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Enugu Rangers To Battle Bendel Insurance In Winner-Takes-All 2023 Federation Cup Final In Asaba

June, 17 2023.

As accolades continue to trickle in for Hon. Gbenga Elegbeleye, Interim Management Committee (IMC) over the successful organization of the 2022/23 Nigeria Premier League Season, the focus of football loving Nigerians have now gradually shifted to the men's and women's finals of the Tingo Federation Cup.

In the build up to June 21, 2023 when both finals are scheduled to be played at the Stephen Keshi Memorial Stadium, in Asaba, Delta State; will be taking an indepth look into the men's finalists, Rangers International of Enugu and Bendel Insurance of Benin winners of the Cup in 1972, 1978 and 1980.

We understand the men's final with a 5pm kick-off, will be played under floodlights; and shall be preceded by the women's final between the holders, Bayelsa Queens of Yenagoa and serial-winners (8) Rivers Angels of Port Harcourt.

To qualify for the final, Rangers needed a very contentious late penalty to oust Plateau United, in Ijebu-Ode; while Insurance edged the Bendel derby against Warri Wolves in a shootout, after their semifinal in Lagos, ended goalless.

The last time Rangers played in the final of the Cup, was in Asaba (2018). Led by Gbenga "de Oracle" Ogunbote, they staged a spectacular comeback from 0-3 down to draw 3-3 with Kano Pillars, and went on to win the trophy for the sixth time, after a shootout.

Asaba 2023 isn't the first time the two teams whose sterling reputation is well documented in the folklore of Nigerian football, will be clashing in the final of the cup, which began in 1945 as Governor's Cup, before being renamed Challenge Cup, and much later, Federation Cup.

In fact Rangers met Bendel Insurance in the 1978 final, in Lagos; and the latter who had shocked IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan 2-0 in the semi-finals thrashed the Flying Antelopes 3-0.

Three years later, they met again in the final, and Rangers avenged the loss by winning 2-0. The 2023 final therefore offers a trilogy, which will inadvertently serve as a tie breaker.

Till date, the 1978 final won by Insurance, remains one of the biggest upsets in Nigeria’s chequered football history. Enugu Rangers had the bulk of national team players and Bendel Insurance was predominantly made up of young school leavers, whose only claim to fame was that they defeated the more illustrious IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan in the semifinal, and then they had a rookie coach in Alabi Aisien and unweivering belief in their ability as a group.

Aisien was thought to have no chance against the legendary Eto Amaechina aka "de Professor", who had in 1977 led Rangers to win the Africa Cup Winners Cup.

On paper, Insurance were outclassed by the star-studded Enugu Rangers; but the outcome of that final, somehow altered Nigeria’s football landscape, as it threw up new stars for the Green Eagles.

On the other hand, Bendel Insurance, were the clear underdogs. Until their heroics of beating Rangers in the 1978 final; defeating Mighty Jets of Jos to win the 1972 Challenge Cup, and winning the league title in 1973 were their only Silverware.

By 1978, and still tutored by a more mature Coach Alabi Aisien, and with stars as Henry Ogboe, Chris Ogu, Sylvanus Oriakhi, Solomon Etoroma and Anthony Oviawe. There were also Francis Moniedafe, Kadiri Ikhana, Rufus Ejele, Leotis Boateng, George Omokaro, Agwo Nnaji, and Prince Afejuku, Insurance had matured into such a formidable side.

They hit Rangers three times without a reply, with Peter Egharevba’s free kick beating Emmanuel Okala for the opening goal. Henry Ogboe scored the second goal and also wrapped up the game seven minutes to the end with the third goal. In fact, the final at Sports City was dubbed by some headlines as the "Henry Ogboe" show!

The heroics of the 1978 final signaled the arrival of Bendel Insurance as the third arm of the quadruplet, who ruled Nigerian football in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. The others were Rangers, Shooting Stars and Stationery Stores of Lagos. There were also other big names in Nigerian football like Mighty Jets of Jos, Raccah Rovers of Kano, Water Corporation of Ibadan and Standard of Jos.

Apart from breaking the stranglehold Rangers and IICC had on Nigerian football, the FA Cup win by Insurance also brought their roster of players to national reckoning, with those of them, who were not already in the national team, fast tracked into the squad.

Having started the 2022/23 Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL) season, like a house on fire, promoted Bendel Insurance remains unbeaten in the Federation Cup. But despite stretching their unbeaten run in the league to 21, before Rivers United (2-1) and Remo Stars (1-0) handed them defeats at the recently concluded NPFL play-offs in Lagos; the Benin Arsenal will surely need to be reinvigorated ahead of the final.

Conversely, Rangers who had a season to forget, and was at a time drifting towards the relegation waters; have been unconvincing in their run up to the final. But as former six-time winners, they are in familiar territory and like Insurance, they are fully aware that the winner on June 21, 2023 will not only be crowned Federation Cup kings; they will also become Nigeria's first entrant to next season's CAF Confederation Cup.

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