Three cheers to Feisal, champions of 50 years ago

Fifty years ago this season, a team from the Coast won the Kenya Premier League for the first and only time in our history. All rise, and please ensure that your glasses are charged.

To Feisal Football Club of Mombasa, champions of the 1965 season — even if the club is dead. Thank you.

On this nostalgic occasion, filled with too many regrets over all the missed opportunities, I am appealing to the governors of the coastal counties to take a bit of time off from their busy politicking schedules for a bit of introspection: Fifty years, and such a well endowed region has not won the premier league — does this statistic mean anything to them?

If so, as they sure will say it does, what remedial actions are they taking? Do they feel any sense of responsibility or is it somebody else’s fault as usual?

These are the people occupying the front row seats of the youth radicalizing problem. Football is a game of the youth. It is the game from which some youth elsewhere in the world are earning billions of shillings.

Has it crossed their minds that football could be a way out of their dire problem?

These governors and fellow politicians in other positions are big on ideas about how to form one strong coastal political party. How about the much better and easier enterprise of forming many strong football clubs or reviving dead ones that have sentimental names?

Some countries — think Rwanda — have built nations in an astonishingly short time using the magical tool of sport.

But then again, beyond the rhetoric, does the fate of millions of our young people matter or are they condemned to the devices of the most evil people in our midst as the governors talk party politics full-time?

I miss Feisal. I miss Mwenge, runners-up in the self-same 1965 season. I miss Western Stars. I miss Lake Warriors. And I miss Champion. These teams, all based in Mombasa, gave us great players who entertained us weekend after weekend. Their game was filled with passion.

Our football history is tied up with that of Feisal. In Ali Kajo, they gave us one of our greatest strikers of all time. His place in our game is assured, even as he lives out the days of his life in utter deprivation. He started his career in 1958 and was the high scoring striker of the national team that defeated Scotland 3-2 in the Uhuru Cup in 1963.

Playing across the momentous transition period, Kajo became the last player to score for Kenya Colony and the first to score for the new Republic of Kenya in a tournament that involved Uganda as well.

In 1968, his national team career was at an end but then, West Bromwich Albion, the reigning English FA Cup holders, came on tour and Kenya once more turned to Ali Kajo to lead the strike force with Abaluhya’s Joe Kadenge, the King of the Dribble, to his right on the wing.

Reported Polly Fernandes of the Daily Nation on the eve of the big match: “Ali Kajo, the goal getting attack leader from Feisal, has been named for today’s encounter. An FA official said it most likely that Kajo will play at centre-foreward. Kajo, who first played for Kenya in 1958, was later dropped as his international career was reaching its end. But his sparkling league performances this season have impressed the selectors and his inclusion today will add punch to the attack.”

Former Kenyan international Ali Kajo (right) with his former teammate Paulo Lodi in Diani in December, 2013

Former Kenyan international Ali Kajo (right) with his former teammate Paulo Lodi in Diani in December, 2013

It sure did. Kenya lost by a marginal 1-2 to Albion with Kajo scoring Kenya’s goal.

Feisal also gave Kenya football one of its more colourful personages in Kadir Farah, the playmaker per excellence. Farah was of the 70s generation, successors to the team of 1965. He was a magical ball controller and distributor. It must have been a pleasure for attackers to line up ahead of him, even if he himself did some delightful attacking.

But Kadir liked to disappear and he and quite a few stars gave the Coast some notoriety. As soon as Joe Kadenge took over coaching the national team upon his retirement in 1975, he named his squad for an encounter with Sudan to contest a place in the Africa Cup of Nations and was faced with no-shows from the Coast.


GREAT FEISAL PLAYERS

He remarked: “Some of us get confused because when a few players from the Coast are selected, they complain they are getting neglected. But when several of the players are selected, they don’t join the squad and give unconvincing reasons.”

He had named five Coast players to the squad: Dan Avedi, Abdurrahman Baraza, Abdul Swaleh (Mwenge), Ahmed Breik (Champion) and Julius Mugaisi (Western Stars). Only Avedi and Mugaisi had shown up.

Now consider the plight of Eckhard Krautzun, coach of the national team five years before Kadenge’s reign. In 1973, he badly wanted the Feisal midfield ace for the Nation’s Cup qualifiers.

The Daily Nation reported the frantic coach’s predicament thus: “National soccer coach Eckhard Krautzun yesterday sent out an SOS for the Mombasa star Kadir Farah to link up with the Africa Cup of Nations squad at the Cooperative College by tomorrow. Describing Farah as a ‘a player essential to my plans for the match against Uganda on February 24’ Krautzun appealed to Farah to turn up for training promising he would help sort out any difficulties he had.”

It was reported that the coach had been trying to telephone Farah “almost daily this week” but had failed to locate him.

So he turned to Mr Cheka, the FA of Kenya vice-president who had travelled to Mombasa and asked him “to do everything possible” to get Farah to Nairobi. With a few days to spare, Farah did eventually come out of hibernation, muttering that this time he wanted his allowances paid on time or else…

There is one generation of Kenyans who closely identify themselves with other great Feisal players especially those who turned out for the team in that memorable season half a century ago.

In addition to Ahmed Breik and Ali Kajo, these players include Kitwana Ramadhan, who would later achieve legendary status as goalkeeper of the Tanzanian national team, the Taifa Stars, Livingstone Madegwa, who later migrated to Abaluyha FC and later to Kenya Breweries, Ahmed Omar, Ali Sungura and Amrani Shiba.

Mahmoud Abbas, who played for Mwenge, formerly Liverpool, pays tribute to these players who came before him and inspired him to make a career in football. “Their level of commitment was high,” he tells me, “and so were the club officials of the time. There was a lot of selflessness. My own father, Maalim Abbas, was secretary of Mwenge and he taught me by example the value of commitment and pursuit of a goal higher than myself.

“I have watched Coast football plunge to the lowest depths and try as I might, I am not optimistic about its revival by the county governments. Most of the leaders I see are in office for themselves and not for the people they lead. It doesn’t matter to them that the standards are so low.”

Feisal was the typical Kenyan football team of its time — it reflected an ethnic block. The team was originally composed of players of Arab descent.

It rivals also had an ethnic base at the time of formation and for most of their lives. Mwenge was formed by people of Indian descent while Western Stars and Ramogi, later renamed Lake Warriors, were home to up-country people working at the coast.

These were from Western and Nyanza regions respectively.

Champion FC was a breakaway from Mwenge and its existence generated all the passions associated with a family feud. The rivalries that came with these ethnic collisions created some of the nation’s finest footballers.

Goalkeepers such as Albert Castana (of Goan extraction), Mahmoud Mohammed, Mohammed Magogo and the peerless Mahmoud Abbas emerged from this competition.

But there was mobility of players between the clubs that scarcely elicited any howlers from their supporters owing to the naturally cosmopolitan nature of the coast people.

Compare this to 1976 when Edward Wamalwa, Abaluhya’s tough and independent minded defender, announced that he was signing for Luo Union.

Abaluhya’s supporters were dumbstruck and when they found their voice, they were unanimous: this was sacrilege. That brave trail blazer had the loneliest of endings to his career.

Feisal FC, Mwenge, Champion, Western Stars and Lake Warriors are all dead. So are many of the great players who wore their shirts. Our football is currently a battlefield between the forces of progress and those of reaction.

There is a tense ceasefire, induced by external forces, but the fundamental issue of who will run our game remains untouched and every indication is that things will get worse before getting better — whenever that will be.

There are many good people but unfortunately, the few bad guys are very powerful. It something akin to what Chinua Achebe said of Nigeria: the lunatics may be outnumbered, but they own the place.

It is almost haunting to end this piece with such a note of pessimism, especially when you are writing about people who have given you so much happiness in the past.

But then, I can feel better by wishing Feisal’s Ali Kajo Godspeed as he battles the ravages of age and illness with his exploits of 1965 now irretrievably disappearing in the distant horizon. Get well, great striker!