25 October 2009

Nigeria: Enyimba - is the Tide Changing Under Orji?

The first place I saw (yes, we have never met) Orji Uzor Kalu was at Enyimba Stadium in one of Enyimba Int'l FC matches. Then he was not the governor of Abia State. The Supporters' Club then drummed their lives out each match Orji was a spectator because he gave them lavish monetary support. That was passion for football by a businessman who believed the measure you give in sports is the measure you receive.

Before 1999, Falcons and later Enyimba struggled to exist in the Amateur league. By stroke of policy fate they transited to the Professional league and later the Premiership. The name Falcon or Enyimba did not mean anything. They thus became the shade of clubs in English Premiership that participated every year without a shield.

The face of Enyimba changed as soon as Kalu mounted the saddle as the Chief Executive of Abia State, bringing massive support and overwhelming passion to bear on the administration of the Club. He influenced the pattern of buying the best players in Nigerian league and made Premiership to be christened, destination Enyimba. I recollect with amazing nostalgia how Emeka Nwana (Ayaya) mesmerized Enyimba defence and scored a very vital goal that leveled Rangers (where Nwana was playing) with Enyimba at Aba, after Kalu had boasted that Enyimba would dock Rangers, their long-standing clannish rivals. In the post match interview, Kalu jocularly said, "Ayaya, why did you score against me?" That was in 2001 playing season. Kalu personally invited Ayaya and offered him One Million Naira (N1m) sign - on to play for Enyimba. That record signing changed the face of Enyimba nay Nigerian League. Before then, players received peanuts at least by Nigerian standards.

After Ayaya, Enyimba became a Mecca of some sort where every player that made sense wished to play for. The nominal roll of Enyimba players then was the roll call of the best legs in Nigerian domestic football. At a time, Vincent Enyeama who later became Nigeria's No 1 (till date) was a super sub. Tireless Friday Ekpo had a place in the team. Duke Udi, the midfield maestro was also there. Obinna Nwaneri, Tony Elegbe, Onyekachi Okonkwo, Dele Aiyenugba, Victor Ezeji, Omolade, Emeka Alikaman Opara, Muri Ogunbiyi and Jerome Ezeoba were some of the league bests that laced their boots for Enyimba.

Kalu offered irresistible welfare packages that saw the team displacing other nineteen clubs to lift the coveted Premiership trophy five times in six years. They were to rewrite Nigeria's history and indeed that of Africa when after over thirty five failed attempts at the Champions league by big clubs like Spartans (later Iwuanyanwu Nationale), Abiola Babes; IICC (later 3SC), Rangers and Stationery Stores; Enyimba dusted big names in African football to coast home with the Cup a record two times at a stretch.

I recollect that on their road to their first Championship glory in 2003, they were spanked 6-1 by Ismaili FC Egypt. On arrival, Kalu was at Aba Stadium; venue of their training and residence where he despised them for wasting tax payers' money. He threatened to set Abians against them if they failed in their task to justify the huge spending on them. The rest is now history.

Enyimba is still existing but gradually reclining to the status it maintained before 1999. There are still great footballers in the team. Who would underrate a team that has Badmus Simon, the only hope Akwa United had at a time? A team that wooed ThankGod Amaefula, an extraordinary midfielder Sharks is still finding difficult to part with. Jekok Akinobari, Paul Godwin and Junior Osagie are still endowed with great ball sense. Rangers lost Nnaemeka Anyanwu and Emeka Emedosi to Enyimba. Enyimba still buys the best in the domestic league.

At present, the team lacks the shine of yesterday. They no longer look like the team that made every Nigerian player envy them. I no longer see a Kalu acknowledging cheers from the crowd at half time and coming with plenty of goodies. When Enyimba played USMA of Algeria in a crucial quarter final of the Champions League in 2003, Kalu sat next to Coach Kadiri Ikhana on the bench and inspired the players to high heavens. The rhythm of "O ruwego Chineke O ruwego, mgbe I ji aza anyi ekpere" (God! Time has come for you to answer our prayers) climaxed to a winning goal scored at regulation time. That was when government had more than a passing interest in Enyimba.

I have spoken to players in Enyimba lately.

They have resonated, "things no dey as before", a subtle way of saying things are no longer at ease. Poor welfare package is affecting their play and psyche. A player simply retorted, "everyday, na so so promise they dey promise and this is affecting our play". With better motivation, the very many draws Enyimba have recorded this season would be winnings. That is the spirit of motivation.

Gov. T.A. Orji has shown flashes that he would do well by promising and redeeming the reward of Five Hundred Thousand naira (N500,000) cash to each player and crew of Enyimba for winning the first edition of the Federation Cup. Enyimba needs more than that. Enyimba needs aggressive and articulated support to take back its pride of place as the foremost Nigerian Club. Enyimba needs a return of the glory days of 2001- 2007.

Enyimba does not need to be identified with owing players backlog of match bonuses and sign - on fees. Enyimba needs to remain attractive and a beautiful bride so that the labours of their heroes past shall never be in vain. We vote that Enyimba shall live and not die. Ochendo may not be so passionate about football but for the sake of the teeming Abians who keep vigil at Enyimba Stadium, he needs to do more.

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