Enyimba are not among Nigeria's oldest clubs, but the fact that they are the only side from Africa's most populous country to have claimed Africa's top club prize gives them a unique status in a football-mad country. The team from Abia State, in the east of the country, emerged from virtual obscurity to end Nigeria's four-decade wait for success in the CAF Champions League.
It took only ten years for Enyimba to transform itself from an obscure provincial outfit into a continental champion, a remarkable rise. Enyimba are now among the most feared outfits in continental football, this year making it to the semi-finals of the CAF Champions League once again. Their back-to-back successes in the tournament in 2003 and 2004 marked the first time a team had managed to successfully defend the title in over 30 years.
Enyimba were founded by a civil servant, Jerry Amadi Enyeazu, who formed the team in November 1976 when Abia was still part of South East Nigeria State. Later, as the political map of the country was carved up, Enyimba became the property of Abia State, but initially never received the sort of support many of their counterparts enjoyed. As a result, Enyimba never threatened the established order in the Nigerian league. But when the new Nigerian Professional League was created in 1990, Enyimba, known as the ‘People's Elephant', became a founder member.
In their first campaign in the top flight of Nigerian football, Enyimba finished 13th in the standings, winning just five of their 30 games. The next year, despite winning eight of their games, they finished 15th, and were relegated.
But within two seasons Enyimba were back, surviving an exhausting campaign in the second division in 1993 to take first place, with 98 points from 46 matches. Back in the top flight, they continued their momentum by finishing third in 1994, missing out on a place in the continental competition on goal difference only.
The appointment of Orji Uzor Kalu as governor of Abia State in 1999 proved a turning point for the team. A passionate Enyimba fan, Kalu had risen to a position where he has able to ensure a whole new level of funding for the team. Felix Anyansi Agwu took over the day-to-day running of the side, and the appointment of Godwin Uwa as coach set them on course for their first honours.
Enyimba won their first Nigerian title in 2001, and their triumph was capped three months later with success in the Nigerian Super Cup, where Enyimba beat near rivals Port Harcourt 2-0 in Maiduguri. That success began a long period of dominance, with the club securing a second successive league title in 2002. They also had their first taste of international football in that year, going to Italy to play Inter Milan in a friendly, and making an inaugural appearance in the CAF Champions League, although they were eliminated by ASEC Abidjan in the second round.
The dream year for Enyimba came in 2003, once Kadiri Ikhana had taken charge of the team. Enyimba romped through the early rounds of the Champions League, and despite suffering a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Egypt's Ismaili, they finished in the top two in their group to book a place in the semi-finals. Against USM Alger, they looked to be headed for an aggregate loss, but scored a dramatic last-minute winner through Michael Ochei to book their place in the final.
There was even more drama in the final as Enyimba won the first leg against Ismaili 2-0 and then held out in a frantic second leg to take the title 2-1 on aggregate. Several key players from Enyimba's inaugural continental success have since gone on to play for Nigeria's Super Eagles, including Vincent Enyeama, Muri Ogunbiyi, Obinna Nwaneri and Onyekachi Okonkwo.
A golden year
In 2004, Enyimba began what looked an improbable march back to the final of the CAF Champions League. It had become the curse of the Champions League that no holders had been able to retain their title, and Enyimba looked hard pressed to break the mould. With Okey Emordi now in charge, Enyimba just scraped into the semi-finals, behind Etoile Sahel of Tunisia in their Champions League group.
In the semi-finals, Enyimba needed penalties to overcome Esperance of Tunisia after two hard-fought matches. And history was made in Abuja on 12 December 2004, as Obinna Nwaneri converted the winning kick in another dramatic shoot-out after a 3-3 aggregate draw with Etoile. In winning the 2004 Champions League, Enyimba became only the second side after TP Mazembe Englebert in 1968 to retain Africa's top club prize.
Since that time, Enyimba have been regular competitors in the continent's club showpiece, but have yet to add to their double triumph. This year, they were semi-finalists once more, but fell short in their clash with Egyptian giants Al Ahly.
Enyimba's home ground in Aba has become a veritable fortress for the team, an intimidating cauldron. It is a compact ground with a capacity of some 15,000, but for the town of Aba, Enyimba are the central focus and there has always been an air of expectation hanging over the ground.