The imperative for a working football infrastructure in Kenya

Harambee Stars' Michael Olunga, China based player, clear ball from the goal area during a friendly match at Kenyatta Stadium in Machakos
NAIROBI, KENYA: If there is a national sports team that ended the year on a high, it has to be Harambee Stars, which is still exulting in its triumph over Zanzibar in the finals of the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup.

Deputy President William Ruto gave the team Sh5 million and promised Sh50 million should they qualify for the 2019 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon. President Uhuru Kenyatta weighed in with his personal reward of Sh10 million. These acts of unstructured generosity must be lauded by all who mean well for football development in our country.

With the DP dangling the Sh50 million payout to the team early enough should they qualify for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, there will be no shortage of motivation among the players when the campaign proper gets underway next year.

However, Kenya’s fortunes as a footballing nation must never be hinged on the precarious benevolence of individuals and corporates alone. While such incidental overtures are welcome and complementary, we must prioritise a foundational superstructure that supports our game and is agnostic to time. Such a superstructure must be institutionalised, sustainable, predictable, and grounded in policy.

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Such an infrastructure must have the following ingredients: Good playing surfaces, a clear and publicly articulated reward system for national teams, and an age-based league and academy system that recruits talent at an early age. When CAF declined Kenya’s proposal to host the next CHAN tournament, one of the reasons that stood out was the fact that the country was not ready in terms of the requisite infrastructure (stadiums).

Actualise promises

It is time the Government rolled up its sleeves and turned those glossy images of proposed stadiums on its campaign manifesto into reality.

There is no reason each county should not have at least a 20,000-30,000-seater stadium with a good playing surface. Already, counties such as Kakamega, Machakos, Mombasa, Narok, and Meru are showing the way.

The role played by good stadiums, as a magnet for big games and economic opportunity, besides providing an arena for showcasing local talent, cannot be gainsaid. Kakamega’s Bukhungu Stadium and Machakos’ Kenyatta Stadium have had a taste of this by hosting some key matches during the Cecafa tournament.

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As a country, we have never done a good job of properly remunerating, let alone rewarding, our sporting heroes. In a country where national honours have been cheapened and reduced to political party lists, this is hardly surprising. In the latest national honours list as part of the Jamhuri Day celebrations, which was dripping with all manner of charlatans, sportspeople were largely conspicuous by their paucity.

At his recent induction into Kenya’s Football’s Hall of Fame, tellingly a private enterprise, Gor Mahia and Harambee Stars legend and arguably the best footballer to have ever graced a football pitch in Kenya, Alan Thigo, revealed he is still owed money for his services to Gor Mahia and Harambee Stars.

Infrastructural development

In the absence of policy and institutionalised structures to take care of such issues, authentic stars of yore have had to fall back on the precarious benevolence of individuals and organisations to survive. The experiences of Joe Kadenge, Peter Dawo, and even boxer Conjestina Achieng’ are instructive. It is embarrassing.

Most pundits agree that the golden years for Kenyan football were the 1970s, with the success spilling over to the 1980s, headlined by Harambee Stars’ narrow loss to Egypt in the finals of the 1987 All Africa Games and Gor Mahia’s triumph over Tunisia’s Esperance in the Africa Cup Winners (Mandela) Cup, the only team to have achieved such a feat in the region.

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The seedbed for this success is widely acknowledged to have been the youth centres established in major towns through a partnership with the then West German government, which had seconded a coach to Kenya, Bernard Zgoll. These centres became a veritable feeder for Harambee Stars, with the Nakuru one producing such greats as Ambrose 'Golden Boy' Ayoyi and Josephat 'Controller' Murila, among others.

However strong the national league is, there can be no meaningful progress in Kenyan football without an infrastructure that encourages the identification and nurturing of talent from an early age and provides viable pathways for onward progress.

Strong age-based leagues and academies, possibly supported by the Government to make them affordable, could be the answer.

Some of Kenya’s most celebrated footballing talent such as Tottenham midfield enforcer Victor Wanyama (JMJ) and Girona front-man Michael Olunga (Liberty Sports) are products of private academies.

Mr Akumu is a communication consultant 

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Harambee StarsAfrica Cup of NationsPresident Uhuru Kenyatta