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It’s a shame that only two teams will join the KPL

Kiambu
 Kakamega Home boyz FC's goalkeeper Philip Odhiambo clears the ball Photo: John Onyango

That only two teams will be promoted to the SportPesa Kenyan Premier Leage (KPL) at the end of the season does not augur well for Kenyan soccer.

The current front runners are Nzoia Sugar, Kariobangi Sharks and Zoo Kericho. If say Nzoia tops the table, followed by Kariobangi Sharks, the two will join the big league come 2017.

And since Nzoia hails from Bungoma County, they will be joining Homeboyz who come from Kakamega — just next door. Kariobangi Sharks will be in the Nairobi cluster from where most KPL teams originate.

Looking at the spread, other parts of Kenya will still miss out on the joy of watching and engaging in top-flight soccer. It also means youth from these areas will still have to travel far and wide for trials. Take the example of Embu, Meru, Nanyuki, Garissa, Kitui, Machakos, Nyeri, Kericho, Kisii, Homa Bay, Siaya, Busia, Kitale, Eldoret, Malindi and Ukunda, that will not be part of the party in 2017. What happens?

You may wonder why my list includes ‘non-traditional soccer crazy towns’. But those old enough will acknowledge that during the days of Kenneth Matiba, Joab Omino and Clement Gachanja at the helm of football, the game was spread across the country.

Embu had Mafuko Bombers, Nanyuki had Spitfire, Stony Athi played in Machakos, while Kericho Post Office and Brooke Bond were bad news for visiting teams at the Kericho Green Stadium.

Kitale FC and Barclays Bank were unbeatable at the Kenyatta Stadium in Kitale, while Eldoret KCC, Rivatex FC and Raymonds FC were deadly at their backyard.

Two Fishes and Leisure Lodge FC drew many fans in Ukunda. Alaskan FC in Malindi produced John ‘Baresi’ Odhiambo, the guy who contained Nigeria’s lethal midfielder, JJ Okocha, during a World Cup qualifier match that ended in a 1-1 draw at Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi in 1997.

We all know that Shabana in Gusii Stadium was moto wa kuotewa mbali, as Busia United took advantage of the ‘borderline’ to ‘import’ talent from Uganda, long before other teams got wind of it. All these teams milked the fact that promotion to the then Super League was based on provinces. Each had to produce a team. Rift Valley was divided into North and South. Teams from Eldoret, Kitale, Kapsabet, Iten and Kapenguria played in their own leagues, with the winner joining the national league. Since Eldoret teams like Rivatex could not be relegated, new ones joined them, allowing North Rift to have many teams in the big league.

Kisumu Posta and Shabana were too strong to be relegated, and so new teams like Kisumu Breweries joined them. Then the armed forces also split, forming Scarlet FC, Baruti FC, Stony Athi, Kahawa Barracks, Kenya Navy, and Waterworks FC (army headquarters), all of which joined the party. It was interesting watching Scarlet FC of Lanet Barracks play Kahawa Barracks at City Stadium. With the shrinking opportunities, the defence forces decided to merge and consolidate their talent into one Ulinzi FC, which happened at the expense of spreading soccer.

When the Football Kenya Federation (FKF) says they will spread the game to all parts of Kenya, one wonders how they will do it when the big league only has 18 slots, with Nairobi taking the lion’s share.

What if they adopted a format that allows all the counties to produce a team to play in a low-tier Division Three, which would upgrade to Division Two then Nation Wide, before joining the Kenyan Premier League. 

When Gor Mahia won the 1987 Mandela Cup, the league had 24 teams. Each county government will see the need to put up the long-awaited stadiums and proceed to sponsor own teams. With this, it will be easy to discover talents hidden in distant places like Garissa, Lodwar, Lamu and West Pokot. The fixtures would be arranged in such a way that teams start their games with away matches — in the furthest places — before moving closer home. And just like the English Premier League, our fans will be very loyal to their county teams.

Consider this: South Africa and the USA are big countries with different time zones. Cape Town and Jo’burg have different time zones, yet Cape Town’s Ajax FC play against Jo’burg’s Mamelodi Sundowns, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. In America, teams like New York Cosmos have to travel West to tackle LA Galaxy in California.

If we go this way, then this might just be a boost for sponsors who wish to promote their products beyond Nairobi. Which is why FKF must walk the talk when it comes to promoting soccer in Kenya.

Football is not only in the big towns. The federation’s marketing team — if they have one — should come up with attractive incentives for sponsors whom they should  engage with concrete opportunities.  

By the way, who said Britam can only brand Nyayo Stadium. And who said SportPesa and Betway do not have followers in Migori and Isiolo?

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