The Triumph and Tragedy of Francis Kadenge


Posted on Sunday, July 28th, on

A few weeks ago, shortly after I published my list of the 50 greatest Kenyan footballers of the last 50 years, Joe Kadenge did a bit of digging and obtained my telephone number. He called me and I was soon on the receiving end of what military people call friendly fire.

“Who are some of these people you are calling great players?” he asked me. “How does somebody play for Harambee Stars for two years and then you call him great? I can tell you the greatest players Kenya has ever had. In fact, as we are speaking, one of them is here with me and I want you to talk to him. We are reading your newspaper.”

He handed over the phone but because this is not his story, I won’t name the player. Suffice to say he was a teammate; that means a 1960s era footballer. Joe wanted an interview as soon as possible. I told him: “Am up to my ears with what I am doing but for you, I can add an hour to the 24.”

So we arranged to have tea on Monday this week. But last Saturday, his son Francis died. We spoke on the phone over the inevitable cancellation of the interview but we still met so that I could convey my condolences to him in person. Joe mourned his son with the stoicism of an old man who has seen much in his long life and calmly spoke of Francis’ unfulfilled potential, the promise that every one of us who watched him expected to burst forth and bloom for Harambee Stars for a decade or more.

Glories and failures

But it didn’t. And this is the story of Francis Kadenge’s life, a story emblematic of a generation of Kenya’s footballers. Scarcely anybody could tell it better than his old friend Peter Lichungu who shared the glories and failures of AFC Leopards with him.

“He was my age-mate; both of us were born in 1961. We also joined AFC Leopards in the same year – 1982,” Lichungu told me. “Both of us were products of Bernhard Zgoll’s Olympic Youth Centres. Francis was based in Nairobi and I was in Kakamega, playing under Chris Makhoha. Francis went on to play for Maragoli and Re-Union. He joined Leopards in January of ’82 and I, later that year.”

That year, Leopards reloaded their ranks and ended up with probably the greatest concentration of talent in their 49-year history. In came Mike Amwayi, Peter Lichungu, Francis Kadenge, Patrick Shilasi, Mickey Weche, Ben Musuku, Pius Masinza, and John Arieno all in addition to established greats like Mahmoud Abbas, Josephat Murila, Abdul Baraza, Haggai Mirikau, Joe Masiga and Wilberforce Mulamba.

It was a steamroller of a machine guided by a small but tough Ugandan coach named Robert Kiberu. Kiberu cared little for finesse; all he wanted was results. He imposed a ruthless discipline and seemed possessed with achieving optimal physical fitness.

Writing in the Daily Nation edition of January 31, 1983 before the Cecafa Club Cup final, I wrote: “This year, their capacity to win was even less doubtful. This was because of the formidable signings they called upon to bolster an already strong team. And unlike their rivals, they have a definite starting eleven.”

In the same report, I quoted a veteran player from one of Leopards’ rivals as saying this: “They put too much pressure on you until you crack.”

At that time, their eternal rivals, Gor Mahia were struggling with an affliction of the current Harambee Stars disease – beautiful play and few goals. But Leopards were firing them in big time; they became East and Central Africa Club champions that year and defended the title the following year.

“To sit on the bench was an achievement,” says Lichungu of the riot of talent that the club packed. “Many good players couldn’t find their way there.” But Francis wore the starting Number 7 shirt, the same one that old Joe once wore for Kenya for a goodly 14 years beginning 1958. Such is who he was.

A forward line containing Francis Kadenge, Wilberforce Mulamba, Joe Masiga, Tony Lidonde and Mike Amwayi was frightfully efficient against opposing defences. And if behind this line was Abbas, Shilasi, Murila, Arieno and Lichungu, then you were in for a hard afternoon. That line packed speed, power and a voracious appetite for goals.

Francis Kadenge embodied all those attributes. But he had more. Says Lichungu: “Once we were playing Nzoia at Kanduyi. It was raining heavily. There were pools of water on the pitch, more so at the goalposts. Nzoia were stubborn and were holding out better than we knew what to do with them.

That was the opportunity for Francis to do the unexpected to break the stalemate. “Through the rain, he told a Nzoia defender that there was something wrong with the ball pressure. He said it with a child’s innocence. “Wewe ishike na utaskia (Just hold the ball and you’ll prove me right).”

Astonishingly, the defender did as Francis had suggested – he lifted the ball in his own area to check. Penalty! And Francis duly slotted in the spot kick. The poor man spent the rest of the game chasing Francis in great fury.”

But Francis was not through with his trickery. Late in the game and with the scores standing at 1-1 and the rain pounding the pitch, he collected the ball on his usual haunt to the right of the penalty area.

“We all prepared to jump and head the cross but Francis smashed the ball against the pool of water,” says Lichungu. “The ball skidded awkwardly and into the net. Only Francis could conjure up something like that. He used to do the unexpected. We won that game 2-1.”

And Mahmoud Abbas, his goalkeeper, told me: “Francis had a terrific right foot shot. He had pace. And he had endurance. Of course, his epic moment was 1983 when we beat Malawi’s Admark Tigers in Zanzibar to keep the Cecafa Club Cup forever. JJ scored our first goal and Francis scored the winning one. But Francis put in a stand-out performance, not just in the final but throughout the tournament. As he goes to where we shall all once go, I wish him a peaceful rest and God’s mercy.”

Why did old Joe’s son fade too soon and fail to carry forth the most sentimental brand name in Kenya football over the five decades of our independence? It is obvious that he was a sensitive young man and sensitive people have a delicateness about them that can sometimes lead to self-destruction.

In a 1995 interview with journalist Fred Mudhai, Francis bared his soul. Speaking of his beginnings as a footballer, he said: “I had two major dreams: to wear the national colours and to emulate my father to the hilt. I started picking up. But I got demoralized and later retired.

“I did not quit because of age. I just discovered that there was nothing I was going to gain from football. There is no security. It is not rewarding and officials of clubs are not concerned about the welfare of players. Clubs just use you as long as you are useful to them. They dump you once a misfortune strikes you.”

He went on to complain about the fate that befell Mike Amwayi who was involved in a road crash and suffered an injury on his eye. Francis painfully observed that only players paid hospital visits to Amwayi. Officials were pre-occupied with his replacement.

He charged: “When our captain, Mickey Weche, asked them why they did not show concern by visiting Amwayi, they simply said that we should forget about Amwayi and his injury problems.”


His disillusionment made him turn his back on his talent. He sought other ways of earning a living. He worked for the National Cereals and Produce Board as an electrical technician and then joined his father in the taxi business, operating from the old Freemark Pavilion at the Railway Club. He still loved football and kept hoping for a return, even as the years piled up. But he was on the road out and never did.

This week, Joe told me: “I expected a lot from Francis. I had hoped that he would carry the family name to great heights. He had the talent for it. His years at Re-Union showed this and his performance in Zanzibar in 1983 marked him out as great right winger. But he didn’t last.

“However, I have observed that it is not Francis alone. I think it is a generational issue. There is something about the staying power, or lack of it, that the younger generation shows that is very different from my generation. We lasted and they don’t. I can only attribute it to changed life-styles.”

Francis’ fate is shared by the vast majority of the thousands of amateur footballers who have made generations of Kenya fans happy and launched many officials into successful political and business careers but who plummeted into misery when the window of youth closed.

It’s a small window. It lasts just about 10 years. At 30, a footballer is already a veteran. Shortly thereafter, he is staring retirement in the face. And if nothing was accrued in those prime years of youth, a catastrophe looms. Time, as Johannes Kreigler, the man who came to help us fix our political problems observed, is lost in the beginning, not in the end.

People like JJ Masiga, his strike force partner at AFC Leopards, and William Obwaka, right winger at rivals Gor Mahia during the same time, saved it in the beginning by learning a profession. Both became doctors. Today, they are alright. But Francis was not as lucky. Many were not as lucky.

And the basis of their misfortune was the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the leadership of the football clubs. Years ago, Abdalla Bekah, once treasurer of Gor Mahia, told me a story. He said that soon after Len Julians was hired as coach, Gor went for a league match in Kisumu. Julians was staggered by the fanaticism of the club’s multitude of supporters.

He said to Job Omino, the club patron: “If every Luo gave just one shilling to Gor Mahia, the team will become a massive business enterprise like any European club. Omino took the cue and floated the idea of professionalizing the club by taking it to the stock market. But the idea was shot down. People said Gor is a social club, not a business. It remains poor to date.”

The same could be said of AFC Leopards, which will be 50 years old next year. How many footballers like Francis Kadenge have died in poverty even as they have given it all their youthful blood and sweat?

In this life, we learn to accept that some of our expectations will be met and others will not. When Joe spoke of the expectations he had of his first boy, which are long gone for eternity, my mind incessantly remembered Cesar Louis Menotti, the left wing intellectual who coached Argentina to victory in the 1978 World Cup.

In that tournament, he had a forward named Mario Kempes who some commentators said comprised 50 per cent of the Argentine team. In the following World Cup, Argentina surrendered their title and Kempes consistently played below par.

Asked by journalists why he had persisted in fielding him, Menotti replied: “He is a player of great character. Any time he would have burst into form and our fortunes would have changed. That is what I was waiting for. Unfortunately, he didn’t.”

I watched Francis Kadenge play many times. But the one match that easily stands out for me was the first league match he featured for Leopards against the then Kenya Breweries – and not for anything extraordinary that he did on the pitch. It is because of something that was said off it.

I was at the ‘Press Bench’ at the City Stadium. Not far from me was Livingstone Madegwa, the Breweries and Kenya left winger who had now retired. And still in the vicinity was Joe Kadenge. Joe was silent throughout, but his eyes never left the pitch.

Madegwa was ecstatic about young Kadenge’s performance and kept on muttering words of praise to nobody in particular. That’s what caught my attention; I thought he should have been cheering Breweries.

When Francis made two or three good attempts at goal in quick succession, Madegwa said loudly to himself: “Wazi kabisa! Mtoto amerudi nyumbani!” (It’s all there! The kid has come back home!”

Madegwa, of course, meant Francis’ coming to AFC Leopards. Thirty-one years later, those words assume a different meaning. Francis Kadenge has gone home; the home where there are no transfer seasons. I can only hope that up there they will appreciate and reward his speed, his power and his artistry infinitely more than we did here on earth.