HOW THEY MOVED UP THE LADDER.
… With all the challenges Enyimba FC faced in the 90s, outlined in Part 1 of this sequel, things started looking up for the most successful club in Nigeria’s Football history, in 1999 when Orji Uzor Kalu was elected Abia State Governor when Nigeria returned back to civilian rule.
Uzor Kalu, as it happened to be, went on to ensure adequate funding for the club. He also appointed Felix Anyansi Agwu as the new chairman of the club, who in turn appointed Godwin Koko Uwa as the club’s first coach in the new dispensation.
The new face of The People’s Elephant brought good fortunes, with Uwa leading Enyimba to their first Nigerian championship title in the 2001 football calendar year, as well as winning the Nigerian Super Cup in October 2001 by beating Dolphins 2–0 in Maiduguri, Borno State. This milestone of been the Champions highlighted the start of Enyimba’s rise to prominence.
The Aba Warriors, for the first time, took part in international football in August 2001, when they were invited to play Internazionale at San Siro in a charity friendly which marked the return of Ronaldo after a 21-month on the sidelines due to injuries. Enyimba were humiliated 7–0, with Christian Vieri scoring four goals.
They also had their first continental competition in the 2002 CAF Champions League. However, with the unavailability of a befitting stadium in Aba, the club played their home matches in Calabar, a neighbouring town and the capital of the Cross River State.
Though Enyimba won their first round tie 5-3 (on aggregate) against Étoile Filante, they were eliminated in the second round by the 1998 Champions, Côte d’Ivoire’s ASEC Mimosas.
That sad defeat ironically happened to be another stepping stone for Enyimba, because it became the core reason for the club’s rebuilding of what used to be a substandard playing pitch into the Enyimba International Stadium, a 15,000 capacity stadium equipped with floodlights, electronic scoreboard and covered seats, which was later inspected by the CAF president Issa Hayatou and was officially approved for that year’s CAF Champions League matches.
Good tidings continued to blow in the way of the club as they went on to win their second league title in a roll in 2002, and that made them as the first Nigerian club to win the continent’s premier international club competition in the 2003 CAF Champions League by beating Ismaily of Egypt 2–1 on aggregate, under coach Kadiri Ikhana.
Coincidentally that success became the first time since 1996 that a Nigerian club had reached the final of CAF Champions League. Quite a number of star players from Enyimba’s 2003 continental success have since gone on to play for Nigeria (Vincent Enyeama, Obinna Nwaneri and Onyekachi Okonkwo) and Benin Republic National Team (Muri Ogunbiyi).
The Spirit of the Elephant truly came alive when Enyimba successfully defended their second consecutive African Champions League title in 2004, defeating Tunisia’s Étoile du Sahel in the finals. Although the club came second in the national championship in 2004 (behind Dolphins), Enyimba won the Double in 2005 – winning their first Nigerian Cup and fourth Nigerian championship.
It still doesn’t end there, watch out for Part 3 of this unique story of this Abia Warriors…