Can Kenyan football become an African power?

Can Kenyan football become an African power?

The East African nation of Kenya hit the headlines in tragic circumstances recently when in September an Islamist group Al-Shabaab attacked innocent civilians and children in a Nairobi shopping mall. Over 70 deaths later the motive appears to have been their military’s deployment in troubled Somalia.

The country does not command many world-sporting headlines, except when their incredible track and field athletes take an abundance of medals in long distance-running events. Football is of course popular but success on an international stage has eluded them and with a domestic league that only gained official status and structure in the last fifty years, challenges, obstacles and controversy have littered the game.

The ambitious British ruled Kenya from the late-1800s and naturally like its other colonies, settlers brought their favourite pastime with them. The pure simplistic form of football, where equipment and even the football itself could be manifested in seconds, appealed to Kenyans.

Organisation however was not seen as important and the game developed at walking pace for its first few decades; the first official and competitive tournament for the national team came in the 1940s. Kenya would act as pioneers playing in the first national tournament in Africa, the Gossage Cup, now the CECAFA Cup, against its East African rival Uganda.

A two-team competition from 1926 to 1944, Zanzibar and Tanganyika (that now forms part of Tanzania) joined in the late forties and Kenya took ten titles up until the 1960s with Uganda shining and winning almost double in the same period.

Domestic club football would mirror national development in this era and clubs competed in a small-scale tournament called the Remington Cup. The inter-district tournament was dominated by teams from the Coast Province in the southeast of Kenya namely Mwenge FC (also known as Liverpool).

While the Western world celebrated the rise of ‘free-love’, the 1960s would prove the pivotal decade for Kenyan football. First came the establishment of the Kenya Football Federation to effectively lead the sport and give the best possible chance of a competitive national team.

Domestically a radical plan emerged to create a national league of 10 teams to catch up with the rest of the developed world and their thriving competitions. Resistance existed from one of the official bodies, the Football Association of Kenya, but perseverance saw the first championship held in 1963.

Dominated by seven Nairobi-based teams, only three provinces had teams representing their region with teams from the remaining four waiting patiently for their chance to join the league.

When 1965 came, Kenyans were in jubilant and confident mood and keen to celebrate their first birthday as a Republic nation by showcasing a game against Ghana. The strongest national team in Africa at the time, the Black Stars destroyed a naïve Kenya 13-2, their biggest defeat in history and a fierce reality check.

Despite the national team’s sub-standard ability, 1972 saw their debut Africa Cup of Nations appearance, albeit an exit at the first stage. This bold step was exceeded by Kenya’s first attempt at a qualifying campaign for the World Cup in 1974 and although this also ended in the same fashion, ambitious intent to at least compete was obvious.

The first decade of domestic football would remain positive and saw the rise of Abaluhya FC from Nairobi taking five titles up to and including the 1973 campaign. They were led by arguably Kenyan’s greatest footballer, Joe Kadenge, a free-scoring striker that is still fondly talked about today.

1974 would be a year to remember for Gor Mahia fans; their first title secured in their debut season and the seeds planted for their success over the next 20 years. A legendary ‘Invincibles’ campaign would follow soon after when in 1976 they finished the season unbeaten, sweeping all aside all with consummate ease.

When the decade changed so did the tides of success as Abaluhya FC, now known as the AFC Leopards, won three consecutive titles from 1980 to 1982. The biggest rivalry in Kenyan football was born as Gor Mahia matched this success with a trifecta of their own from 1983 to 1985.

The Leopards, however, bounced back and for the next twelve years to 1998 only they and Mahia would compete in a tug of war match for titles, punctuated twice when Kenya Breweries snatched their fifth success in the history of the league in 1994 and Utalli FC taking their solitary trophy in 1997.

The Leopard’s success in 1980s has been attributed not to a striker as is usually the case, but to their goalkeeper Mahmoud Abbas. Not only was he legendary for his incredible ability to save penalties but also he had an enormous psychological impact on strikers, including staring nose to nose with them before penalties.

The 1990s would see one of the most famous stories in Kenyan football, as the traditional giants were not the only teams making headlines. Mathare United FC started out as a youth club in one of Nairobi’s poorest slums, its teams filled with disadvantaged children that would usually have been scavenging the city’s rubbish dumps for food or sniffing solvents in its backstreets.

Affectionately known as the ‘Slum Boys’ their popularity and ability grew and with two President’s Cup wins (Kenya’s FA CUP) in 1998 and 2000 behind them, they eventually would later go on to win the league championship in 2008.

The emerging Kenya Breweries, owned by East African Breweries, would change its name in 1999 to Tusker FC; a reference to their owner’s key product, the most popular beer in Kenya. Fuelled by this reinvention, and clearly not by the alcohol, Tusker won successive championships to 2000, again in 2007 and a pair in 2011 and 2012, their main competition coming from youngsters Ulinzi Stars, four times champion from 2003 to 2010.

The early 2000s would also see a cluster of young Kenyan stars leave for European clubs including Paul Oyuga to Sweden and Robert Mambo to Belgium; both players having successful careers on the continent.

At the time of writing the current Kenyan Premier League is led by the popular Gor Mahia. They will be desperate to equal AFC Leopard’s record 13 titles and stay ahead of Tusker’s ten. With AFC Leopard’s last success coming back in 1998 they currently sit third in the league and will need an almighty resurrection to get close to a trophy anytime soon.

A key theme in Kenyan football, especially in the last decade, has been instability, and although the world did not suffer Armageddon at the turn of the century, the new millennium brought with it turbulence, particularly to the domestic league.

The Kenyan Premier League as it is now known became the subject of political in-fighting between the league itself and the football governing body resulting in a private limited company being formed in 2003 to operate the league with each member club becoming a shareholder.

The government’s interference would prove costly as FIFA suspended Kenya from all football activities as punishment and then again in 2006 continuing disputes inside the football federation saw an international ban enforced. Ten years previous Kenya was even selected to host the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations but, despite promises, they had no intention of staging the competition and the government bailed.

Kenyan football chiefs appear to find it difficult to stay out of the spotlight and in July this year the country’s anti-corruption agency alleges over US$400,000 has gone missing from the Football Kenya Federation’s accounts, including assistance funds from FIFA and revenue from a World Cup qualifier.

Furthermore the game has not been helped by the recent revelation that a Nigerian players’ agent, who fraudulently gained an agent’s licence, has had his this revoked after facilitating transfers of domestic Kenyan internationals to Middle Eastern clubs.

On the flip-side key sponsorship money has been forthcoming to the domestic league whose club’s struggled to generate any significant revenue since its incorporation; in 2012 East African Breweries stumped up over US$2 million to become its signature sponsor.

TV deals with SuperSport have encouraged clubs to become fully professional and have the power to gain reasonable levels of individual sponsorship. Aside from Tusker FC, several other companies also own their own clubs including sugar company Mumias and phone company Kisumu Telkom.

Commerciality has clearly reached this side of East Africa and established its links in football with English Premier League clubs Arsenal and Manchester United signing huge deals with banks and credit card companies in the country. No surprise that the two giants are the most supported club teams in Kenya with a reported 5.5 million Red Devil’s fans alone.

In the wake of the consistent controversy with the games’ management, unsurprisingly the national team, known as the Harambee Stars, has remained unspectacular in recent years. Although they reached the second round of World Cup Qualifying for Brazil 2014, they could not contain the might of Nigeria as the sole team to reach the third round even finishing behind Malawi in third.

The current national squad is not without its stars however but is clearly outbalanced. With its predominantly African-based team, star players shine like in the cases of Victor Wanyama of the Premier League’s Southampton, Dennis Oliech of the Ligue 1’s Ajaccio and Parma’s on-loan Inter Milan midfielder McDonald Mariga.

Wanyama is the 22 year-old captain and most expensive Kenyan footballer in history having recently moved for £12.5 million from Scottish giants Celtic to Southampton. The box-to-box midfielder broke another record instantly by becoming the first Kenyan to play in the English Premier League.

His compatriot Oliech has played in Qatar alongside Argentine great Gabriel Batistuta, scoring goals for fun along the way before moving to Nantes, Auxerre and now Ajaccio. With 31 goals in 67 games for Kenya, along with Wanyama, he is priceless to his country if any future progress is to be made.

Kenya’s football is continually hampered with disputes that threaten to derail its development. It’s slow and humble beginnings gained pace but seem to have been consistently halted by dealings and disruption off the field.

Commercial investment is promising but it will take baby-steps and an overall aim of growing their African presence first to fuel the national team.

Ultimately if the Kenyan game wants to avoid stagnation there will need to be one final and definitive overhaul of the governing body to stimulate emerging young talent, regain fans’ confidence and ensure their interests and the game’s future are the sole priority.

By Terry Cornick

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