When Christian Chukwu coached Rangers International to their sixth league title in 1984, little did he know 32 agonising years would pass before his beloved Flying Antelopes would come this close to the title.
Settling to a glass cup of ice cold chapman just before the interview started, he recalled with fondness the last time it happened.
“I retired from active football in 1982. My first coaching stint was with Rangers. We won the title in 1984 which was basically a routine exercise at that time for Rangers. We had great players. But if anyone had told me that year that it would take this long to become Nigerian champions again, I would have disagreed,” he told npfl.ng.
Chukwu, affectionately referred to as ‘Chairman,’ is by every measure a Nigerian football legend. He had in 1980 led the then Green Eagles (now Super Eagles) to the country’s first Africa Cup of Nations triumph. That was in the height of regular lifting of silverware in his career.
He left Rangers when a combination of mitigating factors sapped his motivation. Stints within Nigerian club and national team set-ups and in the middle east nation of Jordan, Kenya in the East of Africa and back to Nigeria with Heartland have filled his 32-year wait to see Rangers return to the zenith of Nigerian football.
These days, he acts as consultant and ambassador to Rangers, so he knows the inner workings of all that has been done to revive Rangers.
“We have to thank a most determined leader, our governor, Lawrence Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, who said he would spare nothing to see Rangers return to the very top. He formed a new board and management for the club and here we are today, smiles on our face,” Chukwu said.
Chukwu also identified stability as a major factor. “The current management has been in charge for about five to six years. Coach Imama Amapakabo has also been with us for the second season. That’s the sort of stability absent within many Nigerian clubs. You cannot but point to such factors in the revival of the club.
“We are not getting ahead of ourselves, but trust me, I think I would cry tears of joy and relief when Okey Odita, as we all pray, lifts the NPFL trophy on Sunday.”
Rangers International, to many within Nigeria and in the diaspora, is more than a club. Formed in 1970, it was to many, the sporting symbol of unity the Igbos used in reintegrating back to Nigeria after the civil war. Chukwu agrees.
“It was important the club was doing well back in the 1970s. We had setbacks of course, but millions of Igbo men and women came to see Rangers as their identity when they needed to align back to Nigeria. They saw in the team a resilience needed by people who have just come out of a terrible war. It was easy to identify with the club,” he said.
Most of today’s heroes were not even born the last time Rangers were champions of Nigeria. Asked if youngsters like Obinna Nwobodo, Chisom Egbuchulam recognise would appreciate the history behind the institution they play for, Chukwu did not mince words. “We keep telling them Rangers of old. We keep admonishing them that it is a privilege to wear Rangers jersey. They are told that some past heroes sweated to build the name of the club,” he said with a wide grin.
He drew his longest flow of the chapman drink through the straw before revealing that his mobile telephone has been kept busy by calls from Rangers supporters from different countries offering advice to the players through him on why they must not celebrate just yet and on the need to approach Sunday’s match against El-Kanemi as if they needed all three points. Some of the callers are past Rangers players.
It was talk of the former teammates that made him remember the modest rewards they got those days from winning laurels. “We were amateurs back in those days. We were hardly rewarded at club level when we won trophies.
“But we were content. It is a different ball game today of course. They are rewarded with money, land and cars, we amateurs did not get that at club level, we only did when we won the Nations Cup for Nigeria in 1980. Things have changed now for Nigerian club players,” he said, laughing.
Many millionaire supporters of Rangers are queueing up to splash handsome rewards on their heroes should they cross the line on Sunday. Chukwu would love that of course, but for the Chairman, all must wait until his 32-year pain of not witnessing a Rangers trophy celebration is officially ended at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium.