The only reason why a neutral person can give Gor Mahia a chance to go past Congo’s AC Leopards in the first round of the Africa Champions League is that miracles happen in football.
Those who don’t believe they happen should google the result of the World Cup semi-final between Germany and Brazil last year.
A miracle will be needed for Kenya’s most successful football club – as the international record indicates – to slay the Beasts of Niari. Otherwise, every objective indicator points to yet another early exit.
Looking at the general conditions of Kenya football and the circumstances surrounding this game, my mind fleetingly wandered to one moment of truth once upon a time: this ship will sink, said a coldly calm officer to the captain of the Titanic when it hit that iceberg. No it won’t, it can’t sink, replied the captain. It will, the officer insisted, “it is a mathematical certainty.” Titanic sank.
The methods that the Confederation of Africa Football (Caf) uses to seed teams contesting its titles are opaque, known only to those who apply them. But there is method to the whole thing and it has been in operation for a long time. The idea is always to weed out the weaker teams in the early rounds and leave the big boys to fight it out for the title later. It makes the competition interesting.
If you have noticed, Kenyan champions since the heady days of the 1980s are always drawn against mighty North and West African sides in the opening rounds of the competition if and when they clear off fellow minnows in the preliminaries. This is designed to give the giants an easy ride into the quarters and semis after which the grass can now be readied for real suffering.
PARALYSED PREMIER LEAGUE
Caf expects AC Leopards, its 2012 Confederations Cup winners, to go a big distance in this year’s Champions League. It is impolite to say it but the truth is that Gor Mahia are only expected to take them through their stretching exercises. Our champions are hobbled by everything from lack of sponsors, to a paralyzed premier league, unavailability of key players and a general malaise in the body politic of Kenya football that seems to be defeating even that beast called Fifa.
Early this week, the Congolese sneaked in an advance party into Nairobi, blindsiding their hosts. This was eerily similar to what their neighbours across the river, DC Motema Pembe, had done to Kenya Breweries in 1994. Those ones came without warning barely 24 hours to kick-off and then stone-walled on their hosts, making all arrangements themselves and giving Breweries and KFF a wide berth. They had come perched on a precarious 2-2 draw and Breweries just needed a 1-1 to become champions.
That psychological warfare obviously worked: Motema Pembe, which means Clean Hearts, were anything but benign. They thumped our beer men 3-0.
At least AC Leopards are showing their claws early. They know that all momentum is on their side. They know everything about our problems and must be looking forward to a handsomely rewarding hunt. No neutral can begrudge them their optimism.
But thankfully, we are discussing football and this is where miracles come in. With miracles, you don’t discuss tactics and team formations; those are in the objective realm of things and on that score, Gor Mahia have barely enough space for their fingers on their end of the stick.
With miracles your mind mulls over such things as their juju man getting his concoctions wrong leading to general fatigue among the squad. Or maybe the juju man, while holding counsel with the gods the night before, forgets key charms resulting in great annoyance and punishment for the whole delegation.
Or just a simple disagreement over bonuses leading to a strike by all the players half an hour before kick-off that even a high level phone call from home fails to resolve. You pray for these, without malice towards anyone. You just want your people to win.
Miracles happen and there is no good reason to discount them now. At any rate, they are all that are left. Everything else is gone. Kenya football is dying. It is killing itself. No power on earth seems able to prevent this suicide. The government looks at this slow motion destruction of the future of Kenya’s children with bored disinterest.
And when faced with a clamour to act, the Minister for Sport issues one or another ultimatum and then turns his attention elsewhere. This unfolding catastrophe is no more than a nuisance to him that he wishes would just go away.
And Fifa, that corrupt beast that depends on its hirelings around the world to perpetuate itself, seems to have thrown in the towel with this Kenya case. Its statutes have been blatantly violated by an affiliate who has taken its matters before a state court of law. And Fifa has done nothing.
I am not under any illusions that the adversarial system of our courts will solve Kenya’s football problems. I only expect some sort of respite before the parties draw their daggers again. Yet sometimes it is a good thing to go there. There can be some unintended results. It is the FKF that went to court to try and prevent the KPL from running Kenya’s premier league. It is the same FKF that handed six-year suspensions to Sam Shollei and Dan Shikanda for taking football matters to court.
Now Shollei and Shikanda have returned to the same court to litigate, among other things, the double standard which violates a key Fifa statue. In so doing, they elicited one of the most eloquent statements by a disinterested party about what ails Kenya football and where the priorities of some its officials lie.
Lady Justice Roselyn Aburili brilliantly focused on a simple point since this mess began. In enjoining Shollei and Shikanda, she said: “My examination of this case filed by FKF does not reveal any reference to the interests of players or fans of football in Kenya. The first time I have heard those terms is when Mr Shollei and Mr Shikanda filed their application seeking to be enjoined, saying they are seasoned former players who are now mentoring and nurturing young talents.”
This observation made my week and I thought that sometimes it is good to go before a party that is not involved. For the biggest problem facing Kenya is that in the war between the FKF and the KPL, the government, which should be the custodian of the public good, is not a neutral arbiter. It has a long and cosy history with one side of this problem and is not about to dump that party – and damn the consequences for football development.
There is going to be a long, ruinous war in our game and the country is going to slide further and further down the slope, amidst the most high-sounding rhetoric. The foreseeable future will be very difficult.
My good colleague, Murithi Mutiga, raised an interesting point about natural talent. Comparing Kenyans and West Africans, he was of the opinion that our competitors have it more than us and our hope lies in improving our managerial and technical expertise. Today I can easily agree with him but in the late 70s and early 80s, I couldn’t.
Talent matters. A Brazilian coach once said there were boys in the slums of Sao Paulo who could do with their feet what many Europeans could not do with their hands. That is why Brazil is Brazil, despite that small matter of the Germany semi-final.
Over decades, I have watched Africa’s best footballers. The one question I have not been able to answer is why the gap between us and West Africans – and North Africans, too – that seemed so narrow in the 1970s is now a seemingly unbridgeable ocean. The physiques and techniques of Gor Mahia players such as Paul Oduwo, Allan Thigo, Bobby Ogolla, Hamisi Shamba and Sammy Owino was just as good as that of Theophile Abega, Emmanuel Kunde, Manga Ouguene and Bertin Olle Olle of Cameroon.
I wonder what would have happened if we had systematically developed our talent from national academies around the country as Mutiga suggested.
That is exactly what Cameroon, Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Ghana did. We didn’t and, as we all know, there is no such thing as standing still; if others are moving fast forward, you could only be going backwards.
The West Africans know that talent matters but talent alone is not enough. It has to be developed scientifically. And that is not going to happen here any time soon.
That is why, as with today’s game between AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia, the only sensible thing is to pray for a miracle.
By Roy Gachuhi