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Steve Yongo: Stars legend and mainstay of Kenya’s campaign at 1972 Afcon

Sunday December 15 2019
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Steve Yongo, former Kenyan international, died last week aged 74. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ROY GACHUHI

New brooms sweep clean and the one we imported as Harambee Stars coach in 1971 by the name Eckhardt Krautzun did not disappoint.

He almost cleared the decks. And thus came into being a fresh breed of players informally referred to as Krautzun’s children, more evocative when said in Swahili than in English.

Steve Yongo, who died at the Kenyatta National Hospital last week, was one of them. They are the team that did duty for Kenya in the 1972 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, the country’s first such outing.

It was a mark of the coach’s audacious faith that Yongo was brought in to replace Daniel Anyanzwa, to whom the sweeper’s space was something of a personal fiefdom. At that time, if somebody was going to lose his place in the national team, he was the last of the probable candidates. But Yongo reciprocated Krautzun’s faith with stand-out performances not only at sweeper but in the various midfield positions that Krautzun experimented with him. It was soon clear that the sun was setting on the great Anyanzwa’s sterling career.

So competently did Yongo handle the holding and attacking midfield positions that he drew this gushing tribute from George Ogal, Luo Union’s team manager of the late 1970s: “He was the most complete midfielder I knew. In fact, speaking for myself, I would go so far as to say that he was the most complete footballer I knew. With Jonathan Niva to his left, Kadir Farah in front of him and Ben Waga to his right, he was amazing to watch.”

This was a large claim to make, especially when you take into consideration that the team was populated with figures such as Allan Thigo, Daniel Nicodemus and yes, Kadir Farah. David Okello, whose career at Gor Mahia was prematurely terminated by injury and who spends his time these days untiringly beating the drum for the recognition of long forgotten sports heroes, remembers Yongo for playing football as much off the pitch as on it.

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“He was the ultimate football man,” Okello says of his fallen senior. “When we converged in a bar, usually at Kaloleni, Yongo didn’t allow the waiter to take away all the empty bottles of beer. He used any number that he needed to arrange them as if they were players on the pitch.

‘This is how you make a killer move,’ he would explain, moving the bottles around. ‘This is how to break a defence.’ He could use the bottles and their tops to simulate any situation. He was such fun to be with.”

And in the days when it was more enmity than rivalry, Yongo built many bridges with the fans and players of what is today Gor Mahia’s mashemeji (in-laws), AFC Leopards. “His humility and respect won them over,” Okello recalls. “He was the last person anybody would pick a fight with.”

We remember our footballers for the special moments of brilliance they give us. It could be an acrobatic bicycle kick goal or a reflexive save that defies comprehension. David Okello told me he once saw a running Steve Yongo trap the ball on the back of his heel and flip it over his head and that of an on-coming defender. He then re-united with the ball behind the startled defender’s back. All this was done with perfect control. I told him: “I saw Mickey Weche do that, too.”

Anybody looking at old black and white pictures of Kenya Football League matches, including those involving middle level teams and noting the packed stands has a good clue why that was the case.

PLAYER-COACH

It was because of fulsome entertainment from an oversupply of players who exhibited their talents with carefree abandon. It is very different from today when the people who would be partaking of such magical performances instead allow themselves to be locked up in a building until they hand over their hard-earned money to a man who claims divine powers.

Before the professional jacket-and-tie manager became the star figure of the touchline, there was the player-coach of the amateur game. Even today, you hear of a player-coach here and there but the sound of that quickly reminds you of a cassette player or an LP. Steve Yongo was one of three men who gave the position of player-coach gravitas in Kenya. The other two were Jonathan Niva and Allan Thigo. Yongo took his position to great heights. Before the final of the 1977 Cecafa East and Central Africa Club Cup in Dar es Salaam between Luo Union and Somalia’s Horseed, Nation Sport nosed its preview with this question: “Will Luo Union player/coach Steve Yongo prove to be the most outstanding coach in this part of Africa?”

By that time, he was a household name in the region. Not only were Luo Union two-time back-to-back Kenya champions but the defending regional cup holders as well, having toppled the tough Yanga of Tanzania the previous year. His credentials as a coach were then just as good as those he had chalked up as a player. Yongo successfully defended the club cup and Luo became the first team in the region to do so. It would take years before Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards finally equalled the feat.

With his passing, the ranks of Kenya’s original Africa Cup of Nations team continue with their inexorable depletion and it is easy to share Okello’s angst about the absence of any programmes to support national team players in their sunset years.

In Cameroon, during that tournament of distant memory, Krautzun’s children, led by captain John Nyawanga and featuring the lively attacking midfielder Allan Thigo, right wing back Joram Roy and, of course, Steve Yongo blended with the players the coach had retained to keep Kenyans glued to their radio sets for two weeks. The regular starting team was: James Siang’a, Joram Roy, Jonathan Niva, Yongo, John Chore, Thigo, Samson Odore, Peter Ouma, William Chege Ouma, Daniel Nicodemus and Nyawanga.

Personally and professionally, the final years of Steve Yongo’s life were difficult.

He was afflicted with ailments that left him with impaired sight and he was in and out of hospital. As with many Kenyans in a similar position his family, supported by that circle of friends that keeps getting smaller with the passing of the days, stood by him. They were with him to the end. Since his retirement, he had watched in dismay as a supposedly professional league drew dismal crowds. Compared to his heyday, this was unbelievable; matches involving even teams threatened with relegation attracted big crowds. What happened? So much has changed, and so little for the better. But Steve Yongo’s work is done. They will take him on his last journey this Friday, December 20 to Homa Bay County, in a location called Gwasi. There, the Harambee Stars legend and mainstay of the 1972 Afcon team, East and Central African Club champion of 1976 and 1977 will be buried. He was 74.

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