If you had a chance to interact with a typical, diehard AFC Leopards or Gor Mahia fan you would think the clubs owned the air Kenyan football breathes.
“Gor is not just a club, it is a movement,” the K’Ogalo fan would say as a matter of fact, not unlike a physics professor stating Newton’s law of gravity to his students.
“This is a big club. Without Leopards there is no football in Kenya,” the Ingwe fan would ooze like an English literature lover discussing the works of William Shakespeare.
Gor and Leopards, founded in 1968 and 1964 respectively, are indeed the two biggest and most popular football clubs in the country. They have dominated the local game and provided the bulk of national team players from the time Kenya gained independence in 1963.
The biggest names in Kenyan football over the years have invariably come from AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia: Joe Kadenge, Jonathan Niva, Wilberforce “Maradona” Mulamba, Mahmoud “Kenya One” Abbas, JJ Masiga, Josephat “Controller” Murila, Allan Thigo, Maurice Ochieng, John “Bobby” Ogolla, Sammy “Jogoo” Onyango, Austine Odour, just to name a few.
In the earlier years of amateur football, Gor and Leopards ably represented the country on the continental scene and were synonymous with Kenyan football.
Their success translated to success for Harambee Stars and a massive outpouring of euphoria by a smitten national population that only sports can achieve. Think of a country winning the World Cup and what that does to the mood of the local inhabitants.
But, and this is the big irony, part of the problem of the stagnation of Kenyan club football is down to the two clubs.
Without any intention of slighting Gor or Leopards, and their legion of vocal fans, I will state the two clubs have miserably failed to transit from their successful amateur days to the professional era.
For starters, who really owns AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia? Can either of these clubs provide an up to date, undisputed membership roll call? Now? I bet not.
Small wonder, elections are invariably controversial, incumbent officials are reluctant to go to the polls, and -- for two clubs that boast of having the largest following in the country -- only a paltry hundreds or few thousands attend polls.
The two outfits are run by an executive committee that seems answerable only to itself, have a secretariat only in name and office that changes at the whim of the seating chairman. How they have managed to survive in this modern times is a wonder to me.
Successive chairmen enter office promising to return the clubs to their glory days of yesteryears but there are no nuts and bolts matters on how the clubs will be transformed into a professionally run, world class, modern enterprise.
I remember one time 2003 when AFC Leopards chairman then Voltaire Kegode attempted to streamline the club’s ownership by having fans buy membership countrywide as he looked to turn the club into a company.
All potential members needed to do was walk to a Kenya Posta office, pay and register. This plan was vehemently opposed in some quarters as Kegode was accused of selling the club and eventually hounded out of office. Look where perpetually broke Leopards are now.
Recently Gor Mahia introduced an e-ticketing system for their home matches to help curb corruption at the gate. Your guess is as good as mine on why that noble project came a cropper.
The fact is, simply, the two outfits are just professional football clubs in name with no known permanent abode, no owned stadium or training ground, not known for management competence. A sharp contrast to their peers in Africa.
That is why I found myself wryly smiling last week as the followers of the two teams praised the forthcoming Bet High Kenya sponsorship amounting to Sh285 million over three seasons, translating to Sh55 million per year for Gor Mahia and Sh40 million per year for AFC Leopards.
Buoyant Gor talked about focusing on excelling in Africa while upbeat Leopards talked about challenging for the Kenyan championship. Then what? Gor and Leopards have continued to attract the biggest amount of sponsorship amongst the KPL clubs but just cannot spring to the next level. I suspect Tusker, Mathare United, Kariobiangi Sharks, Nairobi City Stars would be more successful if they got these kinds of money.
History shows no amount of sponsorship will make a major difference to the two glamour clubs unless they totally overhaul their management and ownership structure. These are not the 60s, 70s and 80s.
As a popular trade unionist, and a top official of the ruling party in the country are fond of saying; you can take this to the bank.