The newly renovated Enyimba International Stadium stood still, heart in mouth.
Fast forward a few seconds later, fans could not contain their excitement as dark stands found light in undiluted celebrations.
“Honestly, I was tensed,” the Enyimba FC captain confessed to AIPS. “I had so many things on my mind.”Now-or-never moment
Indeed, with the weight of not just a club but a country on his shoulders, three options consumed Udoh’s thoughts.
“I called my teammate and said ‘you can shoot, let me pass the ball for you to shoot’. He agreed. But on a second thought I said ‘no, do you know what you are going to do? Go into the box let me play the ball for you so you could see if you can try to get a penalty’. But when he entered into the 18 yard box, I looked at the setup and saw that that pattern was not going to work.
“Then I looked at the position of the keeper and told myself ‘I can do it’. Football is risk; if I play it over, the fans will shout, if I score, they will appreciate. I knew that was the last chance of the game, so I took the gamble and it paid off.”
The free kick bounced off the crossbar unto the path of substitute Wasiu Alalade who pounced on the opportunity to give the hosts a much desired 1-0 victory over CARA Brazzaville in their final group game of the ongoing CAF Confederation Cup, and most importantly, progress to the quarter finals of the competition as group leaders.
After almost three years, there was no better way to celebrate the homecoming of the People’s Elephant, who last played a match on their home turf in November 2015. No place like home
From Umuahia, to Port Harcourt, then Calabar, the most successful club in Nigeria has had to endure an uncomfortable nomadic experience while their stadium underwent renovation – one that lasted way longer than it should have.
Coming off a 2015 season where an unbeaten home streak inspired them to a record seventh league title, Enyimba’s move was immediately characterized by a drop-off in results. They finished 10th in the league
in their first year of having to adopt a home ground - their lowest position in 17 years.
Subsequently, though, they did manage to stay competitive in spite of the challenges of literally being homeless - finishing third in the 2016/17 season to secure a CAF Confederation Cup slot, and fourth in the just abruptly concluded season
Their return home may have taken longer than expected due to delays but Chairman of Enyimba FC, Felix Anyasi-Agwu, believes the quality of work done in their absence was worth the wait.
He explained to AIPS: “We left here because our facility was not up to the standard that is befitting of the club, Enyimba and by the time we got back, we met a whole lot of difference. Everybody feels good, quite encouraged and inspired to do more.
“It’s a challenge to us because to whom much is given, much is expected. So we are really inspired by our new environment and we have to give credit to the government and most especially the governor himself, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, who made it possible. It was not just about renovating the facility. We did so with a whole lot of quality. So it’s actually the quality of job that people are celebrating.”
This lush green pitch has continued to attract the most rave reviews. (Photo by Twitter/@EnyimbaFC)
Among the newly installed facilities at the stadium, the lush green pitch has continued to attract the most rave reviews. Even ex-internationals hailed the playing surface after featuring in a match which launched the renovated stadium on August 26, three days before the must-win CARA Brazaville game.
Monimichelle Sports Facility Construction Limited is the Nigerian-based company that is responsible for making the Enyimba Stadium the most talked-about in the country at the moment, and AIPS spoke with the president of the company, Ebi Egbe.
He said: “You know the future of playing surface is going synthetic right now. 90 percent of the pitches that was used for the Russia 2018 World Cup were synthetic infused with natural elements. That’s the same thing that we have at the Aba stadium. Our pitch is 95 percent natural; it looks natural, it feels natural.
“Foot stability is the same with a properly manicured natural turf, the ball movement is the same with a properly manicured natural turf and my pitches have that extra comfort on the feet because it’s soft. The players can actually play longer hours on our playing surface than any other playing surface in the world today. It is the closest technology has gotten to a natural turf.”
Mfon Udoh described the pitch as “one of the best artificial turfs I have ever played on”. He acknowledged that the turf is soft, allows for very good flow of football and limits the risks of one getting injured.
Udoh also expressed delight at the “very good drainage system” at the stadium which ensures that the pitch is not water-logged after a heavy downpour. It rained heavily prior to the start of the match against CARA Brazaville but that did not affect the playing surface.
Meanwhile for Enyimba head coach Usman Abdallah, understanding the pitch very well is key to avoiding a scenario where other teams will teach them how to use it.Super Eagles
Egbe has even boasted that: "the best place for our national team now, is Aba. Because the Aba surface is the same as the Russian surface where Nigeria played the World Cup."
He however emphasized that: "maintenance is the most important part of what we have done in Aba because our pitch needs everyday care. We look after our pitches like babies."Patient Fans
From the city of Aba to the rest of the world, Enyimba fans have played an integral role in the club’s successes, which includes two back to back CAF Champions League titles – the most prestigious accolade of club football in Africa.
In Aba, unlike in many other parts of the country, fans turn up in their numbers on any day of the week to support their team. This was what the club had missed a great deal.
The fans have also missed their team terribly, hence a sold-out crowd expressed unusual patience as they watched the first competitive match that marked Enyimba’s return.
“When we played against CARA Brazaville and we didn’t score a goal, I was expecting them to boo us. Normally that’s what they do. No matter what you play, if you don’t score a goal, you don’t give them victory, at a point they start to boo you,” Udoh said.
“But that particular day, they didn’t boo us they kept supporting us till the very last minute before the goal came. So I was wondering, ‘why is this happening, is it because we just came back, or they are trying to give us the benefit of the doubt?’ They are wonderful,” he concluded.In the spotlight
Enyimba are the only Nigerian club left in this year’s CAF club competitions and the country is dependent on the Aba giants' progress to restore their two spots for each of CAF's continental competitions.
This has put the spotlight on the People's Elephant and their return home. Their eventual qualification to the quarter finals of the Confederation Cup earned the country at least 10 points on the African football rankings.
(L-R) Governor of Abia State, Okezie Ikpeazu and Chairman of Enyimba FC, Felix Anyasi-Agwu watching the team's first training session on their new turf. (Photo by Twitter/@EnyimbaFC)
The long-serving chairman of the club, Anyansi-Agwu understands that they need to take advantage of the hype around them at this time.
According to him, the benefits of their return has gone beyond football to having a huge impact in the economy of Aba, Abia State, as they are bound to attract people from within and outside the country.
"We have a strong asset which is the stadium and it’s expected to generate revenue. So it’s now for us to device various means to use what's been given to us to generate revenue for the club. It’s not going to be done overnight but serious steps are being taken to achieve all that. Enyimba will do a lot to capitalize on the euphoria of what we have at the moment. Our target is to be self sustained," Anyansi-Agwu, who was recently honoured by the Abia State government, explained.Step by step
A quarter-final clash with Rayon Sports of Rwanda is next on the agenda for Enyimba in the CAF Confederation Cup and they have the privilege of playing the first leg away from home this weekend.
"I don’t think they are an easy team," said Coach Abdallah. "Because any team you see in this stage have come a long way. They are a very good team I have followed their results and they are doing very well."
"The most important thing now is for us to qualify for the semi-finals. For us to win the competition we have to go through all the stages," he added. History in the making?
No Nigerian team has ever won the CAF Confederation Cup so Enyimba will make history if they eventually do so this season.
Mfon Udoh told AIPS that hardwork, dedication and sacrifice alongside the drive to "write our names in the history books" is what has brought them this far in the competition. And they want to go all the way.
ABA, September 13, 2018 - About a minute left of extra time, Mfon Udoh stood behind the ball just outside the box as he looked to save the day in a match of which anything short of victory could spell doom.