2009, the end of a decade, and a sporting year that drove mixed emotions for Nigeria and the African continent. It was indeed a celebration of football. The U20 team were rudderless in Egypt, crashing out in the second round after four unconvincing games including a loss to Salomon Rondon’s Venezuela.
The U17s fared much better, ultimately falling on their own sword in the final against Switzerland on home soil. It was laced with controversy, from alleged age fraud to a battle for recognition. The Senior Team had no such problems, making it to the World Cup in South Africa on the last day in dramatic fashion. All the National teams were handled by local coaches.
The style was peculiar for both U20 and the U17, with caution thrown to the wind and players urged to attack. While the latter obtained results with beautiful and harmonic football, the former was a dysfunctional engine, the whole unable to reconcile the sum of its parts. This was almost the same team that had conquered in Korea at U17 level two years prior.
Attacking swagger was a theme reconcilable with Youth teams and Nigerian clubsides of the early 2000s. The success of Enyimba, a crystal-clear indicator. They would fly the flag so well till 2009, when they were denied by Heartland and Kano Pillars in the league. The oddity, inspired by two foreign coaches, Bulgaria’s Mitko Dobrev and Slovenian Ivo Sajh.
Dobrev arrived Nigeria in 2007, fresh from stewardship of Accra Hearts of Oak in Ghana, his rapsheet including tirades at match officials. His profile fit perfectly with the Nigerian terrain and for a man who had only managed in his homeland, it was intriguing that he fitted in seamlessly like hand in glove. Imo people had sought a new hero as the club plunged into the abyss of mediocrity, He was the man.
The Naze Millionaires’ turn in fortunes were surmised by a near miss on the title in his first season, one that headed Up North courtesy of Kano Pillars 2-0 win over JUTH, It set the tone for what followed in 2009. Pillars would hire Ivo Sajh, for the Champions League assault, after parting ways with title winning coach, Kadiri Ikhana . That 07/08 season Pillars beat Heartland for an aggregate of 3-1.
The two teams started their 2009 CAF Champions League campaigns at home on the weekend of 31 January/1 February. Pillars dealt Chad’s Elect Sport a 2-0 blow, while Heartland trounced Monrovia Black Star 4-0. Heartland’s attacking swagger would be affirmed in Monrovia as they netted 6 away goals, the joint most by a Nigerian club away from home.
John Owoeri, who had lost in the semi-finals with Enyimba the year before provided experience, while Ike ThankGod, Aziz Ansah and Owusu Addai provided fire, hunger and potency in front of goal. Heartland sent an early message when they sent FAR Rabat packing in the first round, triumphing 4-1 on aggregate with goals from Joshua Obaje, a teenage Stanley Okoro and Signs Chimbambo.
Kano Pillars would rattle the natural order with their upset ending the dynasty, sending Al Ahly packing 3-3, on away goals, Victor Namo’s goals coming in handy. Heartland would finally have the attention of the continent when they bested Cotonsport, a previous finalist 3-2 on aggregate via goals from Emeka Nwanna, ThankGod and Stanley Okoro. Nigeria would have not one but two teams in the main event, both in different groups to boot. Game On.
The commencement of the group stage brought different strokes with it. Heartland’s multidimensional and diverse squad had the continent on the edge of their seats with their achievements, but it was Pillars knocked out champions Al Ahly. They were no child’s play. Sajh had set his side up to counter ruthlessly, relying on the pace, power and precision of Victor Namo, Bello Kofarmata, Gambo Mohammed and Moses Ogaga. It worked to perfection as they lost once in the groups, a 2-0 loss in Sudan against Al Hilal.
Omdurman proved a mere blip, as they topped the group with 11 points scoring the second most goals in the group stages. Heartland on the other hand relied heavily on their home form, unleashing the Dogs of War and conceding just once. They advanced with a game to spare, finishing second only because Mazembe beat Etoile in Lumumbashi. Uche Agba, Ikechukwu Ibenegbu and ThankGod had their praises sung through the land. It was the first time since the turn of the century two Nigerian sides reached the semi finals of the CAF Champions League.
The Meeting was historic and for Sajh and Dobrev, it held extra significance. Both had exchanged 2-1 wins in the 2008/09 season, with Dobrev particularly in disbelief as to how his side hadn’t scored more. Pillars, who had finished outside of the continental places had only one route into the 2010 CAF Champions League. Win the trophy. For Heartland, they had qualified with another runner-up finish in the league.
Unlike in the league meetings, Heartland were home first, and they would capitalize heavily on it. Sajh adopted his customary cautionary approach, and it backfired spectacularly. A pair of first half braces from Emeka Nwanna and Uche Agba effectively put the tie to bed, all but ending Pillars hopes of another crack at the Champions League. 4-0 Heartland.
However, Miracles were a thing in the CAF CL and Kano Pillars had every right to dream. When the second leg came around, Heartland’s Mitko Dobrev, reverted from ultra-attacking swagger of the first leg to a reserved approach. Austin Brown, the Maze Millionaires goalie would be in his element as Kano Pillars sought to resurrect from the dead, he kept the stone in place.
By the time Uche Agba scored what was the icing on the cake for a 1-0 away win and 5-0 aggregate scoreline, there had been cautions, trash talk, squaring offs and a ten-minute delay caused by Sai Masu Gida fans assaulting their rivals from Owerri. Sour Grapes. Referee Hamoudi would swiftly put them out of their misery, cue celebrations from the Naze Millionaires. It is to date Pillars biggest achievement on the continent.
Heartland would lose excruciatingly on away goals in the final to TP Mazembe. When they returned in 2010, it was without the enigmatic Dobrev who had left for Lobi Stars of Makurdi. There was no magic, with Samson Siasia unable to match the feat. It remains the Naze Millionaires biggest achievement on the continent.
One would wonder when next Nigeria would witness another historic event of such magnitude. Boca Juniors and River Plate have met in every stage of the Copa Libertadores. Real Madrid and Altetico have met in all stages bar the Groups and First Knockout Round in the UEFA Champions League. Ahly and Zamalek have done likewise in the CAF Champions League, while Raja and WAC have kindled as well. For a country as big as Nigeria, sights of clashes between her club sides on the continent should not be the equivalent of seeing a comet landing on the earth. The glory days need to return and fast, by evolving with the times and providing a good atmosphere for players to duel.
Written By Tosin Holmes. Twitter: @PowerfulFJ