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Baptism of fire for ‘Papilo’ Nwankwo, Enyimba’s supremo

Following recent disappointing performances by Nigeria’s most successful football club, Enyimba FC of Aba, one is left with no choice but to commiserate with one…

Following recent disappointing performances by Nigeria’s most successful football club, Enyimba FC of Aba, one is left with no choice but to commiserate with one of Africa’s most decorated players, Kanu Nwankwo ‘ Papilo’ who is the chairman of the club.

After they were bundled out of the ongoing CAF Champions League at the first preliminary round, the ‘Peoples Elephants’ as Enyimba are popularly called have just exited the inaugural edition of the Africa Football League (AFL) in the most embarrassing manner. All these failures have combined to put the leadership of the club under tremendous pressure. Already, those who opposed Kanu’s appointment are calling for his sack.

It will be recalled that a few days after Enyimba won their 9th domestic league title at the Championship Playoff which was staged in Lagos, the Governor of Abia, State, Alex Otti, announced the appointment of Kanu as the new chairman of the club, which effectively ended the over 24 years reign of Chief Felix Anyansi-Agwu

The governor’s decision to replace the well-celebrated football administrator, Anyansi-Agwu with Kanu shocked many people because the latter had no known record in football administration. Consequently, there were mixed reactions because some felt Anyansi who led the club to two Africa Champions League titles and nine NPFL titles had overstayed his welcome while some said the new chairman lacked the prerequisite knowledge and experience to take the ‘elephants’ to higher heights.

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Personally, I was happy that Otti in his wisdom had decided to recognise and reward Kanu’s enormous contributions to Nigerian football. No matter his poor background in football administration, some of us still see Kanu’s appointment as a just reward for a faithful servant of the game.

Moreover, only a few people know that the lanky Kanu who was born in Owerri and started his professional football career in 1992 at Iwuanyanwu Nationale is an indigene of Abia State. He started out when he was less than 17 years and went on to win almost all the most important trophies in world football. As a matter of fact, the only important trophies that eluded him are the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) trophy. He couldn’t win the World Cup because, since Nigeria’s debut in 1994, the Super Eagles are yet to reach the semi-finals. And when Nigeria won the AFCON in 1980, 1994 and 2013, Kanu wasn’t in the victorious squads.

In his career which lasted for 20 years, Kanu who inspired Nigeria to victory at the 1993 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Japan and the 1996 Olympics in the USA, played for some of Europe’s top clubs like Ajax, Serie A giants Inter Milan, Arsenal, West Brom and Portsmouth in the English Premiership. In the course of his illustrious career, he won the prestigious UEFA Champions League with Ajax in 1995 under Louis Van Gaal, three FA Cup and two African Player of the Year awards amongst others. It is also interesting to note that he made the third most-substitutes appearances in Premier League history, appearing from the bench 118 times. In his active days, he was a game-changer.

However, what many of us will never forget about him in a hurry is what he did for Nigeria’s Dream Team I against Brazil at the 1996 Olympics. With a bulk of the 1994 AFCON winning squad in its fold, the team coached by Dutchman Jo Bonfrere had put up brilliant displays to set up the historic semi-finals clash with Brazil despite a slim 0-1 loss in the final group match. So, the match provided an opportunity for the Dream Team to avenge the defeat in the hands of their more endowed opponents.

But on the D-day, the Olympic Eagles as the underdogs, fell behind without much ado as Flavio put Brazil ahead in the first minute of the match. The jittery Eagles were lucky to be left off the hook by Roberto Carlos own goal in the 20th minute. However, Bebeto and Flavio scored again to restore Brazil’s lead as the one-sided first half ended 3-1.

On resumption, the South Americans maintained their dominance so there was no reason to even imagine any comeback from the Dream Team. As a matter of fact, only incurable optimists among Nigerians stayed tuned. Before the resurgence began, most had switched off their Tv and radio sets in frustration. However, Victor Ikpeba the ‘Prince of Monaco’ pulled one back in the 78th minute to start the fightback. Still, there were doubts because nobody saw the miracle that was to shock the whole world.

However, before the Brazilians could know what was happening, the lanky ‘Papilo’ scored at the death to take the match to extra time. At that time, most Nigerians who had gone to sleep were awakened by the wild jubilations that echoed around the country. And four minutes into the extra-time, Nigeria got on top of Brazil as Kanu the magician had conjured the winning goal out of nothing to break the hearts of the more illustrious South Americans. That was how Kanu masterminded the historic 4-3 win against the Brazilians. The Dream Team then went on to conquer another South American giant, Argentina in the finals for Africa’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in football.

Sadly, it is this same Kanu who brought so much joy to Nigerians with his sleek and exquisite football skills that is about to be rubbished by the average players of Enyimba. When I watched the team play the return leg of the Africa Football League tournament against Wydad, I almost shed tears. The players were so ordinary that their opponents used them as training materials. In the end, they lost 0-3 to crash out on 4-0 aggregate. Now, everyone is talking about how Enyimba have brought so much shame to Nigeria and the man under fire is no other person than our own ‘Papilo’.

Maybe Anyansi and his supporters will be grinning from ear to ear because to them it is Kanu who is fumbling and not Enyimba as a football club. Even if this is the case, it is too early to write off the Arsenal legend. Moreover, had Enyimba judiciously utilised the money from two victories in the Champions League and the sale of some of their prized assets like Anayo Iwuala, Kanu would have inherited a more formidable team.

Therefore, it may be right to say ‘Papilo’ took over a club without a clearly defined structure. This is not surprising because Enyimba is just another club in the NPFL where amateurs pretend that they are playing professional football. So even if Anyansi is brought back as some people may wish, Enyimba will remain a local champion as they have been since 2005 unless necessary changes are made.

It is indeed disappointing that Chief Anyansi-Agwu, the first vice-president of the NFF led the club for so many years, but failed to transform Enyimba into a powerhouse in African football. The ‘People’s Elephants’ are still too small to eat at the same table with the likes of Al Ahly of Egypt, Wydad, Esperance of Tunis, TP Mazembe and even Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa.

Well, what is happening now in Enyimba is nothing but a baptism of fire for ‘Papilo’. However, some of us are still hoping that he will quickly steady the sinking ship to save his hard-earned reputation as one of Africa’s finest and most successful football players. After all, Enyimba crashed out of the AFL but cashed out with close to N1 Billion which is enough money to use in rebuilding the club.

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