Enyimba Football Club, The People’s Elephant are Nigeria’s record Champions. They are the most decorated team in Nigerian football, with eight league titles and two CAF Champions League successes. Situated in Aba, a city and commercial hub in Abia State, southeast Nigeria, home to the industrious Igbo, it seems the unlikeliest location for a successful football club of Enyimba’s calibre.
The markets of Aba are filled daily with throngs of skilled men and women, old and young, who possess handcrafts worth 401k fund. Aba-made is a popular cliché amongst Nigerians, A phrase referring to any locally made product believed to be cheap and inferior in quality. Aba contributes a great deal to Nigeria’s economy. Enyimba Economic City is a vision of the current governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu aimed at actualizing and aiding the already present innovative, manufacturing, and entrepreneurial culture of the citizens. How does football however come into the mix?
In Nigeria, it is a farce that football and politics don’t mix. When the country regained democracy in 1999, Abia State had elected Orji Uzor Kalu its governor. A football aficionado, OUK, as he was fondly called set about redefining football in the South East state, after repeated title celebrations in Owerri and Enugu as well as Awka’s rare success all before the turn of the millennium. Enugu Rangers is a club of the people, while Iwuanyanwu Nationale and Udoji United were affluent teams, luring the best talent with money, fame, and class. The Naze Millionaires as they are fondly called enjoyed bankrolling from Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, Orji was keen to replicate the success Iwuanyanwu particularly had achieved. All five league titles the club had achieved was under the magnate, the first coming two years after his takeover.
Kalu’s Enyimba would replicate the feat, securing league success within two years of his time in office. In Nigeria, Sports is CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility; an act of contributing to societal goals of a philanthropic, activist, or charitable nature by engaging in or supporting volunteering or ethically-oriented practices, inadvertently a strategic initiative that contributes to a brand’s reputation.), you could call it a glorified form of sports washing.
In Kalu’s eight years as Governor, Enyimba won five league titles, One Federation Cup and two CAF Champions Leagues. Two times they achieved the double, in 2003 and 2005. Enyimba’s fortunes have not been the same since that triumph in 2004 on the continent under the wily Okey Felix Emordi. 2008 was the first of the three semi-final appearances they have achieved since. With Orji Uzor Kalu gone and Theodore Orji, the new Sherriff in town, things were definitely never going to be the same. Champions in the 2007 Nigerian Premier League, under the vast Belgian, Maurice Cooreman, Enyimba arrived on the continent boasting a glistening and fearsome reputation.
The campaign began on February 17, 2008, at the spiritual home of the People’s Elephant, the Aba Township Stadium against Congo’s Diables Noirs. The players served up a special, Ezenwa Otorogu and Stephen Worgu scored a goal in each half to condemn the visitors to a 4-1 defeat, not content, the act would be repeated in Congo, triumphing 3-2, sealing a 7- 3 aggregate win. If the campaign was a meal, Enyimba had not served the appetizer. The Last 32 led the Aba Millionaires to Tanzania nine years before wealth and affluence for Simba. The served the perfect performance not just in literal terms, Worgu completing his hattrick with a seventy-seventh-minute penalty, ten minutes later Kalu Uche netted another to seal a 4-0 victory. John Owoeri, a graduate flying eagle repute, got in on the act in Dar Es Salam, adding to strikes from Worgu and Uche in a 3-1 win. The boys had seemingly taken the word seventh heaven to literal.
The biggest scalp would come in the playoff round against Tunisian outfit Club Africain, who were enroute clinching the Tunisian title. Cooreman’s men burst out of the traps like hungry lions baying for prey, Kalu Uche’s first minute goal laying the gauntlet. Stephen Worgu would bag his eighth goal from the spot to give room, before Junior Osagie, a Nigerian sent shivers down his countrymen’s spine by halving the deficit. Enyimba went into the half pensive, the goal just before the break rattling them, it was the first real test, tides don’t take long to turn.
However, the scales would tip in their favor when Med Ali Gharzoul received his marching orders for a foul in the box. Enter Samuel Chukwudi, who became the sixth different scorer by tucking away the spot-kick. Relief and Optimism followed, but it took Youssouf Mowahbi getting sent off with time ebbing away to give breathing room. Emeka Akueme would score two goals in added time to seal a 5-1 win, leaving Club Africain with a mountain to climb on May 9 in Rades. It proved insurmountable for the Tunisians, Ajibade Omolade scoring with four minutes left to quench nascent hopes of any fightback and book a place in the Group Stages. Twenty Goals had been scored, the most in the competition at that time, the appetizer had been served.
Placed in a group of Champions and by nomenclature, death, Enyimba had Cameroonian Champions, Cotonsport, Congolese champions TP Mazembe bankrolled by oligarch Moise Katumbi and Sudanese Champions, Al Hilal Omdurman for company. This was no avenue for the weak, and Cooreman’s men would show no fear when they arrived in Omdurman, storming into the lead on thirty-five minutes via Cletus Itodo. They would fall short, after all in Yoruba parlance, “It is the child of the fire that is sent to the fire”, Oriental boy, Ifeanyi Onuigbo would net the late winner for the Sudanese after Worgu had drawn level circa Mohammed Yusuf and Hathym Mustafa strikes, 3-2 defeat.
Leaving no time for pity parties, Cooreman rallied his troops a fortnight later for the visit of Cotonsport at the slaughterhouse. Otorogu and Worgu did the honours and the points were on board. They repeated the trick when Mazembe visited, putting the Aba Elephants in good stead and on top of the group going into the second leg of fixtures, a position they surrendered to Cotonsport after a 3-nil hounding in Lumumbashi by Mazembe. Just like the yo-yo, they’d reclaim top spot with a 4-1 pounding of Al Hilal in Aba with the regular suspects of Otorogu, Worgu, Owoeri and Akueme doing the needful. They would stare elimination in the face upon losing 3-0 in Garoua, spared by Mazembe and Hilal’s draw, both unable to find a winner as they chased a semifinal spot.
The template had been set and Cooreman had refused to take note. A team that scored seven goals away in Qualification had failed to register any in the Group stage. Manuel Jose’s Al Ahly would be unforgiving, closing up shop and inviting the Elephants to break them down. The best chance fell to substitute Emeka Akueme with four minutes to go, he’d misdirect a free header inside the six-yard box with the Egyptian defence well beaten, Sani’s save from Aboutrika rendered rudderlessly. Flavio Amado would net the winner in Cairo a fortnight later, and end the journey, Fourteen Games, over Ten thousand miles covered and Thirty Goals later.
They arguably are one of the finest sides to have never lifted Africa’s prize.
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