Whom do you support” seems to be the question that every soccer fan asks the other. But for no other reason than entertainment value, the strange presence of the English Premier League in the African consciousness is a fun place to start.
About 20,000 Kenyans take advantage of a rare chance to see their football heroes in action as Manchester United play Arsenal in a league match.
Kenyans are that mad for the Premiership but not so crazy about their own leagues. The attendance would be higher than for many games between local teams.
And while the popularity of the Premiership grows in Kenya, it seems to be at the expense of the domestic league. Observers say the future is bleak for Kenyan Premier League, with all its brightest stars being drawn to Europe while its own clubs wither and die.
A mabati-thatched TV room that should hold up to 50 people but on the night of the Champions League semi-final first leg between Manchester United and Arsenal held at least 200 was testament to how big English (and European) football has become popular in the country.
Another 100 people remained outside Alex Mwendwa’s hall in Githurai 45 – the only place in the estate where EPL ‘comes’ every weekend.
The craze for English football contrasts sharply with the local game. Only a month ago, Nairobi and Mumias hosted the Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (Cecafa) tournament.
Shockingly, barely 5,000 fans attended the matches – even when the national team, Harambee Stars, were taking on eventual winners Uganda Cranes.
Bigger local matches – for instance between traditional giants Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards or Mathare United – can draw only between 1,000 and 3,000 fans in the stadium. Some 10 to 15 years ago, such big league games packed 15,000 or more.
Lack of money
The lack of interest in the Kenyan game centres around the key thing that drives the English Premier League: money. Kenyan clubs are very poor. They pay players between Sh10,000 and Sh40,000 a month – and, worse, often delay the payment.
As a consequence of bad pay, poor administration and corruption, the quality of play is poor and fans increasingly staying away. Many have turned their attention to live Premiership football on pay TV channels.
People who used to argue and fight about Gor or AFC now spend more time talking about Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea.
Few local radio stations have helped to promote the local game, with only Radio Jambo trying to find their footing as far as the reportage is concerned. Even when national league matches are being played, far more radio air time is spent on English teams than on local games. It is a dilemma for the radio sports presenters: should they be patriotic and concentrate on local football or give listeners what they want?
But perhaps a bigger challenge facing Kenyan football is administrative. In a country of 40 million people, where crowds will stop and watch amateurs playing in the park, professional league games struggle to get more than 10,000 paying fans on match days.
David Mutende is from Kakamega Town and – you guessed right – he supports Manchester United.
“I like Man U because they’re winners. Actually, I like any club that wins in Europe. Kenyans like winners; we’re simple people. Kenyan clubs? Can you really compare? They’re rubbish; I don’t waste my time with that,” he said.
“Only one or two [local] clubs have the following to sell out their home grounds,” said James Mwangi, an Arsenal fan. “When you look at the stadiums you’ll find that the stands are virtually empty while bars that have satellite TV are full. People will pay to watch the [English] Premier League on TV but not to watch Kenyan football live.”
Clubs went bust
The trouble started way back in the mid 1990s, he said. Then, a poor economy meant many clubs went bust and were not able to pay their players. Companies started to feel the heat and, one after the other, wound up their teams. Firms like Oserian Flowers, Mumias Sugar, Brooke Bond and Securicor have all seen their teams fade away after the mother companies wound up the teams.
One thing that Kenyans remain attached to, however, is the national team, Harambee Stars. In the past few years, the team’s clashes with Guinea, Nigeria, Zimbabwe or Tunisia have attracted larger crowds than in the past.
But even this could be so because, over recent years, Kenyan footballers have signed for clubs outside the country – in France, Italy and even Norway. So, when the national team plays fans go to see their own professionals and they expect a higher standard of performance.
And if Stars are playing a big team like Tunisia or Nigeria, there’s the added bonus of watching players such as Michael Essien, Nwankwo Kanu or Joseph Yobo. Talk of killing two birds with one stone.
Nurse big dreams
In the past few years, Football Kenya Limited has promised to ensure that the national team qualifies for the Africa Cup of Nations. But, despite frantic preparation and efforts, the team has failed to qualify for next month’s edition in Angola or the June/Jule World Cup in South Africa.
To date, Kenya’s best football achievement remains the twin 2-0 wins over Zimbabwe and Guinea in the first leg of the 2010 World Cup/Nations Cup qualifiers.
Football, this most popular sport, remains alive throughout Kenya. As they did 30 years ago, children in Nairobi and other towns and villages still use string to tie pieces of old clothing into balls to kick around.
Most may never wear football boots, but they will still nurse big dreams of following in the steps of their heroes.
Those heroes though, at least for now, remain Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, Arsenal’s Walcott or Chelsea’s Drogba.