There is this story about Ephraim Matsilela Sono, the Black Prince of South African football, which makes sense all the time it is told because it addresses the needs and rights the most important people in football: players.
Ephraim is the man popularly known as Jomo Sono, the coach and also owner of Jomo Cosmos FC which nowadays plays in the second-tier of South African football league. Reportedly, he was given the Jomo name because he was being equated to Kenya’s Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
During his playing career, Jomo travelled to the United States for whatever reason (he played in several clubs in the US at some point in his career) and interacted with footballers, coaches and management of clubs.
Upon his return to South Africa, he found that his club’s jersey had new furniture: a sponsor’s name. He asked the management about the shirt sponsor and got no answers. His teammates also did not know what kind of negotiations led to the sponsor’s name being on their jerseys and why they had to carry this load of a name on their backs or chests.
Playing football was tasking enough, and another load on them, metaphorically, was too much to bear because they had not been told how they will benefit from it.
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He was piqued — and kept asking questions even on match days, and he still got no answers, so, he decided to act. It was either at the start of the match or after half time. When the footballers were trooping to the pitch, he remained in the dressing room and took a few minutes to block out the sponsor’s name on his jersey with sellotape. Then he joined his teammates in the pitch and played. He was not subbed or sent off.
Even though the tape added more weight, literally, to his jersey, he was relieved that at least, he was not a billboard, a slave, a footballer without rights whose duty was to fatten the wallets of others through shirt sponsorship deals whose details footballers did not know.
Jomo’s act definitely infuriated the sponsors and club management, but it opened the eyes of footballers to the realities of being used, abused and taken advantage of as mules — carrying money of their backs without knowing how this will reduce their financial burden.
That act, in the 70s or early 80s, might seem inconsequential, but it no doubt changed the way South African clubs deal with footballers generally and specifically when it comes to (shirt) sponsors.
That kind of act is what happens in an environment where there is no strong player representation and clubs and football associations make deals that require the input of footballers to be successful, yet the footballers are not considered or told how they will be affected or how they will benefit.
That is the situation in Kenya where big sponsorship monies are touted but what is seen on the faces of footballers is just pain. The pain of going for months without salaries, of sleeping on hard cold surfaces of airport lounges while going to represent their clubs, of relying on fans and well-wishers, of enduring long and bumpy bus rides to match venues, of not being given their allowances and bonuses in time when they represent their country… the pain of being encouraged to worship poverty by playing in the Kenyan Poverty League. Sad.
Currently, there is excitement about a sponsorship deal for Kenya’s football clubs with a betting company. I do not want to write about it now but there will be a flood of tears. Club chairs have been called for a meeting to be given the details and told to provide banking details to smoothen the timely transfer of funds. Wow! So sweet.
Just the other day, when the Kenyan Poverty League had a sponsor, which also sponsored some two clubs, footballers' pain did not go away and at some point, the sponsor wanted to pay them directly.
Will the clubs this time reveal the details of the deals to the footballers or will the representative body of footballers be included in the negotiations? Or will people just be excited about the reported Sh8 million per club per season and forget that some clubs have a monthly wage bill of Sh5 million?
If footballers do not take action now and demand their rights, their woes won't end and clubs and the federation will continue to take advantage of them in the Kenyan Poverty League — that is why they should be encouraged to avoid it.
Clay Muganda is an Editor at The Standard