One of the enduring curiosities of Kenya’s sporting scene has been the inability of our national soccer team Harambee Stars to make a mark on the world stage, despite the country’s sporting prowess in other fields from athletics, to rugby, swimming, rallying, volleyball and lately even some field sports. Clearly the country has the talent to be a multi-disciplinary sports world-beater.
This is not a unique contradiction. The top African club football team is undoubtedly TP Mazambe of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s city of Lubumbashi. Tout Puissant Mazambe (the Almighty Mazembe) was founded in 1939 by Benedictine monks. In 1967 and 1968 they won the African Cup of Champions and took the African Champions Cup in 2003 and 2004. In 2009 they won the CAF Champions League qualifying for the 2009 World Cup. The next year they became the first African club team in history to contest the final of the Fifa World Cup. They won the CAF Champions League again this year.
Coming out of what has historically been one of the most volatile African countries the incredible success of this little but mighty Lubumbashi team has been a tiny indicator of what is possible on the African continent sportswise with good leadership, management and dedication. In the case of the TP Mazembe the businessman Governor of the Province, Moise Katumbi took the team under his wing personally.
Ostensibly ‘more developed’ Kenya has had no such luck. Football in the country has been ran by politicians and thugs for so long that the ability of our national team Harambee Stars to punch anywhere near its weight has been truncated. Kenyans have taken to supporting British Premier League teams while our tribal politics afflicts the ability of genuinely impressive teams like AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia to inspire a reverberating national following. Meanwhile, a slum-based team like Mathare United has been the incubator for some of the outstanding soccer talent Kenya has exported to the rest of the world.
In an episode typifying the incompetence and thuggery that bedevils the management of our national team, they almost missed a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier against Cape Verde earlier this week. We had beaten them at home in the first leg. While in our typical Kenyan exceptionalism some were asking, “Who is Cape Verde?!”, soccer lovers from the small islands were saying, “Here come the Kenyans. A slam dunk!” It emerged that apparently a disagreement between the Ministry of Sports and Football Kenya Federation almost cost them the return match through bungling.
Sports PS Richard Ekai was reported in the media as having blamed the FKF when the Harambee Stars almost missed the flight for the return match in Cape Verde. He claimed that the ministry had sent Sh17.2 million for the trip on Air Mauritius and other expenses on the day they won the home match. FKF officials, he claimed, then showed up asking for an extra almost Sh10 million to charter a plane direct to Cape Verde!
It was a very Kenyan incident: officials drooling with avarice, contracts, justifications for bending procurement rules and the whiff of graft floating above the entire episode shamefully like a dark cloud. I say shameful because Kenya’s football fraternity has persistently been let down by a coterie running football that cares little for the welfare of players, development of the game, let alone the country’s ability to achieve its true potential in the beautiful game. Thugs have managed soccer for too long and we’ve all collectively paid the price.
To their credit the highly committed Harambee Stars squad flew the 15 hours to Cape Verde without complaint and went literally straight onto the pitch. They played hard and lost 2-0. Their determination for their country made a mockery of the numbskulls who pretend to manage them. The affair reminded me of the Tanzanian marathoner John Stephen Akhwari. Representing his country in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the high altitude overcame him and cramps slowed him down. He fell badly injuring his knee and dislocating it. He kept on running and finished last hours later among the 57 of 75 competitors who started out. Asked why he’d kept running he said, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
In February this year Hyvon Ng’etich’s body failed her 50 metres to the finish line while she was in second place in her marathon in Austin, Texas. Rather than give up Hyvon crawled to the finish line with a nurse walking alongside her with a wheelchair she wouldn’t use because that would have meant her disqualification. She crawled all the way to the finish line to a crowd that was cheering and crying at the same time. The utterly impressed race organisers ensured she received prize money worth what she’d have won if she’d come in second. Our Harambee Stars team that was mishandled all the way to Cape Verde showed the same spirit.