Gor, Leopards and begging bowls: As it was 50 years ago, so it still is today

Saturday January 6 2018

Abaluhya FC players, to face Asmara FC of (Ethiopia) in an African Club Championship fixture, receive Milo sponsorship in Nairobi in May 1974. PHOTO | FILE |

Abaluhya FC players, to face Asmara FC of (Ethiopia) in an African Club Championship fixture, receive Milo sponsorship in Nairobi in May 1974. PHOTO | FILE |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ROY GACHUHI
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So AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia football clubs may not participate in this year’s Caf Africa Club tournaments because SportPesa have turned off their money supply taps?

I have yet to decide whether to laugh or cry. In the meantime, let the following historical dispatches from the pages of Nation Sport tell their own story before we can draw any conclusions about the funding debacle Kenya’s top football clubs currently find themselves mired in.

First a brief background. In 1968, as national league champions of the previous year, Abaluhya FC were taking part in the Africa Cup of Champion Clubs for the first time. It is today’s Caf Champions League. The future AFC Leopards were paired with Ethiopia’s St George in their two-leg first round match. Here is the Nation Sport headline of May 14, 1968: “Abaluhya’s cash problems may be solved in Addis.” Now read on:

“East African soccer champions Abaluhya will organise a final fundraising match against a top-flight Ethiopian club before they tackle St George in the first round, return leg African club championship match in Addis Ababa on May 23. Robert Shikiwe, Abaluhya’s acting secretary, said yesterday that if a match could be arranged, the side would travel to Addis Ababa earlier to play this fixture.

“Abaluhya, who have set their sights on raising 3,000 pounds for the return leg match could only raise 1,200 pounds in the first leg match in Nairobi on Sunday. Other money-raising matches in East Africa appear to be out of the question – for Abaluhya are committed to a Kenya National Football League match before their Addis Ababa trip.

“As it was, their opening league match against Maragoli on April 28 was called off because they made a fund-raising trip to Tanzania. It is unlikely the league will agree to more postponements. If Abaluhya cannot raise sufficient funds, it is expected that the Kenya FA will help them out.”

The following day, May 15, Nation Sport had this banner headline: “Now Abaluhya’s cash hopes take a nose dive.” Read more:

“Abaluhya Football Club’s hopes of financial assistance from the Football Association of Kenya took a nose dive yesterday when Job Wawire, the FA’s assistant secretary, stated that Abaluhya’s bank balance is healthy and, as such, no assistance could be given by the parent body. [The reporter should have asked Wawire how he knew that since he was neither their treasurer nor their bank manager - but let me not distract you.] Abaluhya, who have set a target of raising 3,000 pounds for the return leg Africa Cup Club Championship match against St George in Addis Ababa, collected 1,200 pounds in the first leg match in Nairobi last Sunday.

“Robert Shikiwe, Abaluhya’s acting secretary, added: “We will try to raise as much money as possible in the next few days and by the end of next week. If we are unable to reach our target, we will have no alternative but to approach the Football Association.

“If the FA cannot finance Abaluhya, then there is every possibility that Abaluhya will not be able to make the trip. This is the first time that East Africa has ventured in the Club Championship tournament and the Africa Football Confederation is likely to take a bleak view of the parent bodies not being able to subsidize their teams. Most of the other African teams in the tournament are fully subsidized by their football associations.”

Now Gor Mahia. The year was 1979 and Kenya’s 1978 league runners-up to Kenya Breweries were on a continental roll in the Africa Cup Winners Cup. It is today’s Caf Confederation Cup which is giving their in-laws sleepless nights. They themselves are facing the Champions League but SportPesa has put all that in doubt. More about that later.

SHOCKED YET AGAIN

After defeating defending champions Horoya of Guinea 1-0 in the first leg of the semi-finals in Nairobi, Kenya football fans were stunned to read the following story in Nation Sport: “Kenya’s representatives in the Africa Cup Winners’ Cup tournament, Gor Mahia, may be forced to abandon their camp unless money is found within two days to meet their training expenses. Speaking to the Nation on Friday, David Opar, vice-chairman of the club, said the club had now exhausted the funds set aside for training.

“He appealed to the public to come forward with generous donations to help the club meet the training expenses. Opar also appealed to the Kenya Football Federation officials to change their attitude of ‘isolating the club’.”

This week, January 4, 2018, Nation Sport reported: “As things are, Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards and Harambee Stars, who each only have one sponsor, have nowhere to turn to, and could even fail to honour their assignments in the not so distant future, that’s unless government intervenes or a miracle of sorts happens.

“As a result of this decision (by SportPesa),”  long-serving Gor Mahia chairman Ambrose Rachier explained to journalists on Tuesday that he was considering his next step.“I will be chairing an executive meeting to determine whether we will write to the Confederation of African Football to petition our withdrawal from participating in the Caf Africa Champions League. At the moment, we cannot honour these matches,” he said. 

“Leopards chairman Dan Mule was more categorical. ‘We are back to stretching out the begging bowls. The club has no other means of income... the support we receive from our supporters cannot sustain us,’ he said. Football Kenya Federation too, will have to secure alternative means of meeting the demands of technical director Anders Spiers and Harambee Stars coach Paul Put in the wake of SportPesa’s contract termination. 

“He also appealed to officials of other clubs to help with donations, however small they were. The vice-chairman described the club’s condition as ‘very serious’ and appealed to the media not to treat his plea as “just another press statement. He said: ‘There is no money at all and if we cannot get help in two days’ time, we shall have no alternative but to release the players from the camp.’”

In true Kenyan tradition, just enough funds will be cobbled together at the last minute to enable the two clubs to fly the national flag. And as it was 50 years ago and 39 years ago, so will it be today. The similarity in the reportage is so staggering that it can only be believed when reproduced word for word. You could inadvertently interchange the reporting of 2018 with that of 1968 and still get away with factual accuracy.

History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce: was Karl Marx writing about economics or Kenya football?

What conclusions do we make from the events of this week? First, we must remember that Kenya’s sports politics closely mirror our national politics.

Elections of the most popular and financially lucrative disciplines and organizations are always a vicious contest, only lacking in the blood that flows in the bigger one. The objective of many of the most determined candidates is not about public service and good governance but the acquisition and retention of power as a means to feathering one’s personal nest. The wrong people populate its vast ranks.

Fifty years down the line, AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia should be evaluating the suitability of the many organizations lining up to associate their brand with them. And not everybody should be welcome. As it is, they will supplicate to anybody who does anything as long as he has money. That is the lowest place in life to be.

Remember Willy Mutunga? He is the guy who applied for a job as Chief Justice of Kenya and got it. Some people thought he would take off his ear stud to enhance his chances of success by looking more conservatively correct. What did he say to his interviewers? “If they ask me to remove it, I will tell them to keep their job.” I thought to myself: here is a man who is in the best space in life. He is applying for the highest job in one of the three branches of government at his own terms!

Unfortunate is he who is willing to twist his body any which way to get money. AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia are in that position. Their founders of half a century ago doubtless envisaged strong institutions that would build impressive homes that would generate their own income in perpetuity. Instead what their successors built were homes at Gmail dot com from where they beg for handouts.

In the case of the once fabled AFC Leopards, it’s been one long tryst with extinction and in the fearful estimation of their own chairman, the latest blow by SportPesa is a step in that direction.

Institution building in Kenya sport has been a complete failure. As individuals, Kenyans will continue to blaze the trail in the global arena. There will be many more Stephen Muchokis, Robert Wangilas, Ezekiel Kembois, Paul Tergats, Lorna Kiplagats, Catherine Nderebas, Janeth Jepkosgeis and Victor Wanyamas.

The country will continue to praise them and appropriate their successes to itself as a nation even in the many instances when it has been more a hindrance than a help. Indeed, sometimes it has been the actual problem. It has had to be overcome for that success to be achieved.

What is the future of Kenya sport? That is easy. Betting companies will continue to rake in the profits whichever way this standoff goes. AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia will thrust forward begging bowls for us to put “something, however small.”

The Government will reiterate its commitment to sports development, call upon Kenyans “to emulate our heroes” and turn its attention elsewhere. Many things will change. But the more they change, the more they will remain the same.

Want to wager a bet on that?