Gone are the old days of star-studded football visits

One of the gravest consequences of the collapse of Kenya football – let’s not mince words, our national pastime is dead – is the disappearance of the superstar visitor.

Fans of the 60s and 70s were given such regular treats by World Cup stars and Premiership clubs that they almost came to take the visits for granted.

It begun in 1956 when the Blackpool FC and England winger, Sir Stanley Mathews, came calling. He played four exhibition matches against African, Asian, European and a multi-racial FA of Kenya side before proceeding to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar.

It was a great experience for Kenya’s national players of the day, among them Shem Chimoto, Elijah Lidonde, Enoch Wirage, Musa Libau and Omar Okumu and the fans crowding the stands at the African (today City) Stadium.

They howled with delight at the electrifying moves of the world-renowned stars who before departure from Eastleigh Airport – today Kenya Air Force Moi Air Base – remarked: “It’s been grand. You people have got yourselves an ambassador in me.” They would return to Africa several times.

At Independence, the Scottish national team visited as part of the Uhuru celebrations. In their team was another winger with a devastating right foot, Peter Lorimer, who would later become a key member of the Scottish team for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Still, the future Harambee Stars were not overawed; they hit them 3-2 to win the Cup with Ali Kajo starring for the Kenyans.

FOUNDING FATHER

Ethiopia’s Yednekatchew Tessema, a founding father of the Confederation of African football, which he led as deputy president between 1964 and 1972 and as President between 1972 to his death in 1987, had come to Kenya in June 1963 and remarked: “I envy you in East Africa. The physical condition of your footballers is so much better than ours in Ethiopia. Your players are faster and stronger. They are the equal of European teams in tackling and reaching high balls.

“If we had Kadenge in Ethiopia, I’d be sure that we would keep the Africa Cup. I’ve seen Garrincha of Brazil many times. Kadenge is just like him; he’s a natural footballer with his speed and dribbling. Apart from Kadenge, I thought Baker of Uganda and Wasiembo, the Kenya left-back, are very good.”

Tessema talked a great deal about the need to instil professionalism in our game. He recommended the country import European coaches immediately and start a grassroots coaching network to tap talent early. He called for strong managerial structures.

He said: “Government support must be disinterested. It must serve all young people, not just the elite players who reach international standards. You’ve got physique, fitness, strength. Now you need an improvement in the managerial and technical standards.”

It is as if the legendary “Father of African Sport” was seeing it coming for poor Kenya. In retrospect, we can only rue that extraordinary comparison of one of our own with the superstar of the 1962 World Cup. What became of us? Why didn’t we listen?

Tessema’s high opinion of the promise of our game fuelled tours in years to come. For the Jamhuri Day celebrations of 1965, Kenya could think of no less a team to invite than the Black Stars of Ghana, reigning Africa Nations Cup champions. Kenya’s head and heart were in the right place but it was a tad ambitious for the ill-prepared team; they got walloped 13-2 – a record that still stands.

SCORED VITAL GOAL

In 1968, West Bromwich Albion visited. Reported the Daily Nation’s Peter Moll who had flown to London to cover the FA Cup final: “West Bromwich Albion will climb aboard an East African Airways Super VC-10 next Tuesday night to bring the English FA Cup and an abundance of soccer talent to East Africa. And among the jubilant West Bromwich party will be the man who gave West Brom their 1-0 victory over Everton in that fantastic FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium on Saturday – Jeff Astle, the Goal King of English soccer who scored the vital goal in the third minute of extra time.”

Two West Brom stars, full back Doug Fraser and midfielder Bobby Hope arrived in Nairobi separate from the rest of the party after representing Scotland against the Netherlands in Amsterdam. The Baggies weren’t taking any chances something quite illuminating about what they thought about their Kenyan hosts.

In the run-up to the 1972 Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Cameroon, the West German team, Eintracht Frankfurt came over. Their purpose: to help our national team prepare better for their first Nations Cup outing. Eintracht, who would become winners of the German Cup in 1974 and 1975 and the UEFA Cup in 1980, brought with them Jürgen Grabowski, a man capped 44 times for Germany.

In the 1970 World Cup, as coach Helmut Schoen’s most devastating substitute, he had helped kill England’s defence of the title they had won at home. Grabowski was a man in the lips of all the Kenya team players of that time. He also featured in the 1974 World Cup.

Again, such is the quality of players that our national team faced and our fans enjoyed.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s tour was followed in the mid 70s by those of Norwich City and Notts County. The Norwich side was star-studded. It had Martin Peters, a member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning side. The man once described by his manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, as being “ten years ahead of his time” also led Tottenham Hotspur to victory in the 1973 League Cup against the team that he led to Nairobi, Norwich.

LIGHT WORK

Fellow England internationals in the travelling party were Collin Sullivan and Phil Boyer. They made light work of the club sides they were lined up against – Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards, Champion and Mwenge – but too much of this tour was made of the fact that the KFF chairman of time, Mr Kenneth Matiba, was using it to prove to superstitious clubs that witchcraft in football didn’t work.

He had offered to pay two years of witch doctor’s fees to any club that used charms to defeat Norwich. But there was a catch: the announcement had to be done before the game begun and not after. Nobody collected.

In 1976, what was going to be the mother of all visits – symbolic though it was – ended in fiasco. Pele, the greatest footballer on earth, was our visitor this time. I was one of those schoolboys who paid with three Pepsi Cola bottle tops to watch him take Starehe Boys Centre schoolboys through their paces at the Jamhuri Park Stadium.

The Starehe boys were hastily assembled by Patrick Shaw, the mountainous crime buster famous (or infamous) for his extra-judicial methods of fighting crime in Nairobi who was the deputy director of the Centre after Matiba announced that the KFF would have nothing to do with the tour. What happened was this: Steve Richards, a former British sports reporter and member of Pele’s delegation, told Matiba that he had not been consulted about arrangements for Pele’s visit because he “was just a publicity seeker.”

Before he could breath in and out twice, Richards was on a plane home after being fired by Pepsi who profusely apologised to Matiba and his administration. But Matiba was adamant. He said that in fact, that was not the first time Richards had been rude to him – it was the third.

Matiba claimed that as a football administrator, he was used to insults and therefore that was not his main beef with the tour and with Richards. It was its ambiguity: the KFF didn’t know whether Pele was here to promote football or as a Pepsi Cola salesman. And worst of all, his administration had been kept in the dark about all arrangements.

HARDCORE MATIBA

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Well, whatever the truth, teams couldn’t be found in Nairobi for Pele to work with. Faced with this situation, his handlers somehow thought they could find better luck in Mombasa. But the boss there, Mbarak Said, the KFF vice-chairman, was a hardcore Matiba supporter. He promptly announced the unavailability of the Mombasa Municipal Stadium which Pepsi had hoped to use. He said the KFF had booked the stadium for a friendly match between two local teams “and this match has nothing to do with Pele.”

Then he released a pointed statement to the media to rub it in. “I regret to say that we won’t cancel the arranged fixture today. It is very unfortunate that the Pepsi Cola people have adopted this attitude which amounts to disappointing the wananchi, who are the main customers of Pepsi. If Pepsi wants to continue with the Pepsi programme in Mombasa then they should arrange the programme at their factory or elsewhere where Pele can sell more Pepsi Colas. As far as Mombasa is concerned, we have nothing to do with it.”

Pele didn’t go to Mombasa. In fact, his tour was promptly cut short. In his book, Pele: The Autobiography, Pele mentions the countries he visited as part of his work with Pepsi, including Uganda and Nigeria. He says exactly nothing of Kenya, perhaps an indication of his lasting disappointment. However, he lauds the programme.

“It was in 1973 that I signed a contract with the Pepsi Cola Company to work on a world-wide project of football workshops for children called the International Youth Football Programme, on which I would collaborate with Julio Mazzei. I decided to try it out for a year – and it turned out to be one of the best things I ever got involved with.

“After the first year was done, I signed for another five. The programme was a triumph. It cost nothing to coaches, the schools, or players. We produced a book and various posters of Professor Mazzei teaching, and made a coaching film called Pele: The Master and His Method, which won eleven international prizes.”

To the best of my recollection, the Pele debacle was the last I heard of great football visits to Kenya.

We are a peripheral nation as far as this game is concerned. We’re down, and probably out. I haven’t a clue what combination of superhuman skill and will can get an English or German or Spanish Premiership side to look our way.