For our African footballers, east or west, Europe is best

I am always overcome with sorrow each time I reflect on the incongruence of the enormous amount of blood shed to achieve African independence and the desperation of thousands of Africans in trying their uttermost to seek livelihoods in the same countries whose rule here was unbearable.

From interminable pre-dawn queues in the embassies of our former colonial masters, to superhuman treks across the Sahara – terrain that the Nigerian journalist and publisher Peter Enahoro once described as “some of the most inhospitable places known to man, woman or beast” – to manifestly suicidal crossings of the Mediterranean, it is always a gut-wrenching story of people fleeing the bitter fruits of independence.

Emmanuel Adebayor, the great Togolese striker of English Premiership side Tottenham Hotspur, described the reasons for his flight from his homeland thus: “When I was going to Europe to play football, I remember what my mother told me at the airport. She said: ‘Manu, you see where we are living. You must go to France and do something good because we need your help.’”

Adebayor grew up in an over-crowded, dilapidated slum in the Togolese capital of Lome. It was a neighbourhood of no discernable order, much like the slums that ring Nairobi, and drug-pushing street toughs, burst sewers and murders were the signature features.

His mother sold dried fish along the border with Ghana but the returns were barely enough to feed her family.

The family was so poor that Adebayor was once detained in hospital for one week because his parents could not afford to pay for the treatment.

Before the 2010 “African World Cup” in South Africa, Adebayor told a journalist writing for Hopes and Dreams, Caf’s official book for the tournament: “A lot of people know me as a player on the pitch but they don’t know where I come from or how I begun. I will never forget what it was like when I was young. Life was very difficult and I told myself that I only had one chance to survive and that was to be a footballer.”

I remembered Adebayor’s story when news came through that Divock Origi had signed up for English giants Liverpool. Origi is the Belgian son of former Harambee Stars player Mike Okoth, himself now a Kenyan-Belgian. It became compelling when I read Isaac Swila’s interview with Okoth in Thursday’s Daily Nation.


There were echoes of Adebayor all over the story. “I am proud as a father to see my son play in a top league. I wanted to achieve this dream but I couldn’t but I am glad that through God this has been possible. I will now pray that all goes well until he makes his debut with the Reds,” Okoth told Swila.

This is the simple – and abysmally sad – statement: That it is not possible to achieve your full potential at home. For Divock Origi to bloom to his full abilities, the platform can only be Europe, not the land of his father. And to nail it irrevocably, this land has be England, just like for Adebayor it had to be France, the country of the former colonial master.

Think about these football greats: Zinedine Zidane, Eusebio da Silva Ferreira, Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly, Claude Makelele, Gerald Asamoah, Just Fontaine, Emannuel Olisadebe and Jean Tigana.

Zidane was born in Marseille, France to African parents like Origi, in his case Algerian. ‘Zizou” is now a French legend, having won the World Cup for France in 1998 when he also became World Player of the Year.

He would achieve this feat again in 2000 and 2003. His transfer from Juventus to Real Madrid in 2001 resulted in a world record transfer fee of $66 million (Sh 5.8 billion).

Eusebio was born in Mozambique in 1942 and helped Portugal to a third place finish in the 1966 World Cup where his nine goals made him the tournament’s top scorer. The ‘Black Panther’, or ‘Black Pearl’ or ‘Rei’ (the King) was the 1965 European Footballer of the Year and his 15 year career with Benfica (1960-1975) brought him 10 league championships and five domestic cup titles. A statue of him adorns the entrance to Benfica’s Estadio da Luz Stadium in Lisbon.


Patrick Vieira was born in Senegal and after Thierry Henry, is Arsenal’s greatest player. He played 406 games for the Gunners; in the process helping them win three Premier League titles – including one unbeaten season – and three FA Cups.

Marcel Desailly was born in Ghana and became the first player to win the European Champions League Cup with two different clubs in consecutive seasons when he took it with Olympique Marseille in 1993 and AC Milan the following year.

He was a permanent fixture in France’s defence and was a World Cup winner in 1998 and European Championship in 2000. He would later captain Les Blues after the retirement of current coach Didier Deschamps.

Emmanuel Olisadebe was born in Nigeria and started his career there. Then he moved to Poland in 1997 and signed for Polonia Warsaw who he helped win the Polish league for the first time in their history with 47 goals in 106 games. He was granted Polish citizenship and scored eight goals for his new country in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers.

Jean Tigana was born in Mali and gained world fame in the 1982 World Cup as part of France’s redoubtable mid-field quartet of Michel Platini, Alain Giresse and Luis Fernandez. They were christened ‘The Magic Square’.

They helped France win the 1984 European Championship. Tigana belongs to the elite players of the world regarded as superstars never to have won a World Cup.

Claude Makelele was born in the DR Congo and made a great career with Chelsea, Nantes, Marseille and Real Madrid. Gerald Asamoah, born in Ghana, became the first black player to turn out for a unified Germany in the World Cup when he donned their colours in 2006.

And Just Fontaine, born in Morocco, immortalized himself in World Cup folklore when he scored 13 goals for France in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.

This is the tradition that Divock Origi has followed. Going by the facts above and given his age, Origi will in all probability – barring anything untoward – become a world superstar.

We all must join together and wish him the very best of fortune. He is so lucky that he is not stuck in Africa where his career would almost certainly be stunted before it even begins. You die a thousand times for making this statement but truth sets us free, doesn’t it? I wish it was otherwise. But if wishes were horses…

There is a sequel to the story I told you last week about the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia and my encounter with a raging athletics head coach Kipchoge Keino.

He was fuming over the inefficiencies of his then bosses at the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association, precursor to today’s Athletics Kenya. In light of what happened before Glasgow 2014 started, I feel duty bound to share it.

The 1982 team turned in a modest performance. It placed ninth overall with four gold, two silver and four bronze medals. As Africa went, it ranked second to Nigeria who were ranked seventh.

As expected, officials stridently defended their performance. Prof. Sam Ongeri, then the chairman of the KAAA, had this to say: “There is nothing wrong with what we have done. There is a need for people to understand what is going on. What we are having is an entirely new generation of athletes who are slowly taking over from the generation that did the country so much honour in 1974 and 1978.

“It is necessary for people to understand that this is the first time that Kenya is participating in major Games since 1978. Traditionally, we have two years of major international competition; in 1970 we had the Commonwealth Games, then the Olympic Games of 1972, then the Commonwealth Games of 1974, then the Olympic Games of 1976 and then these Games again in 1978. But we did not participate in the last two Olympics. You must understand that this has an effect on the athletes.”

This is quite common after below par performances and it is not really the story. The story is what happened after the Games. The athletes and officials treated themselves to a great shopping; it was a planeload.

And as usual then, the customs doors were flung open on arrival. The team was on national duty and orders were that its members were not to be subjected to any customs check. Customs officials watched awestruck as delegation members strained behind mountainous trolleys. I wrote about it, opening my story with this stinging observation: “What the athletes couldn’t do on the track, they abundantly made up for in shopping.”

The following day, the team went to State House, Nairobi for the traditional ceremony of returning the national flag that the President had given them before departure. Kip spied me in the press corps and drew me aside. He said to me: “Roy, I read your story today. I think you were very unfair to us. All those things you wrote were true; the problem is with your insinuations. It is as if we did something wrong. It is true that we did a lot of shopping. But whose money were we using? It was our money! We did shopping with the allowances that we were given and those allowances were ours by right! What would you yourself do with your own money? Wouldn’t you spend it the way you like? What is wrong with what we did?”

He went on a bit until somebody motioned to him that the ceremony was about to begin. He went away but not before complaining bitterly one more time that I had been unfair and that I should not use “your newspaper to malign us.”

On reflection, I thought he had point. Indeed, you do what you please with your money. Fair enough. How ironic then, that somebody who argued so passionately and so logically and so correctly about the right of athletes to enjoy their dues is now at the head of a National Olympic Committee that has been accused of withholding the same allowances for which he once was the best advocate. What changed?

Kenyan athletes to the 20th Commonwealth Games are doing fine. But the country must, at some point, take a hard look at how athletics is run in this country. It must distinguish between the extraordinary personal sacrifices made by individual athletes and the perfidy of officials who prey on them.

Kenya’s athletes win despite and not because of their officials. Let great performances on the track not lull us into the malfeasance that afflicts the sport.