It is not the kind of ending most hockey enthusiasts were expecting.
That Kenya's Lakers women's hockey team was disqualified from the recently concluded 2023 Africa Cup for Club Champions (ACCC) in Blantyre, Malawi, few saw it coming.
In the end, it has left hockey enthusiasts with bittersweet memories of the tournament.
Lakers had showcased an impressive performance throughout the seven-team round-robin matches, finishing unbeaten and securing the second spot in the standings with 14 points.
Their unbeaten run, including a 12-0 win over Scorpions, a 0-0 draw with Blazers, a resounding 15-0 victory over Genetrix from Malawi, a convincing 10-1 win over Capital Braves and a 2-2 draw with GRA, demonstrated their prowess on the field.
Their journey to the women's final was abruptly halted when they were informed on Sunday morning, just hours before the match, that they are disqualified from the tournament.
The sudden turn of events was attributed to a complaint filed by their fellow Kenyan competitors, Blazers Hockey Club, who alleged Lakers fielded ineligible players.
“Team, there has been the need to communicate to you about the latest development. Delta queens, GRA ladies, Blazers brought a complaint about the use of ineligible players by Lakers hockey Club. An investigation was launched and the report came out to be true," the organisers said in a statement.
“Lakers Hockey Club has therefore been disqualified from the competition. The attached fixtures has therefore been amended as such."
The Africa Hockey Federation (AFH) took prompt action, changing the fixtures and awarding Blazers the opportunity to play in the final against defending champions Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA).
The complaint, also supported by GRA and Delta Queens from Nigeria, claimed that Lakers had fielded players who did not meet the eligibility criteria for the competition.
According to tournament rules, teams are allowed to strengthen their squads with three non-national players signed temporarily for the continental showpiece.
The players in question were Gilly Okumu of Amira Sailors, DFG Wolverines' Pauline Ochieng, and Clementine Nyongesa of the University of Nairobi.
Interestingly, no rule in the AHF Africa Cup for Club Champions Rules and Regulations 2018 bars Lakers or any other team for temporarily signing players from their own nation temporarily. In fact, there is no limit on the number of players.
The absence of clear evidence and approval of Lakers' player list by KHU added to the complexity to the controversy.
The tournament rules on Team List and Entry state that the National Authority, in this case, KHU, must ensure that all players listed are eligible to participate.
“Such team lists must be authorised by the National Authority the club is affiliated to and the National Authority must certify that all players as listed are eligible to participate,” read the rule.
However, Lakers' disqualification raises doubts about the diligence of KHU in confirming the eligibility of the players before forwarding the official list to the tournament organisers.
Efforts to seek clarification from KHU President Nahashon Randiek, who was present in Malawi, were not successful as he did not respond to our text messages.
The unfortunate turn of events culminated in the women's final not being played as Lakers protested by storming the field.
In an unprecedented move, the Africa Hockey Federation resorted to a coin toss, awarding gold to GRA and silver to Blazers.
The saga casts a shadow over Lakers' remarkable journey to Malawi, where they travelled by bus from Kisumu County, covering over 2,228km to participate in the tournament.
The controversy surrounding their disqualification will be etched in the memories of players, fans, and hockey community as a contentious chapter in the history of the ACCC.
Meanwhile, in the men's tournament, Western Jaguars secured the silver medal after a hard-fought 3-2 loss to Egyptian giants Sharkia in the final.
2023 Africa Club Championships
Men-Sharkia from Egypt
Women-Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA) from Ghana
Some of the matters in Questions to Lakers disqualification
1 Did lack of sportsmanship cost Kenya the gold medal in Malawi?
2 Did Lakers follow the tournament rules of fielding not more than three non-club players?
3 Did Africa Hockey Federation follow tournament rules in disqualifying Lakers?
4 Were Blazers from Kenya right to file a complaint against fellow Kenyan team Lakers who were in the finals?
5 Was there diligence by KHU in confirming the eligibility of the Lakers players before forwarding the official list to the tournament organizers?