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Sikh Union: Unsung heroes of Kenyan sport

Sunday June 28 2020
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Nairobi Sikh Union pose for a photo after winning the Kenya Cup by beating Khalsa 3-1 in the final in Kisumu. Earlier the Sikhs had won the Kishen Singh Cup, Dashmesh Cup and the Nairobi league Division One. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By GEOFFREY ANENE

No other sport has put the Sikh community in Kenya on the sporting map like field hockey.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Kenya was a powerhouse in this 11-a-side game, Sikh Union Club Nairobi (Nairobi Simba) and Sikh Union Club, Kisumu (Kisumu Simba), were the breadbaskets of the national men’s team.

Sikh Unions in Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret and Nyeri also contributed to the growth of hockey in the country.

But it is Nairobi Simba and Kisumu Simba who have made the biggest contributions.

For Nairobi Simba, it fits perfectly the description it has placed on its Facebook page of being “the birthplace of hockey in Kenya.”

Sikh Union Club, Nairobi, came into existence in the mid-1920s, although hockey is believed to have been played for the first time in Kenya around 1900 by the Sikh and Goan communities.

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The club was started for sports, basically for young Sikh generations to play sports. It dictated proceedings as evidenced with a cabinet full of trophies.

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Narinder Singh Chana "Nindi" shows trophies at Sikh Union Club in Nairobi on May 27, 2020. PHOTO | GEOFFREY ANENE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Narinder Singh Chana “Nindi” was one of the key players when Sikh Union Nairobi chalked up huge successes in the 1980s and early 1990s.

He was one of the six players who joined the club in 1978.

DECLARED 'MEDICALLY UNFIT'

“We (Nairobi Simba) had some bit of change in 1978 when old international players stopped playing competitive hockey. Tarlochan Singh “TS” Channa was the team captain. He brought in six players from Sikh Union Tigers (second string side). For three seasons, Sikh Union Colts (the ‘A’ team) cleaned all the trophies in the country.

“Out of the six youngsters, four went on to represent Kenya up to the 1984 Olympics,” says “Nindi” who missed the Los Angeles Games after being declared “medically unfit” a day before the team left for the US.

Kenya had previously competed at the Olympics in 1956 (Australia), 1960 (Italy), 1964 (Japan), 1968 (Mexico) and 1972 (Germany).

“Nindi”, who is now 59 years old, featured at the 1982 Junior World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That was the first and the last time Kenya competed at the Hockey Junior World Cup.

The left winger also toured Canada, USA, Mexico and UK with Kenya team, played in Africa Cup of Nations and played in India, Pakistan, Spain, Holland and Germany in 1983.

“This club alone has produced 26 Olympians and 13 players who have gone to the World Cup,” said “Nindi” as he showed this writer the photos of the legends plastered on the wall of Sikh Union Nairobi building, which is located along Professor Wangari Maathai Road.

When Kenya started its first league 30 years ago, Nairobi Simba continued to show their might.

They won the league from 1991 to 1994 and also flew the Kenyan flag high by finishing as runners-up in Africa Cup Club Championships in 1991 and 1995.
Armed Forces became too hot to handle from 1995 to 2004.

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Narinder Singh Chana "Nindi" counts portraits of Nairobi Simba players who went on to represent Kenya at the Olympic Games and World Cup at Sikh Union Club in Nairobi on May 27, 2020. They are 39 in total. PHOTO | GEOFFREY ANENE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The field then became crowded with Kisumu Simba, Strathmore University’s Gladiators, Wazalendo, Kenya Police and Kisumu Simba winning the league on different occasions between 2005 and 2011 before Nairobi Simba won its last league title in 2012.

Kisumu Simba Hockey Club changed to Butali Sugar Warriors in 2014 due to sponsorship reasons.

Butali have won four of the last seven league titles, including last year when, for the first time in history, Nairobi Simba finished in the relegation zone.

“It’s a sad thing that a club that has contributed a lot of international players for Kenya got relegated last season.  However, it’s not the end of an era for us.

“In fact, it’s the beginning of the second phase of revival of Sikh Union. Within two years, we will be back on top and we will be hard to beat after that,” swore “Nindi.”

He says that Sikh Union dropped because of many factors, which include fitness issues and squandering a lot of scoring chances.

“Goals win matches. You can be a brilliant dribbler, good for spectators, but if you don’t score goals then it’s not enough. We have had good changes and are taking a professional approach to running hockey to rectify the mistakes we had.”

FOR THE FUTURE OF OUR KIDS

Sikh Union Nairobi has, meanwhile, invested in an artificial turf pitch, which it opened with a tournament won by Kenya Police in July last year.

“We spent Sh65 million to Sh70 million to build this stadium for the future of our kids and Sikh Union itself. It lacks spectator space, but it can host international matches.”

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Kenyan hockey legend Avtar Singh Sohal (left) and Manminder Singh Jandu inspecting the newly constructed modern stadium at Sikh Union Club in Nairobi on July 19, 2019. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

He blames the dwindling standards of hockey in Kenya to reduced number of tournaments from 13 per year back in the glory days to just one league hosted by Kenya Hockey Union.

“A whole year with just one league isn’t helping much because we hardly play more than 13 matches.

“If players don’t have any tournaments to look forward to, then their morale for training and working hard goes down.

“Incentives to play hockey are also not there. We have also been training on murram or grass, yet hockey has moved to artificial playing surfaces.

“Kenya was on top in Africa in the 1980s, hammering the likes of Nigeria, Ghana, and even Egypt in Egypt, but today, we are finding ourselves in an awkward position. Even Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe are troubling us on the pitch. We will be left behind if we don’t wake up.”

Sikh Union Nairobi believe they are also ready for the second phase of revival after investing in a sports academy that was started two years ago.

They hope it will become a feeder for the club and future national teams.

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The Sikh Union team pose for a photo before their match against Karate Axiom. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“Through the academy, we want to ensure the exercise is right, players are committed and disciplined. These are the three pillars of excellence. Without them, you can’t excel in sport,” said “Nindi,” who is also the administrator of the Sikh Union Sports Academy.

More incentives and hockey tournaments, “Nindi” says, will also help Kenya to get back on track because “we have the talent”.

Apart from hockey, Sikh Union Nairobi is also known for motorsport and cricket.

Cricketer Sukhdeep Singh Sonu, from the academy, recently emerged the Best Sports Icon (male) at The Asian Weekly Achievers Awards (TAWA) held in Nairobi. Sikh Union Nairobi also has badminton, squash, swimming, darts and snooker and has introduced football and throwball.

The club also has plans to have a basketball court near the artificial turf pitch.

Like Sikh Union Club Nairobi, Sikh Union Club Kisumu has produced some of Kenya’s finest players — including celebrated Olympians.

Winning the National League title five times to feature in the Africa Cup club championships is just one of Kisumu Simba’s many achievements.

“It is a success story characterised by focused leadership, good selection structures, determination and commitment through the first, second, third and current generation of players,” say former Kisumu Simba stars Parminder Singh Saini “Kake” and Kamal Sembi.

HUNTING GROUNDS

Even though Kisumu Simba draws its players from schools and estates within and around the county, Kisumu Boys and Kisumu Day schools had been the hunting grounds for talent.

It is the Sikhs who pioneered Kisumu Simba and provided a firm foundation that has been the envy of many local hockey teams.

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Kenya and Kisumu Simba Union forward, Parminder Singh "kake" (left) blasts the ball past a Baobab player on his way to scoring his team’s first goal in the 2-2 draw. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Kisumu Simba, which was born in 1950s, owes its success to Thind Aridham.

Through his hands, many national team players have been developed, especially the first generation from the 1970s and late ‘80s.

The fact that Aridham was a former Kisumu Boys headmaster, having left the school in the early ‘90s, explained why the school won several national school championship titles.

The first generation of players in Kisumu Simba are credited with Kenya’s success in finishing fourth at the inaugural 1971 World Cup in Spain, the country’s best ever performance in a global event.

Kenya lost to India 2-1 in extra time in the battle for bronze, a feat no other African country has achieved. The national team also claimed 12th position at the 1973 World Cup in the Netherlands.

It was during that period that Kenya took part in the Olympic Games, finishing sixth in 1964, eighth in 1968, and 13th in 1972.

The East Africans returned in the 1984 Olympics, finishing ninth and then coming in 12th in the 1988 Games.

Kenya also won silver in the 1974 and 1983 Africa Cup of Nations and achieved gold in the All Africa Games, for the first time ever, in 1987 in Nairobi.

1984 OLYMPICS

Some of Kisumu Simba’s earlier generation include “Kake”, the late Michael Omondi, Simi Goyal, Samuel Oguk, Roy Odhier, Satinderpal Singh Brah, Amarjit Singh Brah and Emmanuel Oduol.

“Kake” scored three goals for Kenya at the 1984 Olympics in the 3-2 win against Canada at group stage and another goal against USA in the ninth to 12th place semi-finals.

He was also in the 1987 All Africa Games squad as well as 1988 Olympics where Nairobi Simba’s Inderjit Singh Matharu “Coolie” notched three goals in Seoul — against Spain and the Netherlands at group stage and the hosts South Korea in the ninth to 12th place semi-finals.

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Kisumu Simba's veteran former Kenyan international Parminder Singh "Kake" (left) dribbles past Nairobi Institute's Wyane Fernandies (right) and Solomon Omondi during a league match at City Park Stadium. Simba won 4-1. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Before 1990, Kenya had no national league, but championship events, that included the MR De Souza Gold Cup, the Kenya Cup, the Dashmesh Cup and the Inter-provincial Tata Cup were played.

Nairobi teams dominated these events.

Kisumu Simba remains the only team from outside the capital to win the Dashmesh Cup (in 1983), the MR De Souza Gold Cup (1984) and the Kenya Cup (1985).

Simba’s second generation of players in the 1980s and 1990s boast of their achievements in the Commonwealth Games, All Africa Games and the Africa Cup of Nations.

Some of the most notable players of the generation were Meshack Senge, Cliff Odendo, Luziro Gona, Sylvester Otieno, Joel Abdallah, William Oketch, Eric Odingo, Joseph Ndambuki, Brian Aduda, Godfrey Nyangaga, Samuel Kere, Sammy Ougo, Godfrey Wakachunga, Said Kwemba, Abel Oketch, Dennis Owoka and Barack Odaga.

Simba’s third generation that covers the 1990s to date are well-known for their performance in Club championships.

Some of the players are Cliff Okello, Kamal Sembi, Ravinda Rupra, Billy Molla, Robert Amadi, Bramwel Lijodi and Paul Gumbe, Fredrick Okeyo, Sammy Oungu, Brian Otieno, Tom Bello Ouko, Kayieko, Tony Oneko and Abeid Ngore.

They participated in the Africa Cup Club Championships in 1996 and 2003.
Kisumu finished fifth each time, and in 2009, they won bronze.

Former Kisumu Simba sports secretary Kamal Sembi reckons they bagged the national titles in 2007 and 2008 because of the commitment of their players.

In addition, Kisumu Simba was able to draft in Armed Forces players like Okoth, Senge, Said Okwemba, Odaga and Owoka after the military side folded. But it has not all been a bed of roses for the club from Kisumu County.

Sembi, “Kake”, the Sikh community and other well-wishers have been supporting the club financially.

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Parminder Saini Singh "Kake" the Kisumu Simba coach during their Kenya Hockey Union Premier League match against KCA at City Park Stadium on July 26, 2011. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Sembi says it has now become a very expensive affair to fund the team.

“Finance is a major headache. This is what is threatening to bring down Kisumu Simba,” he said during the interview.

Kake alongside the Sikh community sponsored the team for the last 20 years before Sembi came in 2002.

In 2014, it changed from Kisumu Simba Hockey Team to Butali Sugar Warriors.

This is after Butali Sugar Mills became the sole sponsor, and Kisumu Simba now does not feature in hockey anymore.

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