an entire weekend with my friends playing from one street corner or front yard to school fields until my parents sent older siblings to bring me home.

I would also tell him about Rangers International of Enugu.

I had grown up in New Haven, next door neighbor to BSC Nzenwa, whose children were my friends. I believe Nzenwa was the Rangers Chairman at the time. Many of the players lived in the flat behind his house. I remember, particularly, Emmanuel Okala and Chimezie Ngadi whom we called “Watch Me.” The duo was easy to remember because they would occasionally kick the ball around with us in the backyard. I remember trying on Okala’s shoes once and how lost my entire feet felt inside the giant cleats. I remember how excited all the neighborhood kids felt whenever other Rangers payers came over to visit.

As I told my son the story of my childhood stars, he kept wondering how they were not known all over the world like Maradona, Pele and the modern day stars Messi and Renaldo.

We knew them all, we knew the stories of their exploits on the field. We were young and knew little of the impact they had on our people’s political emancipation but we knew they were super stars. They were our idols and I was privileged to have a front row seat, living next door to the Enugu Rangers’ stars. I was in another world, just having almost daily interaction with some of the greatest sports stars ever.

Yes, some of the greatest sports stars ever was what tickled my son’s further interest. So, he started searching YouTube for videos of Christian Chukwu and Okala.

I had told him about Christian Chukwu’s penalty prowess. In my eyes, he had such powerful shot that no goalkeeper could stop his kick even if he knew the direction of the ball. I had also told him that Okala filled the goal between the posts; how his towering size scared attackers and how he would effortlessly pick up a crossed ball from the corner kick, above everyone’s head. Those tales might sound tall but that is exactly how I saw them in my little boy’s eyes.

I was lucky to have a big brother who took me to some games, most memorable of which was the African Cup of Champions second encounter with Mehalla of Egypt. It felt like a war of survival, Rangers had lost the first meeting 1-3 in Egypt and needed at least two goals to progress to the next round. Everyone talked about the match, from market places to elementary schools, offices, on street corners, in buses; it was all “Mehalla will see wahala”. On match day, Mehalla saw ‘wahala’, they were walloped 3:0 in an epic encounter that would eclipse all other achievements of Rangers in later years. Not even when they won the African Cup Winners Cup did the euphoria come close to the Mehalla match.

As I recall some of the early years, I remember Dominic Nwobodo, the lanky (as he seemed to me) original Rangers striker. I think he wore the number 9 jersey then and how it seemed so easy for him to score goals. I remember ‘Watch Me’ Ngadi, a later addition to the squad, who in his debut against Mighty Jets of Jos was so mesmerizing, nimbly waltzing through the opponents defence to score and throw the Enugu stadium into such frenzy that proved true to his nickname, “Watch Me.” He truly deserved to be watched.

I remember Ogidi Ibeabuchi and his “touchline’ moves through the flanks. I remember Captain and later coach Godwin Achebe who commanded the respect of everyone. I remember them all in a mismatch of old and new, founding members and “joiners.”

I remember Patrick Ekeji and Okay Emodi, at the center back who were poached from P & T Vasco Da Gama (also of Enugu) after a State Challenge Cup scare in which they beat Rangers.

I also, remember Kenneth Abana, Kenneth Ilodigwe, Godwin Uwanaka, Stanley Okoronkwo, Johnny Nwosu, (there were two Nwosus, I believe) Emeka Onyedika, Harrison Mecha, Ernest Ufele, Nwabueze Nwankwo, as the names come streaming through my nostalgic mind.

They were great. They were the greatest.

As I told my son the story of my childhood stars, he kept wondering how they were not known all over the world like Maradona, Pele and the modern day stars Messi and Renaldo.

Really how come? Had I been imagining all that greatness? Was it just my childish eyes deceiving me into thinking they were greater than they really were? Could the stars have played a trick on these men and had them appear on stage in an era when professional soccer had not developed?

Did it really matter what it was because for all of us kids, growing up around them then, they remain our own Peles, Maradonas, Ronaldos, and Messis.

They were Rangers.

They were Rangers International of Enugu.

They were ours and they gave us cheer in that emergent post war era when we needed it.

Aduba, pioneer Editor of Thisday Newspaper lives in New York is a volunteer youth coach and US Soccer Federation licensed Grassroots Referee.