Why Kenyan football is a rose growing from concrete

By Kimathi Kamau: Sunday, February 10th 2019 at 17:35 GMT +3 | Football
Kenya beat Ethiopia 3-0 in their Africa Cup of Nations Cup Group F qualifier on Sunday to move closer to a place in next year’s finals in Cameroon. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

The country is preparing to take her place in the AFCON 2019 high table despite controversy.

Famed American rap megastar, the late Tupac Amaru Shakur (born Lesane Parish Crooks) once described himself as the rose that grew from concrete having risen from crime-infested rough streets of Las Vegas to global acclaim.


It is an analogy that can best describe Kenyan football at the moment, a story of great hope amid a sea of controversy.

Kariobangi Sharks after winning this year's SportPesa Cup in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, yesterday. [Courtesy]

Going by latest developments, one could be forgiven to think Kenyan football is awash with match fixing after the country was dragged into the scandal that saw Singaporean Wilson Raj Perumal jailed for running a worldwide syndicate.

Harambee Stars Fans celebrate at Kasarani stadium when Kenya beat Ethiopia 3-0 in their Africa Cup of Nations Cup Group F qualifier on Sunday to move closer to a place in next year’s finals in Cameroon. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Earlier in the week, defender George Owino Audi was said to be the point man that conspired with Perumal to fix Harambee Stars matches from 2009 and 2011, earning millions illegally in the process.

The devastating news came hot on the heels of SportPesa Premier League (SPL) side, Kakamega Homeboyz, firing Uganda head coach, Paul Nkata last week, accusing him of colluding with members of his squad to fix games.

World governing body, Fifa and its local affiliate, Football Kenya Federation (FKF) confirmed investigations into the claims.

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As authorities comb through the mountain of evidence to nail the perpetrators, the explosive scandal should not however overshadow recent gains made in the local game.

Only last Sunday, SPL titleholders and record league winners, Gor Mahia’s magnificent 4-2 victory over five-time African club champions and Egyptian league leaders Zamalek FC in the opening round of the 2018/19 Caf Confederations Cup Group D sent shock waves across Africa.

Those watching the game at Kasarani Stadium were treated to a spectacle, as the SPL champions tore the decorated White Knights from Cairo to shreds.

Gone are the days when facing North African opposition used to spread panic among our footballers.

They are slowly but surely, emerging from shadows of bottling it up against superior competition to relishing the prospect of playing against the best.

SportPesa Shield winners Kariobangi Sharks famously came close to toppling former African champions, Kumasi Asante Kotoko out of the first round of the same competition before bowing out 2-1 on aggregate on their continental debut.

With Kenya preparing to play in the Egypt 2019 AFCON finals in June, optimism abounds the country can force its way out of the group stages of the now 24-nation competition for the first time in history.

Over the past two years, landmark achievements in Kenyan football have seen the country qualify for the AFCON finals for the first time in 15 years, Gor miss the Confed Cup quarterfinals by a whisker and a number of local sides, K’Ogalo included, play European outfits from England and Spain facilitated by global gaming firm SportPesa.

The romantic rise of Sharks FC, a team that came to its current existence in 2000, from the slums to winning two trophies in the space of months under a youthful coach Wycliffe Muluya, 32, is another shining reason why success-starved local fans can start believing again.

Sharks, who earned promotion to the SPL in 2016, went on to lift the 2018 Shield and last month, made history as the second team after Gor to win the eight team Sportpesa Cup knockout tournament in Tanzania and that earned them the right to host English Premier League side, Everton later in the year.

Losing finalists Bandari also trained by retired striker Bernard Mwalala, 34, made history last season by sealing a second finish behind Gor in the SPL before weaving their way to the final of Sportpesa Cup.

Moreover, national senior women’s team, Harambee Starlets, were kept out of the 2018 Africa Women Cup of Nations finals in Ghana in what would have been their second straight appearance by a Caf Appeals Board ruling.

The national Women’s Premier League has been running with the Under 23, Under 18 and Under 17 national sides featuring in regional Cecafa tournaments, Africa Youth and 2020 Olympics qualifiers.

This has come against the background of biting shortage of finances at FKF and collapsing facilities as Kenyans wait for the Government to fulfill its pre-2013 General Election campaign of building five new stadiums and modernising existing facilities in partnership with county administrations.

Add the perennial reports of player unrest over non-payment of dues, the shameful fact a huge chunk of stadia set aside for top flight and first division clubs are substandard as well as corporate apathy for local football to the mix and recent milestones in Kenyan football are nothing short of a miracle.

Deplorable standards in domestic football, hooliganism, corruption and mismanagement of the game have provided rich fodder for local and foreign media to spin a negative narrative that has influenced millions of home supporters to turn their back on the Kenyan game and into waiting arms of foreign clubs and nations.

Further, the termination of the lucrative deal between the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) and South African pay TV giants, SuperSport that was celebrated as the catalyst of exposing Kenyan talent to a global audience in February 2017 placed domestic football under intensive care.

Few could see a way back for local top flights teams after losing a deal worth in the region of Sh600m per annum, almost the same amount allocated to the entire sports fraternity in the annual National Budget.

Sports partnerships

In January 2018, bookmakers SportPesa suspended their domestic partnerships with football paying the highest price before announcing their comeback in April of that year.

However, it came on a reduced budget as steep Government tax hikes on gaming took effect and constricted their revenues with Gor, arch rivals AFC Leopards SC, FKF and KPL being retained in SportPesa’s portfolio that is worth about Sh620m divided across all their local sports partnerships.

Other notable benefactors in Kenyan football are the Spanish LaLiga and TV production company MediaPro, Safaricom and beverage giants Coca-Cola that have given close to Sh200m in their Chapa Dimba and Copa Coca-Cola youth tournaments in partnership with the federation.

Kenya hosted the recent inaugural Copa Coca-Cola Africa Under 16 finals held in Nakuru, beating Nigeria 3-2 on post-match penalties on December 16.

Unheralded Kapenguria Heroes from West Pokot County and Plateau Queens from Kisumu won the boys’ and girls’ Chapa Dimba titles and travelled to England to meet Stars captain, Victor Wanyama, the Tottenham star.

Fan Harambee Stars during AFCON match against DRC Congo at Kasarani Stadium. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

One thing no one can argue with is the appetite for local football is huge.

A good number of fans thronged Kasarani when Gor played an international friendly against Hull City last May.

In October Harambee Stars fans filled Kasarani Stadium to capacity as Kenya beat Ethiopia 3-0 in an AFCON qualifier.

Optimism grew when in front of a modest crowd at the same facility; Kenya stunned three-time African champions and 2006 Fifa World Cup quarterfinalists, Ghana Black Stars 1-0 a month earlier.

Stars then travelled to Ethiopia where they held the hosts to a barren draw four days before the return fixture where Stars knocked on the AFCON door for the first time since Tunisia 2004.