This weekend, Sunshine Stars, Nigeria’s remaining hope for international club glory this year, could brighten their chances in the CAF Champions League when they host ASO Chlef of Algeria in a decisive Group A match.
It’s seemingly a must-win contest for both sides that will mark the half-way point of the group stage, although Sunshine revived their chances in Africa’s foremost club competition when they drew 0-0 with Etoile du Sahel in Tunisia on matchday two. It was a big result on the road for the Nigerians considering that on the opening day of Champions League action they disappointingly crashed at home 2-0 to defending champions Esperance, also of Tunisia.
They are now third on the table with a point, while leaders Esperance on six points are expected to cancel out second-placed Etoile, who have four. With a win against pointless ASO Chlef, Sunshine could catch Etoile if the Sousse-based club go down to their rivals. But the Champions League debutants are not getting ahead of themselves says coach Gbenga Ogunbote. “We will take this campaign a game at a time,” said the task-master who has been with the club for the past four years. “First, we set the target to qualify for the group stage and now we wish to go past that to get to the semi-finals.”
Known as ‘The Mimiko Boys’ (after the Ondo State Governor and main financier), the side admit that the expectation of keeping the Nigerian flag flying on the continent this year has been building. “There is a little bit of pressure to perform and do well in the competition,” conceded skipper Godfrey Oboabona, who plays at right back for Nigeria but can also fit in at central defence or as a defensive midfielder. “But this pressure is normal, and we have spoken about it amongst ourselves and have accepted this responsibility.”
For the ambitious new club on the scene, the bigger picture is to become the dominant force in Nigerian football sooner rather than later. “We want to carry on from where Enyimba left off,” declared respected team executive Mike Idoko, who has already guided Lobi Stars and Warri Wolves to international prominence. Enyimba are Nigeria’s most successful team in the past decade, winning two CAF Champions League titles, six Nigeria Premier League championships as well as two FA Cups since 2001. It’s a big ask for a club formed only 21 years ago by a football-mad politician. Sunshine are based in the south-west town of Akure, but have to play their home games in neighbouring Ijebu-Ode because their base lacks a standard stadium.
It was only three years ago that they featured in the sub-regional West African Football Union (WAFU) Cup soon after a return to the Nigerian top flight. Last year, at first attempt, they reached the semi-final of the CAF Confederation Cup, where they lost to Tunisia’s Club Africain 1-0 on aggregate. They were also beaten to the Nigeria Premier League title by Dolphin only on the last day of the season after topping the table for most of the campaign.
Aims get higher and higher
The CAF Champions League is thus the biggest test for this club, who once lined up Benin international striker Razak Omotoyossi and former Nigeria U-20 defender Kenneth Omeruo, who is now on the books of European champions Chelsea. They have already shown remarkable character in the competition when they fought back from a 4-1 loss at Angola’s Recreativo de Libolo in a qualifying round to win 3-0 at home and stay on course for the biggest prize in club football in Africa.
In a country where players change clubs season after season, Sunshine have done well to hold on to several of their top stars from the past season. Cameroonian playmaker Medrano Tamen and petite right winger Ajani Ibrahim, who scored 19 goals in the league last season, are still very much part of this team. The gifted Tamen, who joined up from Tiko United of Cameroon last year, picked up a hamstring injury against Esperance and so missed the match in Sousse against Etoile.
Experience also abounds in the form of recently registered John Owoeri, Sunday Emmanuel and Moses James, while bulldozing striker Dele Olorundare has accounted for 11 goals. But it’s the defence that has drawn much of the praise, and it was the resolute defending and the brilliance of 24-year-old goalkeeper Moses Ocheje that combined to keep out the marauding North Africans in their last group match. “My defenders made my job easier because they were all composed,” said Ocheje, who has grown in stature since he featured at the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Canada. “The away result has boosted our morale and confidence ahead of our next game."