Enyimba: The giant that missed its moment
Just last week, the draw for the Group Stage of the CAF Confederation Cup was held in Cairo. While four Nigerian clubs contested the final round of qualifying, only one made it through to represent the country: Enyimba.
It served to drive home a painful truth, one which we have sought to either deny or ignore. Nigerian club football is in crisis.
It is not, however, the purpose of this column to lament that. Instead, let us consider that one club that has, as it were, covered the nakedness of the world’s most populous black nation.
In fact, one might say Enyimba have long been in that business. In 2003, they became the first, and only team from Nigeria to lift the CAF Champions League trophy. They would then repeat the feat a year later, to widespread acclaim. It was a time when Nigerian clubs were barely making any sort of appreciable tracks in the sand of the CAF landscape.
Enyimba had the benefit of a benefactor, the football-crazy former Abia State Governor Orji Uzor Kalu, whose ceaseless investment led the club to acquire and stockpile the very best legs on the local scene. Such were the riches in playing personnel that legendary manager Kadiri Ikhana, while preparing for the 2003 final, cracked under the pressure of selecting his Matchday squad and fell away in a faint!
Those wins gave Enyimba a name and a reputation, not just in Africa, but all over the world. Simultaneously, the Aba side were dominant at home, winning a slew of titles and notable claiming every trophy on offer in 2004.
All of this is to emphasize just how much of a headstart Enyimba had over the rest of the clubs in Nigeria, and how it was on the cusp of creating a proper footballing dynasty.
It, sadly, never happened. Predictably for a club whose major source of finance was the state government, soon as Kalu left office, there was an unavoidable slowing down. It is the bane of Nigerian league football that, with most of the clubs run by government, a club’s success is tied to the whim of whoever the Governor is.
This, however, is something that could have been seen coming from a mile away. With the bare name recognition that the Enyimba brand brought, and still brings, there could have been a number of financial investments in club infrastructure to create a lasting legacy, to transcend mere handouts by the government of the day.
If there was any club that had the potential and the opportunity to wean itself off that dependence, it was Enyimba.
Instead, to observe the club in its current state is to despair. There is no structure on the ground to which the club could possibly put its name. There is no Club House, and the club Chairman, Chief Felix Anyansi Agwu, has his office inside the rowdy, cluttered and filthy Aba market.
The club has been shut out of its stadium for the past three years due to a government renovation project that has seen more delays and false starts than an Olympic sprint final.
The club has not been able to leverage merchandising either, and has been without a shirt sponsor for the past half-decade.
In a league where rivals Akwa United and Heartland have secured partnerships with an official airline, Enyimba continues to embark on grueling cross-country road trips.
It is sad, really, to see Enyimba fritter away every advantage they had in the mid-2000s. They are no longer the richest club in the country, neither can they boast the attendances Kano Pillars can.
They are more or less in the stone age with regard to travel logistics, and have even been outstripped when it comes to masterminding a dominant season or faultless campaign.
While, in the present, they look to be performing healthily enough in the league, and are in a Confederation Cup group they shouldn’t struggle to come through, the club really could have been so much more.
As it is, they scraped through by the skin of their teeth anyway, and had to call in every shred of experience garnered over the years, especially by Anyansi.
For a man who has traveled round the continent and the world, and observed at close quarters how big the business of football is, it is slightly disappointing though that the radius of his expertise is so small.
Enyimba has, quite predictably, become a shell of what it might have been.