Enyimba, story of a legend
Enyimba International Football Club, founded in 1976, is the Nigerian league title holder. Here is the story of how it has become the biggest club in the country.
The most memorable performances are usually filled with anecdotes. During the spring of 2003, Enyimba International FC went to Senegal to play an African Champions League second round match against ASC Jeanne d’Arc Dakar. One year before, the club was ruled out of the competition at the same stage by ASEC Mimosas. This defeat marked a turning point for the Nigerian giants as they decided to renovate their stadium, based in Aba, in order to host continental matches here rather than in Calabar, some 150 kilometres east from home. As they were about to head for Dakar, the Enyimba staff members had the trauma of the defeat in mind. Before the trip, the team’s caretaker slipped a can of petrol in his suitcase. People then asked why and he only replied, laughing: “You will know soon enough…” Well, here is why: on match day, he left the hotel earlier to go to the Demba Diop stadium where Enyimba would play after their comfortable first-leg triumph (4-0). In the dressing room, he found fresh blood spread over the seats, which he cleaned with the petrol he brought. Welcome to the Champions League, a universe where you must find a way to break the spells cast at you by the opponents. Enyimba and Dakar drew (0-0). In December 2003, after a brilliant tournament, Enyimba won their first Champions League, defeating Ismaily SC in final (2-0, 0-1). “It just felt like a normal outcome to us,” says goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, who was 21 back then.
“People feared us”
And normal it was, as Enyimba had been built to reach the top: a year later, the club would keep its crown by beating Étoile du Sahel. What is the secret formula? “It is just that Enyimba was made to win everything,” says Enyeama. “In the 2000s, the club was as dominant as PSG today in France.” In fact, the club won six Nigeria leagues from 2001 to 2010, two national cups, three super cups, two Champions League and two Africa super cups with quite a young squad including future international players (Enyeama, Nwaneri, Tico) led by clever coaches such as Shaibu Amodu, Kadiri Ikhana and Okey Emordi. It was made possible by Orji Uzor Kalu, owner of many newspapers who was elected governor of the Abia state in 1999 and invested a lot in the club. “People feared us. We had the best players in the country, the best youngsters in Nigeria, severe coaches… Take Kadiri Ikhana for instance. He worked like José Mourinho, he had his own football concepts and wanted us to walk, not to talk. We needed such a leader and it worked,” adds Vincent Enyeama, who experienced one of the most iconic moments of that era.
San Siro, the fall and the comeback
A month after they won their first-ever league title, Enyimba went to San Siro, in August 2001, to face Internazionale. Actually, they were there to cast a favourable light on Ronaldo, who would play his first match after suffering a complete rupture of the kneecap tendon during the Coppa Italia final first leg against Lazio, more than a year before, in April 2000. Enyeama, who was on the bench for this match, says : “It was a joke, really… We had played the day before. We then flew for 10 hours to Milan. We could not be competitive. The actual winner was Ronaldo.” The Brazilian striker played 35 minutes that day, as Inter sailed through the match. They won 7-0, Vieri scoring four goals in a match Enyimba should not have played, as the club was called at the last minute to replace the Senegal national team. However, the most important for them was to step into the limelight through this event. Afterwards, their crowns would speak for themselves. As a city, Aba was mostly famous for its economic hub where many commercial exchanges and merchandise shipping to Asia and Europe were made. Enyimba made it a football city as well, just like Kano, Brass and Port Harcourt. Unfortunately, when Orji Uzor Kalu quit in 2007, the new giant started to decline, losing some sponsors and having problems with the renovation work of its stadium in the process. Kano Pillars FC became the main club of the 2010s and Enyimba last reached the African Champions League semis in 2011. But giants never die: last June, Enyimba International FC was crowned Nigeria champion once again. Because after all, rising from the ashes is what great clubs are about.