FKF-PL: Will Nzoia Sugar's relegation end football sweetness?

Nzoia Sugar players protest to the center referee Isaac Hamisi in FkF Kenya Premier League match against AFC Leopards at Nyayo National stadium. May 7, 2023. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

In the fading lights of the 2023-2024 Football Kenya Federation-Premier League (FKF-PL) season, a somber narrative is unfolding as Nzoia Sugar, a team emblematic of Kenya's rich sugar belt heritage in football, teeters on the brink of relegation.

With only 17 points from 27 matches and rooted firmly at the bottom of the league table, Nzoia Sugar's fate seems but all sealed, trailing the safety zone by 11 points with just six matches left.

This season has been particularly challenging for the Bungoma-based club, which has managed only four wins while suffering a staggering 18 losses.

AFC Leopards' Victor Omune (left) and Joseph Wafula of Nzoia Sugar during FkF Premier league at the Nyayo National stadium on Sunday, March 3rd, 2024. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Their performance is a grim echo of broader struggles faced by clubs from the sugar belt region, a once-thriving hub of Kenyan football talent and competitive spirit.

The decline of Nzoia Sugar marks a potential end to the presence of these clubs in the top tier of Kenyan football, following the fall of historical clubs such as Mumias Sugar, Sony Sugar and Chemelil Sugar.

The saga of the sugar belt clubs in the Kenyan Premier League, which began in 1963, is woven with both triumph and tragedy.

These clubs, supported primarily by the local sugar companies, have battled through decades marked by financial instability, lack of professional management, and a reliance on single-entity sponsorship which, when withdrawn, has left clubs unable to operate sustainably.

Nzoia Sugar before taking on AFC Leopards during FkF Premier league at the Nyayo National stadium on Sunday, March 3rd, 2024. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

The cessation of a lucrative broadcasting deal with SuperSport in 2017 and the subsequent withdrawal of sponsorship by SportPesa in 2019 due to tax disputes have stripped these clubs of critical financial lifelines.

Historically, the sugar belt clubs have been crucibles of talent, contributing significantly to the national football scene.

Some of Kenya's legends first showcased their prowess in these local leagues before launching successful careers abroad.

However, the current economic crisis, exacerbated by poor sports marketing and management wrangles, has reduced many of these clubs to shadows of their former selves.

Center referee Josephine Wanjiku issue a warning card to Steve Otieno of Nzoia Sugar during FkF Premier league match against AFC Leopards at the Nyayo National stadium on Sunday, March 3rd, 2024. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Clubs struggle to pay players and staff, often failing to honour matches, which further diminishes the competitiveness and appeal of the league.

Nzoia Sugar’s impending relegation is not just a blow to the club’s fans and players but serves as a poignant reminder of the precarious state of football in the Nyanza region and, by extension, across Kenya.

Nyanza, known for its abundant talent, may find itself without representation in the next season's FKF-PL roster, a devastating development for an area that once gave rise to Kenya’s tiki-taka and produced national champions.

Nzoia Sugar fc's Luke Namanda (left) could not hold back his tears of joy after scoring their lone winning goal as he is congratulated by his colleague during KPL Match against Nakumatt FC at Ruaraka Grounds on Aug 26, 2017' [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

As Nzoia Sugar faces the closing chapters of this season, the broader narrative of decline in the sugar belt region's footballing fortunes begs a critical question: what future awaits these clubs?

Without a radical transformation in how Kenyan football is financed and managed, the sugar belt's sweet past may well turn into a forgotten chapter in the annals of the sport in the region.

Boniface Ambani give instructions when he was coaching AFC Leopards in 2016. [Jonah Onyango,Standard]

Former Harambee Stars international Boniface Ambani said it is time clubs should hand over the management of the team to the community around.

The former Tusker man said the companies should just come in as sponsors. Let the communities around feel the ownership of the club. Management should be run by people from the community.

“The economic crunch facing the country has always hit companies hard. Sustainable measures have never been put in place. When such companies fall under receivership, the sports department suffers most. They are deemed redundant.

“A department that doesn't bring revenues to the company. That's what goes first. Nzoia is going down, and I am not seeing it survive, unless the company restructures itself. Chemelil, Sony, Mumias, Rivatex Kecomi, KCC, Oserian ,Kenya Pipeline, Mountex, KTM all went down. They never found their way back....Nzoia is heading there. I don't know if they will survive in the NSL,” said Amabani.

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