Today, the world’s greatest sports show kicks off in Russia. The month-long Fifa 2018 World Cup will see 32 teams- five of them from Africa- slog it out on the pitch in 12 stadia across the world’s biggest country.
The beauty of football is not in the magical moves of wonder players like Ronaldo or Messi or Salah. No, it is in its ability to transcend race, religion, language and creed. A lot of the times, the players will be playing against teams that don’t speak their language.
For legions, football is a religion and the wonder plays.
Every weekend, millions across the world (including Kenya) sit behind TV sets to watch football in top flight leagues in Europe. In fact, it is a lot harder for an average Kenyan to name the first team of our national side Harambee Stars compared to say, Tottenham Hotspurs, an English Premier League team.
So for the next one month, the world will be treated to a football bonanza. A half of the world’s 7.2 billion souls will watch the wizardry of kicking around the ball and putting in the opponent’s net.
This year’s tournament is unlike the last one in Brazil that took off under a cloud of controversy. Sepp Blatter, the disgraced former Fifa president is gone and so are most of he presided the football fraternity with.
By a lot of measure, world football is a lot cleaner now than it has ever been and all the 32 teams have a fair shot at winning the tournament. Though many feared that the introduction of technology would ruin the enjoyment of the game, many agree that it was better to err on the side of caution.
Sadly, the only Kenyan participant in the tournament has suffered ignominy after he was shown the red card over claims of bribery. The case of Aden Marwa, if confirmed, is a cold reminder that skullduggery still exists in world football albeit on a smaller scale.
But for most Kenyans the question still remains; why is football mostly watched than played? That Kenya- one of the foremost African countries-has never sent a team to a Fifa World Cup tournament is a great shame.
Most of our athletes are members of athletics’ elite clubs; a stark contrast to football where most Kenyans thrive in analysis.
Are there no 22 or 18 or 11 Kenyans capable of kicking around the ball at this level? Victor Wanyama, McDonald Mariga and Dennis Oliech are some of the Kenyans who have broken the glass ceiling. But that is too small a number.
To grow football, we will have to do things differently. To grow the fanbase, talent must be tapped from the grassroots. The most outstanding thing about serial World Cup participants like Germany, England Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina and France is that most of them have well run local league which feeds the national team with an abundance of talent. Often, the managers of the national teams are spoilt for choice picking the line-up for a 22-man team.
As things stand, Kenya is a long way from this.
First, local football is rotten. It is riddled with mismanagement, corruption and greed. And the more things have changed in the last decade, the more they have stayed the same. Only a root and branch change will help fix things. The shenanigans that we witness year-in-year-out at the Football Kenya Federation have damaged the standing and ruined the people’s faith in football. Faith and hope needs to be restored.
Additionally, the government should make it easy and worthwhile for the private sector to invest in sports. The fight over punitive taxes imposed on betting did more harm to the sport than to the betting firms. Corporates need to be encouraged to support sports as a CSR initiative especially because government has proven inefficient and ineffective.
It is hoped that the new 2-6-3-3-3 curriculum will lay more emphasis not just on academics, but also on sports and especially football, which attracts generous sponsorship.
Moreover, sports academics should be set up to nurture the talent in the regions with devolved units playing a lead role.
Hopefully, four years from now, Kenya will be among the teams that arrive in Qatar to play in the 22nd tournament. That is a dream. But don’t we dare hope?