The stage is set as the Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba prepares to host two of Nigeria’s biggest and most supported football teams in the final of the AITEO Cup 2018 men’s competition later today.
Named after Nigeria’s longest –serving Senior Men Football Team captain who also coached the team to win the Africa Cup of Nations title on away ground, the newly –renovated arena will become the 14th venue to host the 73 –year old glamour National Football Cup.
It could not have been a more fitting final, with Rangers – one of the truly traditional powerhouse teams in the country with a robust history – and Pillars both in flaming forms at the moment with some of the best players in the domestic scene on their books.
The Flying Antelopes with a large following across the federation will be led out by ageless defender Okey Odita, and there are also Semiu Liadi and Isaac Loute, as well as Ugochukwu Ugwuoke, Bright Silas, Ifeanyi George and Ugonna Uzochukwu.
Rangers, who won the Africa Cup Winners’ Cup in 1977, and are five –time winners of the AITEO Cup under its previous names of Challenge Cup and FA Cup, have not taken home the most glamorous diadem in the land since beating DIC Bees of Kaduna on penalties inside the National Stadium, Lagos 35 years ago.
The lines from above may just inspire the boys from Enugu, as it can be recalled that the team made good in the elite League two years ago after waiting for 32 years.
Yet, Kano Pillars would not be push –overs in any way. As Pillars, they would be aiming to take home the title for the first time, after losing to El-Kanemi Warriors 2-3 in the 1991 final played also at the National Stadium, Lagos. Though, a team styled Kano XI became the first team from the northern part of the country to win the Cup after defeating Lagos Dynamos 2-1 at the Association Ground 65 years ago.
It would then take another 36 years for another team from the northern sector to triumph, when BCC Lions – coached by Amodu Shaibu of blessed memory – shocked Iwuanyanwu Nationale by the odd goal at the Tafawa Balewa Stadium, Bauchi in 1989.
Pillars’ biggest name on the sheet on Wednesday could be Junior Lokosa, the 2017 NPFL goal king who came close to making the cut for Nigeria’s 2018 FIFA World Cup final squad.
However, there are also equally dangerous customers. Odita will be confronted promptly in the tunnel by another ageless performer, midfield ace Rabiu Ali, likely to lead out Pillars, and artistes like Nyima Nwagua, Emmanuel Anyanwu, Nzube Anaezemba and Hillary Ikenna are match winners on their day.
Rangers must also watch out for Joel Djoundang and Ibrahim Alhassan.
Last year’s final, which marked the first time it would be called AITEO Cup following the acquisition of the naming right by Nigeria’s leading energy solution group, was at the Agege Stadium and Akwa United of Uyo prevailed over Niger Tornadoes after penalty shoot –out under floodlights.
Wednesday’s final would also be under floodlights, with the game to kick off at 6pm. Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State is expected to be installed in the VVIP Box with his Enugu and Kano State counterparts – Governors Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi and Umar Abdullahi Ganduje respectively.
President of the NFF and CAF 1st Vice President, Mr. Amaju Pinnick and the full compliment of members of his Executive Committee will join them.
Leading Nigerian music stars Patoranking (Okorie Patrick Nnaemeka), Phyno and Seyi Seyi (Deborah Joshua) will entertain guests before hostilities kick off on the lush turf.