John Anthony Cuddon, compiler of the McMillan Dictionary of Sports and Games said of his subject: “The world of sports has its endogenous rhythms and the scene changes all the time. Clubs and associations are formed, prosper and fall into desuetude.
The popularity of individual sports and games fluctuates. Teams have periods of ascendancy and then decline into mediocrity. Records are broken almost daily. The heroes and heroines, favourites of the hour, of the years, are eclipsed by others. Sublunary nature persists.”
The simple truths of this observation returned to haunt me on Saturday as I savoured the company of the people whose exploits on the football field helped build my profession.
Allan Thigo, the greatest attacking midfielder of his generation, was being inducted into the Kenya Football Hall of Fame and I struggled through a compact programme to chart the trajectory of our lives from the days of my boyhood when I listened with rapt attention to radio commentators describing his passes, to the years I covered him as a reporter and now to these times of old friendship characterised by nostalgic sharing.
I went there to praise him and to listen to everybody else who had come to do the same.
He was described by the various nicknames in his halcyon days.
I hadn’t realised they were that many and I learnt some for the first time.
I knew about the “90-minute man” and “the midfield general” because I had myself used them in dozens of reports but I heard for the first time that he was also called “owner of the field”.
May be, it escaped my attention because, as they explained, it was mainly said in his native Dholuo and hardly ever in Kiswahili or English.
It was my misfortune never to know about that one because I covered his Africa Cup Winners Cup campaign in 1979 and I was a witness to what he did to Guinea’s Horoya, then the defending champions.
His talented, finely-tuned and rhythmically working Gor Mahia team knocked Horoya out in the semi-finals: 1-0 in Nairobi and 2-0 in Conakry. For his orchestration of the finest midfield play ever displayed by a Kenyan team, I would have wished to report that it was all possible because at the heart of the winning team was the “owner of the field”.
Many years later over a mid-morning coffee long after he left the scene, I asked him to tell me about the difference between Gor Mahia’s play in his days and the new one.
I expected him to give me explanations that analysed management and a whole slew of technical aspects.
He actually did but went on and on about aesthetics: Beauty, flow, colour, entertainment and everything connecting players and fans.
“Name one current Gor Mahia player who has a nickname,” he challenged me.
“In our days, we all had nicknames. Nicknames are always superlatives. They are statements of love and appreciation.
The fans give them to you because in their experience, the name your parents gave you doesn’t sound good enough. But they can only do that because of the beauty of your play.”
Last Saturday, in a small and poignantly private way, football lovers had forgone Harambee Stars’ Cecafa match in Machakos to fete the old master.
I thought that one of his successors at the Harambee Stars bench, Jacob Ghost Mulee, who is now a well-known radioman, spoke for many when he said: “You cannot erase history. What Allan Thigo did cannot be erased. What Austin Oduor did cannot be erased. You may try to run but you cannot hide from it.
It is a pity that no member of the Football Kenya Federation is here to share in the honours accorded to one of our greatest footballers. What a pity that this couldn’t take place in Machakos so that fans can salute Thigo as they cheer today’s players.”
There wasn’t even an apology or acknowledgement of the occasion from FKF.
Officially, it seemed, Allan Thigo does not exist despite the 13 years of national duty.
The Kenya Football Hall of Fame is a private non-profit-making organisation. It has been celebrating distinguished former international players since 2013 when Joe Kadenge became its first inductee.
Its main driver is US-based Jared Origi, a member of the prominent Kenyan football family clan that includes Austin Oduor, the only captain to lift an Africa Cup with Gor Mahia in 1987, former Harambee Stars goalkeeper and now Norwegian citizen Arnold Origi and Belgium’s Divock Origi who plays for Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg on loan from Liverpool.
His father, Mike Okoth, also a former Kenya international, is Austin Oduor’s brother.
Its previous inductees are Ambrose Ayoyi better known to his generation as the “Golden Boy” (2016), the late goalkeeper James Siang’a (2015), and his successor between Harambee Stars goalposts Mahmoud Abbas, universally known as “Kenya One” (2014).
Beyond awarding its inductees, the Hall aims at tying the award to a scholarship named after them and seeks partners to provide bursaries for talented but needy children.
It also aims at encouraging education among footballers and create capable individuals likely to give back to the sport.
When Thigo spoke, it dawned on his audience that service to the country does not necessarily matter. After his playing days, he worked for 10 months as coach for Gor Mahia with a monthly pay of Sh30,000 and not a penny of this money was paid.
Current club chairman Ambrose Rachier was in the audience and since he did not rebut the charge, people took it to be the truth. At Sh300,000 in arrears and still counting, Thigo gave up waiting.
His stint at the national team accumulated arrears Sh 1.6 million, he said.
Since there was no federation official to respond, again the audience took him at his word. It was easy to believe him, since previous FKF administrations have a line of creditors stretching to the horizon.
“Imagine what all this money could do for me,” he told his admirers.
Though I never called to tell him to try it, on Tuesday this week I had a brainwave of how he could get the cash: Thigo could stand in a queue with a transparent plastic bag containing githeri and stuff his mouth so that he looks as if he has a tennis ball on one side of it.
That would make him an instant celebrity and earn himself a Head of State Commendation. In all likelihood his dues would be settled.
The other person in the audience that Mulee mentioned by name in terms of football achievement, Austin Oduor, was also in the room and spoke his piece.
He was effusive in his praise of Thigo as the leader of the team that inspired his to win the Nelson Mandela Cup in 1987.
As he spoke, I remembered everything he had told me and which he kept clear of: the broken promise of the achievement.
When the tournament got underway, club officials promised the players that they would get plots near Kasarani Stadium if they reached the semi-finals.
The motivated players went far beyond that target – they got to the final and actually won the Cup! And then…the officials vaporised. Not a word was said about that promise. The players were devastated. That topic came up during the informal exchanges over tea after the function.
“Gor Mahia has never got anywhere near its achievement of 1987. I think it is reaping the wrath of the bitterness of the players it betrayed. I also don’t think it will ever win again until it makes peace with its past. It can’t escape that rage,” somebody told me.
It was Rachier’s bad luck to endure the blow by blow account of that rage as narrated by my professional colleague, Robin Toskin.
He gave a case study of a former Gor Mahia player who has sworn to have nothing at all with the club that consumed his youth and has prohibited anybody from calling with a query about football.
Eighty two-year-old Kadenge was there, too.
Despite what he might say, how lucky the man is! Consider this Wednesday, March 12, 1975 report in Nation Sport.
“The Kenya Football Federation will stage a testimonial match for one of Kenya’s soccer greats, Joe Kadenge on Saturday. Announcing this yesterday, KFF chairman Ken Matiba announced that Kadenge will officially hang up his boots after that match.
On Monday, he will take over as Kenya coach and train the squad preparing for the Africa Nations Cup against Sudan next month. Now pushing 40, Kadenge is one of the greatest ball wizards the country has produced and has won every possible honour. He guided Abaluhya to five national league successes.”
Kadenge is the only player to have a testimonial match played in his honour – at least going through my archives.
The concept of an honour match for a retiring footballer, so entrenched in the culture of the game since it began, is alien to Kenya.
Once your time with the national team is done, disappear at once and keep quiet. For to end as we began: “The heroes and heroines, favourites of the hour, of the years, are eclipsed by others. Sublunary nature persists.”
(Disclosure: I have in the last four years given free consultancy on the history of football to organisers of Kenya Football Hall of Fame in their efforts to reward former national players and arrange scholarships for talented and disadvantaged players).