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Enugu Rangers' epic cup win wraps up torrid year for Nigerian football

00:54 BST 26/10/2018
Kelvin Itoya - Enugu Rangers
The Flying Antelopes recorded a massive comeback which will go down as the biggest high in what was a low year for the game in the country

COMMENT    By Kunle Fayiga      Follow on Twitter

Wednesday's Aiteo Cup final between Kano Pillars and Enugu Rangers brought back memories of Liverpool's 2005 Champions League final victory over AC Milan.

In both matches, the winning side ultimately bounced back from a three-goal deficit to draw 3-3 in regulation time before winning the title on penalties.

In Istanbul, 13 years ago, it was the underdogs, up against a star-studded side, who ultimately battled back against the odds to achieve success and end a long wait to regain a particular title.

On Wednesday, it was a parallel narrative, as Rangers ended their 35-year wait for the Nigerian Cup after a roller-coaster contest.

Sai Masu Gida were seen as the favourites for the match after their strong form in the Nigeria Professional League and because of the presence of NPFL top scorer Junior Lokosa.

Rangers, by contrast, aren't coming off the back of a poor season, but didn't appear to have a team to truly trouble the men from the Groundnut Pyramid City.

Pillars established a 3-0 lead after 48 minutes courtesy of veteran captain Rabiu Ali, Alhassan Ibrahim and Nyima Nwagua, and it remained that way until Gbenga Ogunbote’s side started their charge in the last 13 minutes of the game via Kelvin Itoya, Chidera Ezeh and former Shooting Stars forward Ajani Ibrahim, who sent the Stephen Keshi Stadium crowd into raptures with his equaliser in injury time.

Next, it was to penalties, and Pillars missed two of their four spot kicks while Rangers converted all theirs to win 4-2.

The result sees Rangers win their sixth Federation Cup title and their first since 1983. It was also the first competitive title for Ogunbote in a managerial career that has seen him save sides like Shooting Stars and the now-defunct Sharks from relegation while taking Sunshine Stars to the Caf Champions League and Confederation Cup semi-finals.

He's been a major advantage for the Flying Antelopes, who had terrible 2017 in the NPFL where they were far away from defending the title they won in 2016, finishing 13th, with significant managerial instability that saw key players and winning coach Imama Amapakabo depart the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium.

Above all, the result in the Delta State capital on Wednesday brings an end to a horrid year for club football in the country, with the NPFL ending abruptly due to the worthless power tussle in the Nigeria Football Federation. This starved teams and players from showing more, ending the top flight at a point where it was difficult to conclude who the real winners and losers were.

The Federation Cup was supposed to provide much-needed succour, but poor planning, organisation, branding, awareness and a jam-packed list of fixtures, especially a ridiculous group phase format that should have been a round-of-16 knockout stage, did not give the competition the much-needed flavour it deserved.

The competition should not really have been upheld considering the ramblings of the NFF, but the League Management Company's desire to provide a representative for next year’s Champions League and Confederation Cup meant the country’s oldest cup competition had to be held in whichever way it could.

After a gruelling 79 games in the space of 45 days, Enugu Rangers are Federation Cup champions, and will be flying the country’s colours in the 2018-2019 Confederation Cup.

They did participate in the second-tier African football competition last year, but lost out 5-2 on aggregate to Zambia’s Zesco United in the final play-off round.

This was after they were dumped out of the Champions League in the first qualifying round by Egyptian heavyweights SC Zamalek.

It remains to be seen whether the Coal City outfit can improve on this return next season, but on Wednesday they provided one of the greatest moments in the history of the Nigerian game, a memory their fans will retain for ever, and ensured that 2018 ends on a positive note for the nation's football.