Kisumu Simba were also-rans for umpteenth time - but the grim faces on the stands were a lot more pronounced this time on account that a Kenya men’s team could only manage a third place finish during the Africa Cup Club championships which was being played on home soil for the first time in three years.
This colourless performance was not entirely unexpected with Kenya men’s hockey teams more accustomed to carrying the wooden spoon and being upstaged by the women folk. Telkom Orange squeezed past Sliders 2-1 in the women’s final at the City Park Stadium last week to spare Kenya the blushes yet again.
Telkom Orange’s victory lit up what would have ended up being a dreary Sunday afternoon when hockey fans forked out as much as Sh1,000 to come watch two Egyptian clubs – Sharkia and Eastern - captured the limelight with a 1-1 draw before Sharkia came out 4-2 winners on post-match penalties.
Kenyan fans are not used to seeing their team lose in continental events, no doubt spoilt by the success of a formidable athletics team, and more recently on the world sevens circuit, comparable successes by national rugby team.
The men’s hockey team had a strong tradition of success in the early years, with top performances in the Olympics and World Cup. Kenya’s most memorable showing was a fourth place finish in the World Cup 38 years ago. There other equally strong performances in the Summer Olympics with the Kenya men’s team finishing tenth in the 1956 Games, seventh in the 1960 games, eighth in the 1968 Games and 13th in the 1972 Games. In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Kenya wound up ninth then slipped to 12th in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but failed to qualify for the Summer Games ever since.
These were heady days when juxtaposed with the current record – with disbanded Ulinzi being the only men’s club to have won at the continental level. At the club and national level, Kenya men’s teams seldom edge their way past heavyweights South Africa and Egypt, more comfortable with sitting in the lower rungs of the ladder.
Work cut out
In terms of tradition, hockey enjoys a richer heritage than more successful sporting teams like volleyball. The first world class outfit, the India national team, visited Kenya in 1937 at about the same time the top South African team was on tour. These were exciting early years for the local game – the hockey union enjoyed the patronage no less than the then Kenya Governor Sir Philip E. Mitchell who was appointed its patron in 1949.
Fast-forward to the 2009 and bedraggled hawkers who attempt to sell roasted groundnuts to a sparse, frustrated crowd, are the more common feature at the City Park Stadium. The crowds have thined considerably over the years, and a sense of frustration can be told by the curses and expletives that ring out every time Kisumu Simba fritters away an opportunity.
With less than 100 people watching the third-place play-off between Kisumu Simba and Nigeria’s Yobe Desert Rollers, which the Kenyans won 6-0, the union has its work cut out in getting more people going to stadiums. Sliders coach Nixon Ng’ang’a says that Kenyan clubs are not used to playing on astro-turf even though this playing surface was first installed during the 1987 All Africa Games in Nairobi, then refurbished five years ago when the original turf deteriorated with age.
The union’s chairman Resham Bains says the KHU cannot afford to host too many matches at City Stadium because watering the turf for every league match is too expensive. He says they use up to 14,000 litres of water in every match, and asked the Government honour its pledge and sink a borehole at the City Park Stadium.
Newly-appointed KHU secretary general, Vivian Agunda, says although she cannot recall the amount of money the union quoted to have a borehole sank, the KHU simply has no money to venture into this project. She says much of their money goes into paying for water bills which shoots up when the league is in season because City Park sometimes get to host five league matches every weekend, a statement disputed by the Sliders coach Nixon Ng’ang’a who says league games are hardly played at these grounds.
Pushed for reforms
Agunda is convinced that the crowd of spectators is growing as the union experiences a new dawn. Although she could not give a ball park figure of the total amount raised from ticket sales during the weeklong tournament, she says between Sh30,000 and Sh40,000 came through the turnstiles on a good day.
Agunda was one of the pioneers who began pushing for reform in the KHU in the 1980s when she turned out for Intercapitale and Sliders clubs. At that time women’s club hockey was still in its infancy, and a more aware and militant group of players had emerged and began the quest to bring progressive changes at the KHU.
The men’s game, at the time, seemed to be stuck in the muck and it was the upstarts who seemed to be bringing in new blood to the game. Today, the women’s game has brought more honour to Kenya with significant victories from locals clubs at the regional and continental level. Telkom Orange have won the continental titles eight times while Sliders have three titles to their name.
Bruce Omolo, who has trained women’s teams in Kenya and Uganda for several years, and who currently handles the Impala team, says the success of women’s teams can be a misnomer because it does not necessarily mean that there is more depth in the women’s game. He is quick to admit that the men’s game is more competitive as more teams are entered for competitions, regionally, continentally and internationally. In contrast, the women’s level of competition is thin, he says.
But there is also a fundamental flaw in the management and training structure of the men’s youth teams where not all deserving players are selected to play for top clubs and the national team. Merit is sometimes sacrificed arbitrarily due to nepotism during selection.
The union has also been poorly managed. A credible youth training programme has been lacking and by the time the union taps into players in tertiary institutions, they are too burnt out and poorly trained to be constructively competitive at the international level, particularly against the big guns from Egypt and South Africa.
Agunda regrets that the KHU taps into the youth when it is often too late to train them into more technically skilled player. She says because few public primary schools have hockey in their academic curriculum, the union has to wait until students advance to secondary school before they can start to identify strong, gifted players.
By this time, the students are often too set in their ways and any flaws in their game can hardly be corrected. But Agunda is happy the university league is thriving once again, and that there are two men’s leagues running concurrently. Mismanagement within the KHU has not helped the game. In September this year, the union suspended its secretary general Peter Kiruma and two members, Avtar Sohal Singh, and Martin Milla, allegedly on grounds of incompetence.
Agunda says they are working on a sustainable marketing strategy that will help the KHU generate more funds because the one-off Sh15,000 paid by each of the 27 clubs to feature in their programmes is woefully inadequate. This comes to a little over Sh400,000 which is barely enough to meet KHU’s administrative cost.
Telkom Kenya is by far KHU’s biggest sponsors, doling out Sh300,000 for the Africa Cup Club Championships. If the union has any inspiring marketing strategies that will help dig them out of a hole, they are not sharing it with anyone.
Agunda says they are still trying to convince more sponsors to take up banners with the promise that the media exposure generated during competition will make it worth their while. Not surprisingly, there are few takers to this hardly original, well-worn approach. But Agunda is not giving up and says the future, in her eyes, is very bright.