Year Ender: Kenyan hockey in desperate search of former glory

Grace Bwire of Kenya national women's hockey team during the Paris Olympic qualifiers in South Africa.[African Hockey]

Kenyan hockey, once a source of national pride and sporting prowess, has seen its glorious days fade into a distant memory.

The country that once competed at the highest level, even at the Olympics, is now struggling to regain its former glory.

After missing out on the 2024 Paris Olympics, with the men's team finishing 6th and the women taking third place in the qualifiers, it is evident that Kenya still has a long way to go to get back to the Olympic Games, a remarkable 35 years behind its golden years.

Decades ago, hockey was a beloved sport in Kenya and an integral part of the country's sporting fabric. The men's team was a formidable force, competing with hockey giants such as India and Bangladesh.

Kenya's finest moment in international hockey was in 1971 when they finished fourth at the International Hockey Federation (IHF) World Cup, which remains their best position to date.

However, the golden era of Kenyan hockey has slowly eroded, overshadowed by a myriad of issues that have plagued the sport.

The current state of the game is deeply concerning, with no signs of an imminent revival. The women's team, in particular, has never qualified for the Olympics. The last time Kenya participated in the global event was in 1988 when the national men's team finished last in Seoul, South Korea.

And the drought continues to 39 years as Kenya once again missed out on the games.

Butali sugar Hockey club player cuts a dejected after a stoppage time goal against Strathmore University during their KHU Men League match at the City Park Hockey Stadium on October 29,2022. The match ended in a two all draw. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

The recent African Hockey Road to Paris 2024 qualifiers in Pretoria, South Africa, painted a clear picture of Kenya's struggles. The women's team finished third, earning a bronze medal.

They defeated Ghana 3-1 in the third-place playoffs, sealing a double victory over the West African team.

Caroline Guchu, Naomi Kemunto, and Eleanor Chebet were the heroes of the match as they contributed to Kenya's redemption win.

The road to Paris 2024, however, was a rollercoaster ride of emotions for the Kenyan team.

They suffered a heart-wrenching 1-0 loss to Nigeria in the semifinals, which ultimately cost them a ticket to the Olympics. Despite having a promising run in the group stages, including a 4-0 victory over Zambia and a 3-2 win against Ghana, Kenya's journey was cut short.

In the men's category, Kenya's performance was disappointing, finishing a distant sixth.

They failed to advance beyond the preliminary group stages and lost 4-3 to Nigeria in the fifth-place classification playoff match. The dream of representing Kenya at the Paris Olympics was shattered.

For the sport to regain its former glory, there is an urgent need to focus on coaching, administration, and management development.

A clear talent identification and development strategy must be instituted, empowering local coaches and updating their knowledge to ensure that only qualified coaches manage the national team.

Dominic Lotte Maria Kremer (Left) of Strathmore University and Gbati Asana of Army Ladies of Ghana react to pain after colliding during their Africa Cup for Club Champions at City Park Hockey stadium in Nairobi on February 16, 2023. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Currently, the KHU Premier League, Super League and National League lack prize money fund to award winning teams and best players.

Respective hockey clubs are spending millions each season to honour league matches home and away but in the end, they go home with congratulations rather financial wealth.

What will a Kenyan player achieve by playing hockey for 10 years if they are not paid a cent?

The only substantial benefit of playing hockey is the opportunity of earning a call up to the national team where one hopes earn per diem, the only wealth of Kenyan hockey players paid by NOCK through Ministry of Sports.

But amidst the gloom, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Kenya's men qualified for the inaugural 2024 5-Aside Hockey World Cup in Oman set for next year.

The state of hockey in Kenya at the end of 2023 is a complex mixture of past achievements, present struggles, and future possibilities.

While the national teams' performances continue to vary, they show that with the right support and resources, Kenyan hockey can reclaim some of its former glory.

The sport's revival in Kenya hinges on a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including the government, private sector, and hockey community. With dedicated investment and strategic planning, there's hope that hockey in Kenya can once again rise to its former heights and beyond.

Vivian Akinyi of Kenya in action against Namibia during their final Olympic Qualifiers preliminary match in Pretoria.[Africa Hockey Federation]

Challenges Facing Kenyan Hockey

The question that now arises is, what should Kenya do to regain its long-forgotten status in the world of hockey? The challenges are numerous, but here are some key steps that could lead to a resurgence:

  1. Grassroots Development: Kenya must invest in grassroots development programs to nurture young talent from an early age. Building a strong foundation is crucial for the long-term success of the sport.
  2. Coaching and Technical Support: The country also needs to enhance its coaching and technical support. Bringing in experienced coaches and technical experts can help players improve their skills and understanding of the game.
  3. Infrastructure: Modernizing and upgrading hockey facilities and infrastructure is vital. This will not only attract more players but also allow for international-standard training and competitions.
  4. Financial Support: Adequate financial support is essential for the teams to participate in international tournaments, acquire quality equipment, and provide incentives for players to excel.
  5. Youth Engagement: Initiatives to engage the youth in hockey and raise awareness about the sport can help rekindle interest and bring back fans, especially supporting high school hockey.

2023-2024 Hockey Calendar

2022 Africa Cup for Club Champs, Kenya-February 13-19

2023 Junior Africa Cup, Egypt-March 12-16

African Hockey Road To Paris 2024, South Africa-October 29-Nov 5

2023 Africa Cup for Club Champs, Malawi-November 18-26

2024 Hockey5s World Cup, Oman-January 24-31

2024 All Africa Games, Ghana-March 8-24

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