National

The return of the Flying Antelopes…

Odegbami

Antelopes do not fly.

That’s why I often wondered why Rangers International Football Club of Enugu are nicknamed ‘the Flying Antelopes’.

I know the genesis of the name ‘Rangers’. It is a deadly and destructive cannon used by Biafran soldiers during the bloody Nigerian Civil War.

In ‘fighting’ their way back to the mainstream life in Nigeria, and in shedding the toga of a defeated people after the Civil Warsome Igbo leaders  set up the football club to fast track their re-integration and chose the name ‘Rangers’ to reflect strength, power and an indomitable fighting and winning spirit.

One year after the end of the war, the team played its way to the finals of the most prestigious club competition in Nigeria at the time – the FA Cup!

They were only halted in their march to the top only by the heroics of Amusa Adisa, the goalkeeper of WNDC FC, the team that later became IICC Shooting Stars International FC.

Adisa had dramatically caught a last-minute penalty kick taken by Godwin Achebe, Captain of the Green Eagles (before and immediately after the War) and of Rangers FC, that would have possibly helped the team to go on and win a match they were dominating up till that point in the dramatic match. That’s how Rangers lost their first major final match by 2-1 to a team that would become their greatest rival in Nigerian football through the decades since then.

That same year1971, in a competition that was referred to as an ‘emergency league’, Rangers FC emerged the league champions for the first time.

But it was in 1974 that their 3-year dominance of Nigerian football truly began. From that year, they went on to win the FA Cup 3 times and the league cup twice, back-to-back. These achievements were unprecedented in Nigeria’s football history and have not been matched fifty years after.

Remarkably, it was not only the victories that made Rangers International FC famous and a great team. It was in the manner of their performances on the field of play. They played with uncommon passion and determination.  They had very skillful, very strong and very fast players in all departments on the field, with a goalkeeper who,at about 6 ft 5 inches tall, was a real giant between the posts. Emmanuel Okala went on to become the most celebrated goalkeeper with his award of Africa’s Best Player in 1978 by the African Sports Journalists Union. 

Rangers International FC always and everywhere played as if possessed, contesting for every ball on the field as if their lives depended on it, physically intimidating and dominating teams with their pphysicality, power and speed, leaving a physical or mental ‘scar’ on every opposing team. 

In 1977, Rangers FC added the appellation ‘International’ to its name when it won the Africa Cup-winners Cup, only the second Nigerian club side to win the same continental trophy. One year earlier, in 1976, IICC Shooting Stars International FC had blazed the international success trail.

That achievement meant a great deal in  Nigerian football and to the global followers of the great club based inEnugu. To mark the 40th anniversary of winning the continental trophy, in 2017, the clubs patrons and supporters organised and held the biggest celebration in the history of the team in Houston, Texas, USA.

Why USA?

Most of the surviving players of the 1970s and 1980s had moved to the USA for studies or in pursuit of a better life. It was, therefore, a great opportunity to re-unite and celebrate them in an audience of members of the Igbo community in the USA with a surpriseguest to embellish the historic event. 

… a Ranger that never played for Rangers International! 

 

When I received a phone call from the Patron of the Rangers FC Supporters Club in the USA, Chief Benson Ejindu,  inviting me to the celebration, it was a confirmation of my deepest love. I had always loved members of the Rangers International football players in the national team. They infected every one of us from different clubs with their positive attitude and fighting spirit. They inspired and drove us to new heights in the national teams of the 1970s. A few of the players became my best friends beyond the football field, a relationship we have sustained till this day. 

 

Despite this mutual admiration and respect between us, I was a tormentor-in-chief of Rangers International FC during the years of their rivalry with my team, Shooting Stars FC There were players from Rangers FC and 5 from Shooting Stars in the 1980 AFCON-winning Green Eagles. We should have been ‘enemies’, but were not. The friendship between us sustained beyond our times as members of the national team. 

 

The epic semi-final matches of the Africa CupWinners Cup in 1977, pitched Rangers International with their fiercest domestic rivals, Shooting Stars FC. Those two matches are still considered amongst the greatest and most memorable football matches in Nigeria’s football history. Although Rangers eventually won via penalty kicks after the second match that was played on neutral ground in Kaduna, the story of what actually transpired could only be recalled and told by one deeply involved in the unprecedented football drama.

 

That’s why I was invited. To grace the event with my presence and to recall the period for the benefit of the audience of over 400 Nigerians packed into a hall in downtown Houston in 2017.

It was apparent from my unscripted story that my love for Rangers International FC is deep. It was a team I would have loved to play for in those days of our rivalry, but for the fact that I was Yoruba, and Rangers were a team that wore the banner of a team with a mission after the Civil war between ‘brothers’. 

 

That’s why, I refer to myself a Ranger that never played for Rangers International FC.

That’s why, last week, I celebrated Rangers International’s return to the top of Nigerian football in their achievement as professional Football League winners.  

 

I am hoping that this will spur other teams in the category of Movements of the people, to make a comeback and be in the fore front of football development as business in the country. 

 

That’s why the return of Rangers International FC as champions of the Nigerian Professional Football league is huge! I add my humble voice to the celebrations. 

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