Former Enyimba goalkeeper, Theophilus Afelokhai, now with Rivers United

The footballing rivalry between Rivers United ad Enyimba goes beyond both clubs, and the CAF Confederation Cup encounter on Sunday is just another episode of the television series.

Whether Rivers United is an offshoot of Sharks, Dolphins or a merger of both of them, there has been a deep rooted rivalry between them and Enyimba.

I grew up following Sharks on radio in the early 80s and then watching highlights of their games before I first made my journey to the stadium in 1989.

That season, I saw a couple of league games but could not understand why the rivalry was bitter when it was Enyimba coming to Port Harcourt. Both clubs were in the old second division then.

When Sharks qualified for the old Division One, I realised that it was not an Enyimba thing but it was a rivalry between Sharks and teams from the South East- Spartans/ Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Enugu Rangers, Udoji United, Jasper United and even Vasco Dagama. Any club from the East that came to Port Harcourt had it difficult against Sharks as there was the rivalry on the pitch, plus the shenanigan from the restive fans at the stadium entrance, the stands and in the technical area. There was also a bit of violence too.

Back in the 80s

Finidi George played in the 3-0 bashing of Enyimba by Sharks in 1989

In 1989 while Sharks needed promotion to the Old Division One, Enyimba had come calling in the second half of the season.

The promotion race at the time was between Sharks, Enyimba, Calabar Rovers and Vasco Dagama. In that game in Port Hacourt at the Civic Center, now known as the Sharks FC Stadium, Enyimba fell 3-0 in a game that was packed full with fans, more than 60% of them there to support the away side.

I enjoyed the way we taunted the Aba fans after the third goal got in with chants like, “One by one, dem don dey go” (they are leaving one after the other) and many others as the Enyimba fans began to sneak out of the stadium.

In my book “A Thousand Times on the Same Road” I wrote about a very violent clash between Sharks and Enyimba in Port Harcourt in 1992. Both teams again were battling for promotion to the Old Division One and with Sharks needing an outright win, they lost 2-1 to Enyimba, right there at the Liberation Stadium, now known as the Yakubu Gowon Stadium in Port Harcourt. The maybem on the grounds was not for the faint hearted.

The rivalry and hatred was brewing and there was no love lost between both sides.

Enter the gun men and outright war

The biggest of those games held in the 2000 football season at a time just before Felix Anyansi Agwu became chairman of Enyimba.

For those who do not know, Enyimba was a mid-table club at the time with a target to avoid relegation. The big clubs in the region were Jasper United, Enugu Rangers, Iwuanyawu Nationale and Udoji United.

Sharks would travel with their retinue of ultras, especially for nearby games and the Enyimba people did not like it.

The first leg was in Aba and at the gates it was difficult getting the fans inside. At the time there used to be an arrangement between clubs with travelling fans on the number that will be let in for free.

As the Sharks fans were at the gates, the Enyimba Stadium stewards decided that they would not let more than ten in for free and the rest would have to pay. It resulted in a scuffle at the gates and during the melee, one Enyimba steward shouted “Make una search dem o. look their bag, dem dey carry something come” (You all should search their bags, the have guns in there)

Now, whether the Sharks ultras had guns or not was a different matter and no one was sure, but they fought against it, refused to be searched and forced their into the stadium. There was another fight at the VIP where a Sharks fan was allegedly thrown overboard and wounded. Right there on the pitch the players were fighting and in the stands in was even worse. The game ended 1-1 but the bitterness increased.

In the second round of the league when both sides were to clash in Port Harcourt on May 13, the Sharks ultras unleashed terror on Enyimba players, officials and supporters. Their bus was looted and vandalised and their fans were bloodied. The game was abandoned and replayed in Benin a month later and Sharks won 1-0.

Enter Dolphins and the decimation of Enyimba’s dominance

Victor Ezeji at Dolphins in 2004

Just before the 2001 football season, Felix Anyansi Agwu was announced as chairman of Enyimba and he took Nigerian football by storm. Enyimba won the League in 2001, 2002 and in 2003. they were clearly the best side in the land. They were winning in style and they also won the CAF Champions League in 2003.

But while Enyimba was dominating on the big stage, there was a small club in Port Harcourt with a large heart and it was not Sharks.

Dolphins FC played in the old second division and they had just won the FA Cup in 2001. In doing so, they had beaten the great Enyimba 2-1 in the group stage in Kano and beaten Enyimba again in the semi final, 2-0 before winning the Cup in Lagos against ElKanemi.

Naturally, it shouldn’t have bothered Enyimba because they were league champions that year, but how did a club from Port Harcourt, in the second division beat them twice in the FA Cup?

In 2003, when Enyimba glided to their third straight league title, they had beaten Dolphins 1-0 in Aba, then they came to Port Hacourt to draw 1-1 against Sharks.

In the second round of the league and on June 22, 2003, Enyimba came to Port Harcourt and steam rolled over Dolphins 3-0 right there at the Port Harcourt Liberation Stadium. It was a shameful display by Dolphins, or maybe an out of this world performance by Enyimba with Victor Ezeji, Joetex Frimpong and Muri Ogunbiyi being tormentors in chief. Victor Ezeji actually scored in that game and celebrated his goal in front of the Dolphins fans (the scum). Emyimba beat Sharks 4-2 in Port Harcourt to complete a near perfect season for them against the Port Harcourt clubs.

But in 2004, just a year later, Dolphins returned to bite Enyimba in the neck. On March 20 in Aba on Match Day 7, Victor Ezeji who had destroyed Dolphins in Port Harcourt the previous season was the one who scored against Enyimba to inflict a 1-0 defeat on the League Champions. Dolphins went on to win the League that season. I remember that game like it was yesterday. Sunday Rotimi saved a very late penalty and that was Enyimba’s only home loss that year.

A year later in 2005, precisely on Match Day 17 Dolphins again scored first against Enyimba in Aba but lost 2-1. Enyimba fans were relieved, the players were happy and Anyansi too. Dolphins had become a force. Until that day, Enyimba had not conceded a goal in Aba that season.

The Points Per Game Derby

Enyimba chairman, Felix Anyansi Agwy was relatively silent

There have been other clashes between Enyimba and either Sharks or Dolphins. At the FA Cup in 2007, Dolphins knocked out Enyimba in the quarter finals in Ilorin and went on to win the Cup. In 2009, Enyimba beat Sharks 1-0 in the FA Cup final in Lagos and again at the FA Cup in 2014, Enyimba beat Dolphins 2-1 in the final to win the Cup.

But the battles between both clubs moved away from the stands as it was in the late 90s and early noughties to the board room with the biggest of them all being in 2020 when both sides battled to claim a place in the CAF Champions’s League.

The Nigerian League had ended abruptly due to the COVID19 pandemic and while the organisers thought about a befitting end, they decided on a Points Per Game (PPG) calculation that put Enyimba in second place and to feature in the CAF Champions League while Rivers United were in third and to play in the CAF Confederation Cup.

It was a heated battle as words were traded freely and these words were not nice. Incidentally, there was relative silence from the Enyimba side. Anyansi hardly spoke and same could be said of their media officer, Zazi Bariza.

In Port Harcourt, League tables were published, press conferences were called and most of all was the Rivers State Sports Commissioner. Boma Iyaye calling out the NFF president, Amaju Pinnick and the LMC chairman, Shehu Dikko as being complicit in what he thought was an attempt to steal from Rivers United. They threatened to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sports, CAS.

Later on in the transfer window, Rivers United raided Enyimba’s camp and a lot of league watchers thought it was anger at losing the CAF Champions League slot to them. Ifeanyi Anaemena moved to Port Harcourt and so did Theophilus Afelokhai. Rivers United also made attempts to get Stanley Dimgba (who eventually moved to South Africa) and Austin Oladapo, who actually came to Port Harcourt but the deal fell through and he is now Enyimba’s captain.

More still, Enyimba lasted just two games in the CAF Champions’ League and when the CAF draws pit them against Rivers United after all the bad blood of the past few months, it was always going to be one for the opera.

There will be a lot of drama in this game and a lot will be at stake, but there will be no violence. Those days are long gone in Nigerian football.

If Rivers United eventually knock out Enyimba, the world will not hear the end of it, and for good reasons too. They believe Enyimba robbed them of a place in the CAF Champions League, and you will not blame them for saying that.

Again, just like the Points Per Game battle, more of the sound bytes are coming from Port Harcourt while in Aba, they are relatively quiet.

A few days ago, the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike promised his team the sum of twenty million naira if they beat Enyimba in Aba, while a Rivers State based philanthropist, Bro. Felix Obuah also promised Rivers United a truck load of money for goals scored and if they win. This is epic.

Just on Friday, we heard that the Abia State governor, Okezie Ikpeazu was going to have dinner with the Enyimba players and still on Friday, it was announced that both games will be live on television.

This will be the biggest clash in Nigerian club football since 1977 when Enugu Rangers beat Shooting Stars in the semi final to win the Cup Winners Cup.

The drama around that game was unprecedented and would take another article to discuss because of the rivalry between both clubs, the game could not be played in Enugu and Ibadan, because it was intense so the Nigeria Football Association ordered that both legs be played at the National Stadium in Lagos.

After the first leg in Lagos, the second leg was moved to Kaduna, amid more drama.

The clash between Enyimba and Rivers United is about to rank as high in terms of off the pitch drama and we hope it will be replicated on the pitch on Sunday, February 14 and 21st.

And like Enyimba’s coach, Fatai Osho said, “This is a good advertisement for the Nigeria Professional Football League.

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