I find the absurdity of life sometimes completely incomprehensible.
Long before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya football was already dead. The players, the main drivers of the game, couldn’t make a reliable income from it.
Most went for months without pay and when the so-called salaries did come, they were doled out in several small droplets, like eye medicine. Now consider the electoral scene, even in these days when it is life itself that is at stake. It reminds you of a fight in a pack of carnivores: the sounds they make! And what is being fought over?
A carcass called Kenya football. As the standards of the game have plummeted, as poverty among footballers has become a way of life, so has competition for high office intensified.
The electoral landscape has become so crowded you might think Kenya is a World Cup contender.
The premier league of our football is played in the media, by current officials and pretenders to those offices.
Thanks to Covid-19, which the current officials must love to bits, nothing is happening now and the status quo abides despite expiry of their term.
But what happens in the actual fields, when it happens in those ramshackle stadiums, is Division Four stuff.
That is why the players are sustained more by divine mercy and less by the worthless contracts they signed. Anyway, football is the good life — yesterday, today and tomorrow. This is just but a passing phase.
There definitely will come a time when all this mediocrity will be little more than another station in our journey through history. But it will have wasted a generation of young people, unfortunately.
Early in my reporting days, I noticed that the football matches I enjoyed the most were the ones where I did not know all or most of the players and those that did not have superstars.
In these matches, I could follow all 22 players and the substitutes without any preconceived expectations.
The problem with matches abounding with stars is that I expected something from those players. I kept following them and it became something of an exercise to remind myself that there were other players on the pitch. I succeeded, eventually.
Stars are who they are because they provide something special.
They dribble astoundingly well, they control the ball with their heads and can score from befuddling angles. Or they pack a power with their shots that is beyond our expectation. They also score or save penalties a cut above their teammates.
Hugh McIlvanney once wrote: “It is a matter of history that the players with the most powerful shot in the game, the legendary thunderers, have been left sided.”
His list of great left-footed thunderers included Brazil’s Roberto Rivelino, one of whose free-kicks had fractured a goalkeeper’s shoulder in the countdown to the 1974 World Cup.
It was an impressive tally from an acclaimed master of sports journalism but at that time, I was inclined to disagree because I had watched Bobby Ogolla and I was in awe of his right-footed free kicks.
In fact, later on, I interviewed him for a feature story and he gave me a fascinating reason behind his unusual strength.
He told me: “God must have created me on a Monday. He was fresh and rested from His Sunday break and that’s when He decided to make me. I am lucky.”
Not long after he said that, the sizeable mountain of fish and ugali that he was working on vanished and the plate properly resembled a valley.
The above average abilities of stars is acknowledged first by their peers, even if sometimes only grudgingly. But things can also go badly wrong when the acknowledged master of a trick fails when his charms are needed the most. Remember Asamoah Gyan?
The Ghana Black Stars captain was his team’s first choice penalty taker until the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
There, his country stood on the cusp of becoming the first African nation to reach the competition’s semi-finals. Just one second separated them and that outcome.
With the scores tied 1-1 at the 120th minute of their quarter-final with Uruguay, the Black Stars earned themselves the penalty that was almost certainly going to carry them into the history books. Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez deliberately grabbed a goal-bound shot by Dominic Adiyiah on the goal line and justly earned himself a red card. Gyan stepped forward — and rammed his shot against the crossbar.
The miss not only changed the course of history, but Gyan’s life too. Picking himself up from a long depression, he said years later: “In the 2010 World Cup, we were knocked out in the quarter-finals in controversial circumstances.
It was against Uruguay, and I missed a crucial match-winning penalty towards the end of extra time, after a Luis Suarez handball.
“The penalty miss is something that I will never forget. It’s part of my life now. I am not the only player who missed a crucial penalty. We could have become the first African team to reach the World Cup semi-finals. But life goes on. I need to forget about it and live my life.”
Of course, it will never be forgotten. But he was right; life must go on.
Senegal’s Aliou Cisse’s life went on and even thrived after his penalty miss gave Cameroon the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations. Not only did he proceed to become a respected World Cup captain and lead the Lions of Teranga into a record-equaling quarter-final finish in 2002, but he is today his country’s well-loved coach.
In the days when football meant cramming ourselves into local stadiums and not sitting in bar rooms with hands on beer mugs and eyes on a television screen tuned to the English Premier League, we went in search of a particular talisman’s magic.
The old football commentators socialised us to expect it. Once long ago, Gor Mahia were taking on their arch-rivals, AFC Leopards and Salim Mohammed was behind the microphone.
The ball went over Leopard’s goal line and from where he sat, Mohammed was of two minds; first he said it was a corner kick, then he corrected himself and said it was a throw-in. Then again he said it was a corner kick before he finally settled on a throw-in. The man taking it was Martin Ouma Ogwanjo, who died in May this year.
To put his flustered listeners at their ease, Mohammed observed: “Kona, ama kurushwa kwa Martin Ouma Ogwanjo, ni kitu kimoja tu.” (“A corner kick or a throw-in by Martin Ouma Ogwanjo is one and the same thing”) And he was right; Ogwanjo hurled his throw-ins with the same accuracy and strength as the best corner kick takers of his day did.
GREATEST HEADING SPECIALIST
But he was in an elite group. The other people whose job was to take a throw-in wherever the ball crossed the touchline because of the distance they could get it to without incurring a foul throw call were Sospeter Otin, Peter Ouma, George Otieno Solo and Tobias “Jua Kali” Ochola.
The greatest heading specialist of my generation was Peter Dawo. Although he is best remembered for his match winning strike during the 1987 Nelson Mandela Cup Winners final in Nairobi, Dawo settled many Gor Mahia games with his head. Being a big and strong man made it easy for him to leave those he collided with on the ground.
After the historic run of 1987, I knew that it was only a matter of time before somebody put a price on his head. Well, in a football sense, not that dark alley stuff beloved of the mafia. And Egypt’s Arab Contractors duly did.
But like Ogwanjo, he had eminent predecessors, peers and successors. These include Anthony Mukabwa, Tom Olaba, Charles Ochieng, Charles Anderson, William Chege Ouma, Laban Otieno, Andrew Obunga and Edward Kiiza.
My favorite master dribbler in Kenya was my old school mate, Sammy Owino, whom they called Kempes after the Argentine legend.
I won’t take up space to repeat what I have written about him before, suffice to regret that emigration to the USA made his tenure at Harambee Stars all too short.
There are many other players who would claim the mantle of the best dribbler Kenya fans ever saw and the first one might be Binzi Mwakolo of Kenya Breweries. But there will never be any best, only scores of exceptional ones.
Stretching back to the independence era, other players in this league, which is arguably the spice of football, are Ali Sungura, Ali Kajo, Jackson Aluko, Livingstone Madegwa, Kadir Farah, Chris Chitechi, Andrew Stausi, Steve Yongo, Arthur Okwemba, Aggrey Lukoye, Elly Adero, Gideon Hamisi, John Okello Zangi, Abbas Khamis Magongo, Wilberforce Mulamba, Enock Obwaka and Eric Omonge.
Gideon Hamisi, Obwaka and Omonge could have done so much more with their talents but they fell short. They are the people who constantly elicit the question: he is so good, so what is holding him back? But this question, as in the case of so many people in many fields of life, produces no good answer. Life is like that.
Now for Hugh McIlvanney’s legendary thunderers, the men with the canon ball shot. My generation was dominated by players like Joe Masiga and, of course, Bobby Ogolla. Peter Dawo also released block busters, a testimony to his outstanding abilities.
Probably the most outstanding of this group was Allan Thigo because he also possessed an uncanny ability to read a game and alter its tempo. It’s interesting that he should have so much power to smash the ball as hard as he did because his physique gave no clue that that was possible.
He was lean of build.
The first generation of great thunderers comprised of Elijah Lidonde, Moses Wabwayi, Jackson Aluko, David Asibwa, Hezekiah Ang’ana, Peter Odera and Jonathan Niva. They were succeeded by men like Edward Mwenesi, Dan Avedi, Simon Nyatome, Edward Kiiza, Peter Ouma, Maurice Ochieng, George Nyangi Odembo and Henry Motego.
So there you have it. No free kick specialists, no penalty takers, no goalkeepers and no referee irritants this week.
Those are for another day. If you think I have left out deserving people, my address is down here. As usual.
Roy Gachuhi, a former Nation Media Group sports reporter, is a writer with The Content House