March of the People’s Elephant
How Enyimba became only the second team to retain the African Champions League
In December 2003 Enyimba, with victory over the Egyptian side Ismaily, became the first Nigerian side to win the Champions League. The ‘People’s Elephant’, as they are known, broke a 39-year drought with a 2-1 aggregate win at the end of a game that had featured two major on-field brawls, rioting in the stands and a delay before the post-match presentation ceremony: the tempestuousness seemed entirely appropriate given Nigeria’s frustrations in the competition.
Under the coach Kadiri Ikhana, who had begun his playing career with the army and had been part of Nigeria’s 1980 Cup of Nations winning squad, Enyimba romped through the preliminary rounds and, despite suffering a 6-1 defeat away to Ismaily in their second group game, beat them 4-2 back in Aba in their final game to edge out Simba SC of Tanzania and qualify for the semi-final.
They trailed in the away leg of the semi-final against USM Alger before the youngster Michael Ochei snatched an equaliser. “I was a strong fighter and very religious,” he said in an interview with MJ magazine. “I remember that everything I did then turned out perfect. Even the senior players would come to my room after a game and say, ‘Boy, how did you do that trick?’ I couldn’t tell them because I honestly didn’t know. I think God’s grace was strongly upon me.” A last-minute winner from Ekene Ezenwa in the second leg sealed their progress.
Enyimba won the home leg of the final 2-0 with goals from Emeka Nwanna and Ndidi Anumunu, but in Egypt Hosni Abd Rabbou pulled one back for Ismaily with a 27th-minute penalty. Enyimba dug in and as the game became increasingly frantic, punches and kicks were exchanged on both sides, culminating in two brawls, the second of which led to the game being held up for six minutes before it could be restarted. The violence spread to the stands, with the game ending amid a riot, missiles raining onto the pitch as Enyimba celebrated.
With hardly any away fans having made the trip, home fans attacked anybody who wasn’t identifiably one of them, including the police and journalists. One shirtless fan screamed obscenities at the BBC’s Farayi Mungazi, a Zimbabwean, assuming he was Nigerian. “An officer in riot gear whisked me away to the safety of the dressing-rooms,” he said. “I was to stay there for the next five hours as we waited for the orgy of violence, which had shifted away from the terraces into the streets of Ismailia, to end. When things eventually calmed down, I saw a scene outside the ground that resembled the aftermath of a bomb blast — cars with smashed-out windows and all kinds of debris strewn everywhere.”
That wasn’t the end of it, though. Ismaily protested that Enyimba had fielded Ahmed ‘Yaro Yaro’ Garba, noting that he had been registered with Kano Pillars in the Nigerian league that season, playing at least 15 matches, rendering him ineligible. Their evidence included footage of the third-place play-off in the Nigerian Cup between Kano Pillars and Sunshine Stars played on 25 October 2003 in which Garba scored. The Confederation of African Football eventually rejected their appeal on 7 June 2004 after being informed by the Nigerian football federation that the game had taken place in October 2002; it hadn’t.
Nonetheless, the success established Enyimba as a major power, giving them a prestige beyond that of the traditional giants of Enugu Rangers, Shooting Stars of Ibadan and Insurance of Benin, and gave a boost to the whole of Nigerian football, offering a template for others to follow.
Formed in November 1976, Enyimba were crowned Nigerian champions three times in a row before that memorable night in Egypt. They were well-conceived, well-financed, visible and consistently progressive and had risen in a decade from obscure provincial outfit to continental champion. The election of Orji Uzor Kalu as governor of Abia State in 1999 proved a turning point for the team. A passionate Enyimba fan, Kalu had risen to a position in which he was able to ensure a whole new level of funding for the team. With better player incentives, the once intractable problem of the mass exodus of players to foreign leagues came to an end. But Kalu was not content with one Champions League. The ambitious governor wanted more.
No team had ever retained the African Champions League, although TP Mazembe of DR Congo had defended it in its guise as the Champions Cup, lifting the trophy in 1967 and 1968. Ikhana left — in circumstances that have still not been adequately explained — and was replaced, to general surprise, by the comparatively inexperienced Okey Emordi.
Enyimba’s progress was far from serene. Although three goals in nine minutes seemed to have given them a convincing lead in their last-32 tie against ASC Diaraf, they conceded twice in the second leg in Senegal and were clinging on by the end. It took a late David Tyankale goal in Angola to see off Petro Atlético and get them into the group stage. They limped through it, losing their penultimate game to Africa Sport and then hanging on at 1-1 in Blantyre against Bakili Bullets when a goal would have eliminated them.
They were behind in both legs against Espérance but drew both 1-1 and won the tie on penalties — having brought on the reserve goalkeeper Dele Aiyenugba to replace Vincent Enyeama specifically for the shoot-out — to set up a final against anther Tunisian side, Étoile du Sahel. Emeka Nwanna gave Enyimba the lead in the away leg, but Étoile came back to win 2-1. The second leg was switched to Abuja because of security concerns. The goalkeeper Enyeama put Enyimba ahead with a penalty just before half-time and Mouri Ogunbiyi made it 3-2 on aggregate eight minutes after the break. But Kais Zouaghi levelled 10 minutes later and the final went to penalties. Again Aiyenugba came on for Enyeama, and again the tactic paid off as he saved Saber Ben Frej’s kick to give Enyimba the advantage. In the end it came down to Enyimba’s captain Obinna Nwaneri to convert the decisive kick and Enyimba had done what hadn’t been done in 36 years.
Fans poured on to the Abuja pitch and ripped up advertising hoardings as officials and players ran to the dressing-rooms. As the unruly celebrations continued and the police struggled to restore order, the presentation of the trophy had to be delayed by an hour.
“It was very easy for Enyimba because of the funding from governor Orji Uzor Kalu,” the lawyer and sports businessman Dudu Orumen said. “They recruited very good players who were well motivated with huge incentives. It was unprecedented in the history of Nigerian club football. But more significantly, the club chairman Felix-Anyansi Agwu discovered how to play politics of African football outside the pitch. Match day came with fewer problems because someone could stand up to other clubs on and off the field.”
Enyimba’s quest for a third straight title ended in the group stage the following year, with a defeat to Al-Ahly in Cairo. The club’s chairman, Felix Anyansi-Agwu, insisted Enyimba had been cheated. “There was definitely a conspiracy against us,” he said. “All the Arab teams didn’t want Enyimba in the next round because they’re scared of us. I think the system was manipulated to make sure that we don’t get to the next round.”
There was never any evidence, though, to back up his claim. Although they reached the semi-finals in 2008 and 2011, Enyimba have failed to reach such heights again. 10 years on, though, there remains great pride in having been the first Nigerian side to lift the title.