The 2012 Nigerian cup champions Heartland narrowly avoided a repeat of last year’s first round exit on Wednesday when they hosted fellow Nigerian National League side Insurance at the Dan Ayiam Stadium in Owerri.
Both teams campaign at the Southern Conference of the NNL where Heartland are on the verge of securing promotion back to the elite division, but matches between both sides have always been close to call.
In one of the Round of 64 games decided in midweek, Heartland (former Iwuanyawu Nationale) and Insurance, two teams who used to be household names in Nigerian club football in the 80s and 90s battled each other to a stalemate, requiring penalties to separate them as the competition’s format requires.
The ensuing shoot-out would have brought gory memories of Heartland’s painful exit last year at this stage and in this manner, in the hands of non-league side, Top World Football Club of Ado-Ekiti and such thoughts must have been exacerbated by Emmanuel Egesi’s miss of Heartland’s first kick.
However, in goalkeeper Ebele Obi, the Scientific Boys found a hero. A Saviour and match winner. Obi, elder brother of Super Eagles captain Mikel saved two spot kicks including the last of the evening taken by Insurance’s Mayewa Oriseweyima.
“I feel very very great,” a delirious Ebele told ACLSports after the game.
“At a point, I thought maybe we have lost the game. But when it came to the penalty shoot out, I said to myself: I am the only hope that is going to save Heartland today. I just had to make up my mind that I save the penalties or we go out so I am happy I did it.”
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The new format of the AITEO Cup has been a major topical issue in Nigerian football circles since it was revealed last week. The Football Federation continually gave assurances that it would come good and Wednesday’s games were geared towards testing the waters.
If reports from various centres were anything to go by, the Federation executives might be patting themselves at the back for the success recorded at the initial stage, something Obi corroborates.
“The format shows the league and FA Cup in Nigeria is improving. It doesn’t matter where you are playing, just like in Europe, as long as the referees are fair, it wouldn’t matter. The better teams should win.
“The officiating today is very good, even the away team can testify to it and it gives us hopes that we are getting there,” former Rangers goalkeeper, Obi stated.
Heartland will know their foes in the Round of 32 when the draws are conducted in Lagos on Friday. Other teams through to the second round include:
Ngwa FC, Katsina United Feeders, Unicem Rovers, Sunshine Stars, Bayelsa United, Ede United, FC IfeanyiUbah Feeders, Ekiti United, FC Atete, Delta Warriors, FC IfeanyiUbah, Shooting Stars, Nasarawa United, Doma United, Osun United, El-Kanemi Babes, Kwara United, Plateau United, ABS FC, Abia Warriors, FRSC FC, Almar FC, Akwa Starlets, Samba Kurna.