The cancer of Kenyan football and its prevalence on the beautiful game
By Julius Jumah
On the afternoon of February 2, 2004, about 45,500 spectators sat in the famous Stade 15 October Stadium in Bizerte, Tunisia some 65 kilometres north-west of the capital Tunis, as Kenya’s Harambee Stars went head-to-head with Burkina Faso in the final match of Group B of the African Cup of Nations finals.
Harambee Stars, then under the tutelage of Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee, had nothing but pride to play for, having lost 3-1 to Mali and 3-0 to Senegal in the opening two games, as the Burkinabe needed a big-margin win and hoped that Senegal tragically fall to Mali, for them to advance to the knockout phase.
Neither of the two scenarios came to pass as Senegal shared the spoils with Mali in a one-all-stalemate and Mulee’s troops putting on a stellar exodus performance by hitting Burkina Faso 3-0 as the two all crashed out.
Sofapaka interim coach, John Baraza, who was at the centre of the win, after being set up by a fine Dennis Oliech back heel to bag the final goal for Kenya at the Afcon championship, vividly remembers the afternoon, 15 years down the line.
“If you look back at the times, the goal was voted among the top five at the tourney and it makes me feel good to date. Afcon is the biggest platform in Africa. It made me proud competing with the then big names like Samuel Etoo, ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha among others,” the former Kenya international said.
That was then, the Stars giving the traditional African giants a run for their money in continental face-offs and Kenyan clubs bagging enviable honours in that stellar period; for instance in 1987, Gor Mahia won the historic Mandela Cup, a feat that saw formidable goal poacher Peter Dawo bestowed with the Head of State Commendation (HSC) award.
But it was until the 2004 appearance in Tunis that things began to fall apart. In August 2011, world’s soccer governing body FIFA ranked Harambee Stars at a sickening position 140, way below long-term regional competitors such as Uganda and Tanzania, making a mockery of the November 1983 rank, where Kenya had been placed at position 60, the best ever rank for the Stars.
So, what befell Harambee Stars?
Football Kenya Federation has seen a fair share of damaging drama, the climax of it coming during the reign of its former president Sam Nyamweya. During his stint, leadership wrangles put FKF and league body, the Kenya Premier League (KPL) at loggerheads leading to the formation of two parallel leagues – FKF Premier League and the Kenya Premier League. This led to subtle threats from the government which contemplated disbanding FKF and forming a body to run the country’s football after the two entities failed to agree on one league.
Nyamweya’s time at the helm of Kenyan football was marred by controversy with several football stakeholders calling for the disbandment of the federation over mismanagement of the country’s football; similar drama also found its way to the country’s national team and club leaderships; doing the sport a major damage. During this era, professional players such as Oliech and Mariga threatened not to honour international matches due to unrefunded air-tickets which was the norm.
Minimal investment in the sport
The sports sector has for decades worked with shoe-string budgets; the government seemingly unconcerned of the sector’s significance as a majority of Kenyans and leaders habour doubts over appointments made in the Ministry of Sports, some labeling it a ‘dumping ministry’.
The government has often failed to pay national team coaches. As it stands, French coach Sebastiene Migne has threatened to ditch Stars due to his unpaid salaries and accrued allowances as the preparations for the 2019 AFCON intensify even as Football Kenya Federation President Nick Mwendwa heightens callso n the government to avert the looming crisis.
But even amidst that, Harambee Stars were forced to wait for close to a year for the Ksh50 million donation promised by Deputy President William Ruto upon qualification for the 2019 AFCON, a fete the team achieved with a game to spare.
Coming into power in 2013, the Jubilee government had promised five new stadia of international stature, across the country, a pledge that now looks like a lullaby .
Four-time Kenyan Premier League (KPL) top scorer and Sofapaka tactician John Baraza underlining that these nadirs have haunted Kenya for quite some time.
“During my playing time, playing grounds were a big problem which still runs until today. Allowances for the national team players is also another major challenge that has not been addressed since our time,” notes the 2009 KPL player of the season.
Unsportsmanlike behaviour by the Kenyan soccer fan base has done little to better the game.
On numerous occasions, fans have vandalized equipment in the stadia, invaded the pitches and at times attacking match officials in extreme cases where they have felt aggrieved by the referees calls. Gor Mahia and their long time foes AFC Leopards are strongly incriminated in this.
This sort of behaviour has attracted hefty fines from the football governing bodies — some that have seen the clubs suffer tight-gripping financial bites as potential sponsors shy away from the Kenyan football scene.
For instance, AFC Leopards were slapped with a Ksh 300,000 fine by the Kenyan Premier League’s Independent Disciplinary and Complaints Committee (IDCC) for acts of hooliganism from their fans witnessed during their league match with Nzoia Sugar on January 6 at the Kenyatta Stadium in Machakos.
Suspended Club organizing secretary Timothy Lilmubi was also slapped with a fine of a similar amount and banned from football activities for five months, in a match where he and Ingwe fans assaulted match referee George Mwai.
Match fixing allegations
A recent investigation by FIFA incriminated former Harambee Stars defender George ‘Wise’ Owino on match fixing scandals alongside Singaporean convicted international football match fixer Wilson Raj Perumal that had effects on the Kenya match against Nigeria’s Super Eagles , a qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
The expose done by Doha based Al-Jazeera television titled ‘People and Power’, Owino is accused of receiving a bribe from Perumal in agreement to influencing the outcome of the November 2009 match against Nigeria played at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi, that then Twahir Muhiddin coached. Stars lost 3-2.
At the start of this year, Kakamega Homeboyz axed Ugandan tactician Paul Nkata and his assistant, fellow countryman Hamza Kalanzi on match fixing allegations leveled against them.
What does the future hold?
Harambee Stars has qualified for AFCON for the first time in 15 years. Gor Mahia, amid tough conditions, made it to the quarter finals of the CAF Confederations Cup for the first time in the competitions history. A dim indication that the sport is slowly gaining momentum, at least according to Uganda international and Sofapaka forward Umaru Kasumba.
“Kenyan football is improving day by day. You cannot compare it to Uganda or Rwanda. It is a bit difficult,” notes the February 2019 KPL Player of the Month.
His club captain Stephen Waruru echoing the Ugandan’s sentiments.
“The Kenyan national team has made a big step because it has been long since we qualified for the AFCON finals, but this year we are there. It means all along the game has been improving and that’s why we are there. It is not by luck, but by merit,” the former Ulinzi Stars striker said.
Granted, we might pat ourselves on the back and say, yes, we are there, but what next? Where do we go from here?
Nurturing young talents
Kenya is a country known for its diverse talents with names like Victor Wanyama, Michael Olunga, Dennis Oliech, and MacDonald Mariga among those with a mark in the world’s most prestigious leagues.
The younger generation which comprises of Emerging Stars captain Joseph ‘Crouch’ Okumu, Sofapaka duo John Avire and Pistone Mutamba, KCB skipper Michael Kibwage, just to mention but a few, showing lots of promise to take over the mantle from their seniors.
According to Gor Mahia head coach Hassan Oktay, the standards of Kenyan football are still very low despite being on the right path, suggesting adoption of a youth system culture for the long term benefit of the country’s sport.
“The talents don’t come from the pockets; you need to support these kids. The background is laid by youth teams, they need to adopt that. It is only Mathare United who have a youth system. There is a lot of talent in Kenya and you have to take positives from this. You don’t give them a good background and just wait for them that are doing well probably on international scenes and give them a call-up, that’s not the way,” noted the Turkish-Cypriot who believes North African clubs have always had an edge over their Kenyan counterparts due to their established youth systems.
Kenya under -23 (Emerging Stars) coach Francis Kimanzi, after seeing his boys bundled out of the Olympic qualifiers by Sudan on a 2-0 aggregate, also underlined the need of developing a young solid squad to represent the country for a foreseeable future.
“They need more time together, they need more exposure. It is the first time we are having this team. Maybe with some test matches, with some tournaments around, they could get better,” noted the Mathare United trainer.
Putting a stop to wrangles
Leadership quagmire has for most part of the century been a nadir for Kenyan soccer, threatening to take the sport to its knees any at any moment the Ministry of Sports, FKF, KPL and club leaderships all vulnerable to this.
Though it remains difficult to establish whether Gor Mahia troubles in their return leg against RS Berkane of Morocco in the CAF Confederations quarters were solely due to management, it is clear that it had a big role to play.
K’Ogalo crashing out on a 7-1 aggregate after suffering a humbling 5-1 loss in Morocco, coach Oktay underlining the difficulty that comes with his job prior to the game, even as club official Sally Bolo came out guns blazing, pointing a finger at the players for amplifying their troubles after photo of them sleeping on the lounges of Doha Airport went viral online.
“They stage-managed those pictures, looking for a scapegoat and you are cheering them, the team left Nairobi at 10am and landed in Doha at 4pm and they are already in the flight heading to Morocco,” she’s is quoted saying.
It is crystal clear that this has to be put to a stop, from the national level, club levels down to the grass roots if we are to marvel at the future.
Investing in the sport
Scarcity of finances has for long plagued the Kenyan game, top talents ditching local clubs in search for greener pastures is not knew in this part of the world.
Despite the government preaching its gospel of commitment to the sport, the sporting facilities in the country are all but a pity with some stadiums like the Kenyatta Stadium in Machakos playing host to eight matches in a week, while some like City Stadium have been rendered unusable due to the wear of the artificial surface.
However, according to former Ulinzi Stars striker Stephen Waruru, the league has somehow managed to cope with the situation, lack of training grounds being the most hurting of them all.
“Training grounds are letting down teams in Kenya. Playing grounds are there, though in scarcity, but training grounds are a big problem for most clubs,” he opined.
Oktay, on his part, insists the country needs to give the best of attention to football pitches in the country especially on matters upgrading the surface to international standards.
“Facilities and nutrition need to be looked into. The country has to build generation turf, which is similar to the natural grass. This is first generation. After the games, let the players shower, rest and get proper supplement before going home. That is not happening as of now.
His Sofapaka counterpart Baraza is of the view this can be attained with increased match attendance in the country.
“These guys(footballers) have friends in other leagues and they talk about these (money) issues, especially allowances. So when they compare with what they get here they feel underpaid. But this situation can change if we begin filling our stadia. If they attend these matches, some of the entry fee will pay these players. Support comes from a parent and our parent is that Kenyan supporter,” urged Baraza.
Increased fan support and loyalty
The national team and the local clubs alike are known for putting in stellar performance in front of adoring fans. For instance, in the AFCON qualifiers, Harambee Stars needed a win against Ethiopia at Kasarani to stand a chance of making it to this year’s finals in Egypt.
The stadium entry fee was waived off and a means of transport provided as football lovers filled the 60,000-seater stadium to the brim, also in attendance was Deputy President Wiiliam Ruto.
Stars put Ethiopia to the sword beating them 3-0 as the fans asked for more and eventually qualified for the finals, in which they have been placed in Group D alongside neighbours Tanzania, Senegal and Algeria.
A near familiar script applied in the Gor Mahia match against Zamalek as they downed the Egyptians in a Group D contest of the CAF Confederations Cup, Hassan Oktay’s charges winning 4-2, beating Angola’s Petro Atletico 1-0 and Algeria’s NA Hussein Dey 2-0, all at Kasarani, but suffering humbling defeats on the road, where fans were in short supply.
The 44-year-old Baraza attributes this to the power of fan support urging Kenyans to embrace the local sport.
“Kenya has a lot of football fans, unfortunately they are more into the foreign game. We request for their support. Not on matters of airing their opinion but attending matches and supporting the lads and the game will pick up. Otherwise we will keep on lamenting,” he concluded.
It is easier said than done. To the Kenyan fan, it better remains theoretical than practical. But until we walk the talk, “Kadenge na Mpira” will always sound like a monumental tale, maybe more unrealistic than the existence of dinosaurs, for the cancer eating Kenyan football will forever shred us.
No comments yet.