Harambee Stars is a graveyard for football technical teams and the coaches who head them. Bobby Williamson has just been sentenced to a stint there. Maybe he knows it is only but for a short time, since this is how it always works. This is the only possible explanation for the amazing alacrity with which he accepted to step into the boots of the martyred Adel Amrouche.
The life of a Harambee Stars coach is always short, nasty and sometimes brutish. It is characterized with draining arguments over pay for both players and technical staff. For years, everybody seemed to be fighting everybody – the exact description of an energized madhouse.
Sponsors regarded Harambee Stars as a quarantined area and kept away the way you keep away from somebody with a contagious disease. Or how travellers stay clear of areas of conflict. Then some semblance of peace came in the last year or so after the property owner, FIFA, decided it couldn’t go on this way anymore.
Amrouche flew over and actually managed to remind Kenyans that once upon a time, their national team won a trophy – never mind it was the modest Cecafa Challenge Cup which we used to win as a matter of course in the early 1980s. It was still something after 16 long years. Any self-respecting 50 year-old regional superpower should be accepting nothing less than a top Nations Cup placing by now. It should be featuring in the World Cup where the foreign-born children of its children are now playing.
But then, as one local politico once remarked in a deeply illustrative comment about our eating culture, “it is better to have a bone than to have none.” Last year’s Challenge Cup was the bone Amrouche brought us and we accepted it with thanks.
So holding the reins for the equivalent of a mosquito’s lifetime is the certain fate of anybody who accepts to coach Harambee Stars as constituted for the last quarter of a century.
It is delusional to expect anything out of Bobby Williamson. The institutional decay of Harambee Stars was last addressed by Bernard Lama, France’s 1998 World Cup winning goalkeeper when he came here as coach – and he failed miserably. Lama came to us in July 2006 innocently thinking that time bound deliverables made sense to his new employers.
He was also naive enough to walk into meetings with a laptop hanging from his shoulder not knowing that the 21st century strategies and tactics that he was outlining from there were the least of concerns for his bosses. At that time, the Kenya Football Federation office did not even have a computer.
On finally learning that he was talking to himself and having to haggle for his pay, Lama quit after just two months, saying the entire set-up was too unprofessional for any serious person to operate in. Such a steep learning curve has been the lot of many a Harambee Stars coach.
The first and most enduring casualty of how Harambee Stars does business with its coaches was Bernhard Zgoll of blessed memory. Here, Kenya football fans must be prepared to share blame for aborting the plan that was almost certainly going to vault their national team to world status.
In a tide that eventually blew Zgoll over, they clamoured for retention of the old guard. They wanted today-and-now results and made it clear that the future could wait. Once, at the Nairobi City Stadium, I watched in horror as they attempted to lynch the coach and Kenneth Matiba, then chairman of the KFF, had to climb atop a car bonnet to beg for their restraint. But he eventually gave in to their demands and Zgoll was let go.
Last Sunday, when I saw the present generation of fans hurling epithets at the technical staff for playing Denis Oliech, McDonald Mariga and other veterans after Stars’ catastrophic fall to Lesotho, I shook my head and remembered Zgoll. Today’s fans were demanding the exact opposite of what their predecessors 40 years ago wanted. In effect, they were asking for the revered coach’s return; too bad he’s long gone for eternity.
In the mid-70s, we came upon a critical folk on the road and we took the wrong turn. Sunday’s disaster is yet another milestone in the long catalogue of self-inflicted accidents that have happened since then. It is a cinch that Williamson will preside over more.
Zgoll saw outcomes in a comprehensive investment in money and time on the youth and started a countrywide network of youth academies. They are the fabled Olympic Youth Centres of our football lore. He had been brought here by the German government as part of an assistance package in 1974.
The simplicity and yet profoundness of his approach deeply impressed me and I unapologetically used my editorial space at that time to advance his course. In the process, we became good friends, even after his premature departure for the Philippines. He just made so much common sense.
Now, in the face of our latest debacle, his words ring painfully true. Even more painful is the realization that you are not hearing of an about-turn in policy direction and the immediate, practical departure in that direction. You are not hearing about establishment of national youth academies and the systematic recruitment of qualified former players to run their technical departments.
Given where the country is and where it has been for decades, the purpose of recruiting a national coach should be only one: to superintend over a national youth development system, complete with all the requisite human resource and physical infrastructure. If that is done, Harambee Stars will take care of itself as a matter of course in due time.
But what are you hearing? That Harambee Stars has gotten itself a new coach. Then why, for God’s sake, don’t you try Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson or Luis van Gaal? They, too, would fail big time but since that appears to be the objective, at least you’ll hit world headlines and become famous.
With great intensity such that can only come from deep love and commitment, Bernhard Zgoll told me: “Why do Kenyans want overnight results? It can’t work and it will never work. Identifying talent and supporting it to maturity takes years of hard and patient work. But once you reach the top with these youngsters and you have a succession system on the ground, you stay at the top forever. That’s how Germany does it. That’s how Italy does it. That’s how England does it. Kenya can do it too. But Kenyans want to be at the top now – and it cannot work.
“Kenya could really become a football power if only a bit more patience could be shown for a long and systematic build-up without any pressure to become champions overnight. People in Kenya should not forget that a coach by himself, even if he is the best expert, is not able to do anything if he does not get the right support from officials and a bit of time for building up the team.
“I was very close to building up a very strong team with a big future. I started with very young and promising boys. The discipline was excellent and the boys made fast progress. But for some people, it was not fast enough. It is really a pity because Kenya could easily be a power in African soccer today.”
Yes, this is the regional economic powerhouse that cannot beat Lesotho today. Last Sunday evening, I watched on television as an enraged Joe Kadenge uttered words to the effect that he didn’t know who Lesotho was. I forgave him on behalf of our gracious visitors, who had conquered us fair and square, but I perfectly understood where he was coming from.
The condition of Harambee Stars is beyond critical but the country seems content to either just talk about it or to send for Panadol Extra at the nearest kiosk. But what this patient needs is not a pain killer. What he needs is an immediate trip to hospital and straight to the intensive care unit. Surgery in the form prescribed by Zgoll should have taken place decades ago.
Such things as a junket to Brazil to watch the World Cup, even if it came after the President reached for the wallet in his back trouser pocket, were just the wrong prescription and the results are there for all of us to see. And if the President does not realize this and do what some other African Presidents did to put their countries on the world map, we can be assured of a long, long stay in Cimmerian darkness.
Harambee Stars is a matter for Presidential intervention – and nothing less will do. A time comes when a country must decide that it has had enough of shame and draw a line. Nobody likes unpleasant experiences but some of them provide us with great opportunities to discard baggage and make great progress. The defeat by Lesotho is one such.
It is all so well to rage, but it is the done thing and we must now get over it. We must immediately seize the great opportunity provided by it. And let’s not waste time with a charade of soliciting public views on the way forward complete with endless workshops.
We should not complicate something that is essentially very easy. The roadmap is already there. Football is a game of young people and if you cannot put in place a systematic national process of drawing from them, just forget it.
The world does not know of a more jealous and vindictive animal than FIFA but some Presidents in our neighbourhood have comfortably sorted out the great beast of Zurich. It only takes a little imagination for any country determined to guarantee the future of its youth. And the time to do that is now.
Think about it – we might even get to recognize our boys on the pitch. Currently, when they play another African team, you can only tell Kenya by the kit of their opponents. If they are playing Uganda Cranes, you know Kenya are the boys not in yellow and if they are picking up their customary beating by the Super Eagles of Nigeria, you can straightaway tell Harambee Stars are the boys not in green. Otherwise, you’ll need some assistance to identify your own national team.
For decades on end, nobody has known with which colours Harambee Stars will show up with for their next match. This is the result of being given a wide berth by potential sponsors. But let’s for now just get our youth programme going; it’s a tough enough engagement.