At the height of his lunacy, the late Idi Amin Dada, the butcher of Uganda, would add the sobriquet “Conqueror of the British Empire” at the end of his about five-line-long (un)official-title-cum-appellation. After their exploits in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday, May 2, 2009, Kano Pillars football club of Kano, Nigeria may well be justified in branding themselves as ‘Conquerors of Pharaoh’s almighty army of Red Devils’. Of course, Amin never conquered the British Empire. His antics were nothing more than a way of trying to spite a government he felt was too overbearing. Kano Pillars can, however, lay claim to at least conquering Pharaoh’s Red Devils.
When Pillars, the football team from Kano, the pyramid city and Nigeria’s acclaimed centre of commerce travelled to Cairo to do football battle with Al-Ahly of Egypt, it was supposed to be a lose-lose situation for the Nigerian club side. They had blown their only chance in the tie (if at all they had any) when they only managed a one-all draw against the same opposition in the first leg in Kaduna two weeks previously. Surely any hope they had of further progress in this year’s competition was supposed to hinge totally on whatever result they could secure from their home leg of the fixture. And even that was supposed to be precious little. Reason, they were pitted against Al-Ahly of Egypt, the Red Devils of Cairo, Al-Ahly, Africa’s club of the 20th century.
The statistics staring the Nigerians in the face were staggering, even frightening; here is a team which had won the crème of African club football competitions six times, a team that has been involved in the final matches of the same competition every single time during the last four years. The Nigerians were coming up against the serial Egyptian national champions, a team of players who have over the past few years robbed shoulders with players from AC Milan, Manchester United and Liverpool courtesy of the club world cup.
The match was supposed to be Ahly’s picnic. Yes, picnic and not a contest. In football, you only battle when you have to conquer an opponent but when you have to pick a result up on a platter; it’s a stroll in the park, just a picnic. This was just a fly swatting exercise and not a bull taming or dragon slaying one for the Red Devils. The US army cannot celebrate a victory against the Cayman Island or against Tahiti? The celebration will come when Russia, France or Germany is in the picture. If any football mission could classify as Herculean, this one was it. You can ask 3SC Shooting Stars, complete with their Gbenga Okunowos, Isiyaka Awoyemis, Patrick Manchas, Ajibade Babalades, David Ogagas and Abiodun Baruwas. You can also ask Enyimba of Aba. A match in Egypt or any of the North African countries starts right from the country’s embassy in Nigeria. Then the psychological persecution shifts to the airport as soon as the travelling team touches down. The charade goes on to the team’s hotel, that is if they manage to get to one before match day. The rest of the battle would, of course, take place in the stadium. And as Pillars, with all due respect to them, are neither Zamalek nor at least the Enyimba of 2003/2004, the cathedral called Cairo International Stadium in Egypt was supposed to be one bridge way too far.
The verdict was unanimous and emphatic: there was simply no way out, not even a mathematical chance for Pillars. This writer had also given up on the Kano boys too. The only strand of optimism left in me stemmed from my experience of being an Arsenal fan that has had to endure supporting a club which has yet to win a single trophy in the past three, now almost four seasons despite coming close to winning some and despite being acknowledged as one of the best teams around. Such experience has taught Arsenal fans to believe in absolutely any possibility, like beating AC Milan at their home in the San Siro but then losing to Hull City at Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s home ground. In my books, the most Pillars could get from that game was grab a goal and somehow manage to drag the tie into extra time and perhaps even penalties. And even that, too was more patriotism-induced wishful thinking than hope and belief. In any case they could also go ahead and concede three or more for the one goal. After all they were coming up against a team that could have as many as six first team members of the Egyptian national team – champions of the African continent for the past five years and on six occasions in total – in its starting lineup.
And when the Pillars team left for Cairo last week with its full complement of players and traditional rulers, Islamic clerics, local council chairmen et al, in tow, the rest of us wondered what madness had befallen everyone associated with the club. Why waste funds in air lifting and accommodating these people? Why not just assemble any collection of 18 or 23 players plus their coaching staff, pick two or three medical personnel, dump them all in an aeroplane and go to Cairo then come back home and see out the rest of the Nigerian league season. Why decorate the rotten and unsalvageable?
The script had been written. Pillars only had to go to Cairo, and like all good actors, interpret the script, no fuss, no whining of any sort. Alas, they did much more than act meek or docile. Whether the initial hostility from the home crowd was taken care of by a few exchanges of assalam alaikum between the travelling delegation and their hosts, we may never know, but Pillars got not one but two goals 15 minutes into the match and the rest, as they say, is history. That they managed to let slip that two-goal cushion to tie the match 2-2 isn’t really material. Not many teams go to Cairo to play against Al-Ahly and still grab a goal, never mind two. And if losing two goals yourself guarantees success, then why not.
By eliminating the most dominant force in African club football from this year’s competition Pillars have thrown the 2009 champions league wide open. And given the fact that their compatriots, Heartland FC (they sure must be feeling like the side dish in a buffet in the face of Pillars’ feat in Cairo) also eliminated last year’s beaten finalists, Cotton Sports of Cameroon on the same weekend, then the competition may well be anyone’s for the taking. But have no illusions, the feat by all three Nigerian clubs on the continent, including Bayelsa United in the Confederations Cup, is not a confirmation that the Nigerian football league has arrived, just a hint of its potentials. Better organization and more funding could definitely take the league places.