In what should rank as one of the most spectacular final matches of the National Cup in its 73-year history, Rangers International of Enugu came from three goals down to turn the table against Kano Pillars and win on penalties in Asaba on Wednesday evening.
A quintessential game of two halves, the 1977 Africa Cup Winners’ Cup champions were unbelievably poor in the first half and remarkably brilliant in the second, and hung onto their final period luck to prevail in the penalty shoot-out as Pillars imploded on the turf of the Stephen Keshi Stadium.
The Flying Antelopes on the field, as well as their fans in the stands, were a pathetic sight to behold as the boys from Kano, inspired by the creativity of ageless Rabiu Ali in the middle and the pace of Junior Lokosa, ran them ragged in an incredibly one-sided first half.
Lokosa, Bright Silas and goalscorers Ali and Ibrahim Alhassan were in imperious form, and as the clock wound down gradually in the opening period, they even got the ball in the net again only for Referee Adebimpe Quadri to spot an infringement in the build-up.
The third was not long in coming. Nyima Nwagwua shot past Olufemi Thomas from a quick counter-attack with only five minutes in the second half and dignitaries and spectators thought the match was won and lost.
However, Rangers had other ideas. Coach Gbenga Ogunbote ejected the jittery Thomas for Nana Bonsu and sent in Ajani Ibrahim for Chiamaka Madu. Rangers were re-invigorated and after substitute Kelvin Itoya pulled one back in the 79th minute and Chidera Ezeh got the second four minutes later, the neutrals began to rout for the Antelopes.
With the tide of the game and the psychological effect on Sai Masu Gida, it was no surprise when Rangers equalized a minute into added time through substitute Ajani Ibrahim.
In the shoot-out, Pillars’ captain Rabiu Ali booted his kick over the bar and Nana Bonsu saved from Jimoh Ismail, leaving Isaac Loute to score and send Rangers to next year’s CAF Confederation Cup.
The winners were presented with the dummy of a N25million cheque by sponsors AITEO, while Pillars went home N10 million richer.
Governors Ifeanyi Okowa and Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Delta and Enugu States respectively; Deputy Governors Nasiru Yusuf Gawuna and Philip Shaibu of Edo State; Deputy Managing Director of Aiteo Group; the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Sports, Goni Bukar Lawan; Members of the NFF Executive Committee led by the President, Amaju Pinnick and; Members of the Delta State Executive Council were among dignitaries in the VVIP Box.