1975 SEMI-FINALS: MEHALLA FOR WAHALA WITH RANGERS IN ENUGU
It was November 1975, and Rangers International FC of Enugu were in the semi-finals of the African Cup of Champion Clubs. It was the first time a Nigerian club side had gone that far.
The African Cup of Champions Clubs 1975 was the 11th edition of the annual international club football competition held in the CAF region (Africa), the African Cup of Champions Clubs. It determined that year’s club champions of association football in Africa.
The tournament was played by 28 teams and used a knock-out format with ties played home and away.
They faced Ghazl Al-Mehalla in the two-leg event. Ghazl El-Mehalla Sporting Club was an Egyptian football club based in El-Mehalla El-Kubra. They were members of the Egyptian Premier League. They won the Egyptian Premier League once in 1973.
In the first leg at Mehalla’s home ground, the Egyptians appeared to be running away with the fixture. The score was 3:0 in the dying minutes of the game. However, Rangers’ right back, Ernest Ufele gave the Coal City Boys a fighting chance with a last minute away goal, a surprise header from a trademark Rangers’ corner kick.
Thus began the great drama known in Enugu soccer lore as “the day Mehalla saw Wahala(trouble).” In the two weeks between the away and home game, it was the only thing the Coal City could talk about. The big question by every television and radio pundit – soccer, political or otherwise – was, “Can Rangers do it?”
Children on the street and in football fields answered with spectacular dribbles that showed how Rangers would crush Mehalla. Patrons at beer parlours and tombo bars celebrated their assent to a Rangers’ triumph over pre-victory Star Lager beer and palm wine bottles; the “tinkers” of Ogbete Market pounded out a prediction of victory on their metal pans and pots; and “trader guys” shouted, “Ndi ‘Ntashonalge meri!” (victory belongs to [Rangers] International) to one another as they walked or rode their bicycles to the market.
The members of the team appeared on several radio and television shows, and answered the question, “Can you guys do it?” with a quiet confidence that revealed their steely resolve not to disappoint their fans. “We will win,” was the “secret weapon” Mattias Obianika’s simple answered to every question. “We will be in the final,” said dashing right winger, Emeka “Owusu” Onyedika. “At the end of the day, Rangers will be standing,” said mighty captain Christian Chukwu.
The team leaders pointed out that even though they had lost two pillars of the defense – centre-back, Frank Nwosu, and left-back, Harrison Mecha – to injury, they had brought back former Captain Dominic Ezeani and flashy playmaker, Kenneth “Kendo” Illodigwe from the United States where they were studying and playing for US college teams. With these two stalwarts, who were still registered with the Rangers, they expected to give Mehalla real “wahala” on the Saturday of the game.
Jimi Johnson, who played the character “Okoro” in the rested sit-com, “Village Headmaster”, would add to the incredible build-up before that legendary second leg with the song “Mehalla will see wahala”. He was all over NTA in the days before the match, strumming his guitar and singing:
“Mehalla o, Mehalla
Mehalla will see wahala
When the cup will come
I will drink palmwine with it”.
The passionate interest in this game in the Coal City, and in much of the East of Nigeria was no surprise to anyone who knew what the Rangers meant to the people of that region. As the legendary Daily Times sports commentator, Tunde Oshuntolu famously said, the Rangers – a team that emerged from the ashes of a civil war – embodied the fighting spirit of the Igbo people. To the Easterners, the Rangers were much more than a football club. They were a religion.
That was why, on the morning tickets went on sale, all the “popular side” tickets sold out in an hour. That was why hundreds of people from as far away as Asaba, Lagos and Kano camped out for almost two weeks on the grounds of the Enugu Sports Stadium waiting for the game. That was why the stadium was full by 7am on the day of a game that was due to kick-off at 3.00pm. That was why no one left his seat during a terrific tropical downpour that drenched all the “popular side” spectators – luckily the sun soon came out to dry everyone.
In the days before the game, interest grew steadily across the country, and soon, all of Nigeria was rooting for Rangers. It was initially announced that it would not be shown live on television in the Coal City, but as tickets sold out quickly, that decision was reversed.
As game time approached, the Enugu Sports Stadium was awash in brilliant sunshine, a marked contrast from the near darkness wrought by the cumulonimbus thunder clouds of a few hours earlier. The anticipation was heart-attack intense in a stadium filled with brightly dressed nervous people – based on the away goals rule, Rangers needed to score two without letting in any to win on goal aggregate. People wondered what the line-up was going to be, and if the loss of Mecha and Nwosu would harm Rangers.
Mehalla came onto the field first to terrific boos from the crowd. Fans justified this by saying that the fans in Mehalla did the same thing, and worse; the Enugu fans also claimed that Mehalla deserved all the boos they could get for playing the first leg in a motor park instead of a real stadium. These patriotic fictions helped ease the tension before the game.
Mehella wore dark-hue white splitter but were made to change because Rangers wore all white even though the jerseys didn’t look that confusing; moreover, Rangers were all black players whereas Mehalla players all looked white.
To thunderous roars of approval, Rangers entered the stadium in single file led by Captain Christian Chukwu, their spotless all-white outfit, almost shining in the sunlight, giving them, it seemed, a god-like aura. Adoring fans blew their lungs out with screaming and shouting, hoping to carry the team forward by the sheer force of lung power. The team itself looked calm and composed, with a firm intensity of purpose fixed on their faces. The line-up was soon revealed. Ezeani would not play. But Damian Odoh, alias Araby Cho-cho, a hard-tackling defensive midfielder who had achieved fame and notoriety with the Godwin Ogbueze-led St. Theresa’s secondary school team, would replace the injured Nwosu at left-centre back. Another talented former schoolboy, IhechukwuEzidinmma replaced Eagles’ man Mecha at left back. The back four was completed by Ufele (RB) and Chukwu (RCB). The legendary Emmanuel ‘tallest’ Okalla was in goal. Others were Emeka Onyedika, Dominic ‘Alhaji’ Nwobodo, Ogidi Ibeabuchi, Christian Chukwu, Chimezie Ngadi, Nwabueze Nwankwo, Harrison Mecha.
In midfield, the defensive anchorman was the powerfully built Nwabueze “Bulldozer” Nwankwo; the playmaker was Kendo Illodigwe; on right wing, Emeka Onyedika, on the left wing, Ogidi Ibeabuchi; Matt Obianika and Chimezie Ngadi were forwards.
If you thought fan support at the entrance of the Rangers was loud, you needed to hear the eardrum-shattering shout when the game began. And if you thought that was loud, it was nothing compared to the pandemonium when Obianika scored in the first minute in a goalmouth scramble. In the stadium, the earthshaking “Gooaaaalllll!!!!” went on for close to five minutes after the game resumed. And then when the cheering lessened – for it never really stopped throughout the game – you could hear the Coal City still roaring its approval all around outside; not to mention the tinkers at Ogbete Market who were banging madly on their metal pots and pans, creating a terrific racket that must have been audible as far away as Lagos.
The game was actually one-sided. Mehalla played as if they came to defend their 3-1 win, and they rarely ventured beyond the halfway line. When they did, though, the mighty Rangers defense, thought to be the best in the country at the time, held. The Mehalla dangerman, the right winger who had caused the Rangers so much okpanikor in the first leg with his fearsome rampaging down the flanks, was tamed, trussed up, and pocketed by the rookie tandem of Odoh and Ezidinmma. Odoh, particularly, subjected the right winger to several ferocious intimidating tackles, which soon accomplished their aim – the Mehalla right winger quickly passed off the ball any time Odoh gave him one of his patented black looks.
Just before half time, in another goalmouth scramble, Kendo poked the ball into the net. You thought the first goal was the loudest noise you had ever heard? You thought wrong. The famous Biafran “Ogbunigwe” landmines couldn’t have made the seismic noise the entire country made when Kendo scored. The ground shook and continued to shake until half-time. The Ogbete tinkers continued to bang away well into the second half in celebration of the goal that, if Mehalla did not score, ensured Rangers’ advance to the final.
At the beginning of the second half, Kendo unfortunately punched one of the Mehalla defenders and was sent off. Midway in Mehalla’s part of the field outside the box, Ilodigwe dribbled past Mehalla’s center-back, who tackled him from behind; Ilodigwe then fell down and the Mehalla player stepped on Ilodigwe’s face and head with the stud of his boot; Ilodigwe quickly got up and punched him on the nose. The stadium went quiet when Ilodigwe was sent off, afraid that this was the stupid break Mehalla were looking for. In any other place, people would have given vent to their frustrations at Kendo’s foolishness. But the Rangers were gods in the eyes of the Coal City. So there was hardly a murmur about it during or after the game.
Aside this, the game was not rough and there were very few rough play partly because the game was played mostly (90%) in Mehalla’s half of the field and because the Mehalla players hardly got hold of the ball through the entire game. According to other non-Igbo spectators, Rangers used serious “jam body” to win the match, they were hacking the Egyptians like no man business. AlsoMehalla were confused by the lightning speed and accuracy of Rangers ball movement.
The Rangers made a substitution, removing Ngadi and bringing on aging ex-skipper and center forward Dominic Nwobodo whom the crowd welcomed with chants of “Experience! Experience! Experience!” Nwobodo justified the acclaim by holding up the ball, running down Mehalla ball carriers and stripping them of the ball, and three quarters into the second half, dispossessing a Mehalla player, dribbling a couple and crossing the ball from the left for Ogidi Ibeabuchi to hammer into the net.
IT IS A GOOOOAAAALLLL!!!!!
3:0 spells party time, and Enugu was rocking. Now, you could hear singing and chanting outside the stadium. For the remaining 15 minutes, the wizard of dribble, Emeka Onyedika took over the game. He ran at the Mehalla defense again and again, making them look stupid, and confused and demoralised. The crowd loved it, and it was “Ey, ey, ey, oooo,” time. At the final whistle, people rushed out of the stadium onto the street where a full scale fiesta was already going on. Everybody was celebrating, from grandmas to new born babies o! Even those who hated Rangers, notably some Vasco supporters, and some who thought the team was UkpabiAsika’s the Administrator of the East Central State right after the civil war, and generally considered a traitor) baby, and thus not deserving of the unstinting love bestowed on them by the Igbo people, were celebrating, and celebrating madly.
That game must have been repeated at least one thousand times on television in the following two weeks, with commentators analyzing every single kick. It was without doubt a day to be remembered.
The song that was sang in memory of this game was: Enugu Rangers beat Mehalla. Mehalla turn and turn to wahala. Enugu Rangers, Enugu Rangers, Enugu Rangers.
Sadly, the cup didn’t come, as Hafia of Conakry beat Rangers in the final.