Sunday's Mashemeji Derby is the last one Gor Mahia FC will play before marking their 50th birthday in one month’s time. If I was not tied up in an engagement I couldn’t escape, I would have been at Afraha Stadium to see the gifts the players will exchange – assuming they will. I would have been there to hear a stirring tribute to 50 years of epic collisions through thick and thin – assuming it will be made.
And I would have been there to simply enjoy myself, to appreciate these two clubs for showing me so much of the African continent through their football, to remember their greats, especially those who started their careers at Afraha Stadium and then to take another look at the once idyllic town shadowed by Menengai Hill where I used to pass as a little boy every three months to and from school.
Before returning home, I wouldn’t forget to drop by at Madison Square Garden to say hello to my boxing friends.
Tomorrow’s is not just another derby; it has the weight of history behind it. Think about all the players who have donned the colours of these two clubs over the last half century. They gave us countless stories to write about. Think about the backroom staff, the technical personnel, the administrators and generations of fans. Football is not just about kicking a ball back and forth. It is also about making and cementing friendships, celebrating and mourning together – and remembering. It is a very important aspect of culture. Because I won’t be there, I will send them my gift.
Today, I will write about the very first Mashemeji Derby. It was played on Sunday, May 5, 1968 at the Nairobi City Stadium. At that time, Gor Mahia were about 40 days old. Discussions to amalgamate Luo Union and Luo Stars football clubs had been going on for several months but the announcement of the formal ending of the split between these two clubs was carried in Nation Sport on February 20, 1968.
The Nation reported: “Luo Union Football Club and Luo Sports Club will enter one side for the Kenya National Football League this year. The side split up two years ago due to differences among the officials and players. These differences have now been settled. Luo Union dominated the East African soccer scene from 1963 to 1965 and were runners-up to Tanganyika Planting Company in the Allsopps Cup, the official club championships of East Africa, in 1964.
“As a result of the split, several players, including internationals James Siang’a, John Otieno, Joe Okeyo and William “Chege” Ouma turned out for Kisumu Hotstars in the League last year.
“Luo Union, with a weak team, did well to finish in the first four in the league last season. Internationals in their ranks are forwards Steven Yongo and Walter Molo. As a result of the merger, Luo will now be able to present a good challenge to the current champions, Abaluhya Football Club, who have won the league for two consecutive years.”
That prediction turned prophetic. In fact, Nation Sport went further to marvel at the new team’s attacking formation with this hypothesis: “The inside-forward trio is probably the best in Kenya football at the moment.” Thus the stage was set for the first Mashemeji Derby which easily turned into Kenya football’s biggest local event to date.
On May 5, Gor Mahia fielded the following players to face Abaluhya: James Siang’a, Arthur Omondi, Paul Ndula, Samson Odore, John “Hatari” Owiti, Joseph “Mwalimu” Okeyo, Walter Molo, Steve “McQueen” Yongo, William “Chege” Ouma, John Wambudo and Chris Obure.
Obure is the one who would later have a successful corporate, civil service and political career although he fell when he sought the Kisii governor’s office in last year’s elections.
The four-year-old Abaluhya, as AFC Leopards were then called, were two-time Kenya and reigning East African champions. Their line-up featured: Johnstone Tiema, Charles Makunda, Jonathan Niva, Anthony Mukabwa, Moses Wabwai, Daniel Anyanzwa, Joe Kadenge, Livingstone Madegwa, John Nyawanga, John Ambani and Noah Wanyama.
There wasn’t room for one more at the City Stadium when two of the greatest forwards to come from these shores stared at each other’s goalmouths. Any neutral East African football fan would have comfortably picked William “Chege” Ouma as the region’s best striker and Joe Kadenge as the best right winger. Despite the heavyweight status of almost every other member of the starting elevens, these two men dominated conversation.
Kadenge was then a veteran who had first played for Kenya in 1956. The media then christened him Kenya’s King of Dribble and was the nation’s talking point as the country prepared to host English FA Cup champions West Bromwich Albion the following month.
“Chege” was a young striker who had nevertheless established his position as the country’s best. He had a long national team career before him. Years later, I would ask my senior colleague, Hezekiah Wepukhulu: “Why did they call him Chege?”
“They said he resembles people from Central Kenya,” Hez replied.
CLASH OF THE TITANS
In previews and match reports, the first Mashemeji Derby was billed as a clash between Kadenge and “Chege”. The slithery striker came out much better for wear at the end of the proceedings, but this match established the pattern that would characterize almost all that would follow in the next 50 years, including the dozens that I would cover.
It established narrow final score lines that belie what the proceedings actually looked like. Final scores like the 5-1 hammering that Gor Mahia handed Leopards in 1975 were and remain out of character with the derby.
I was in the “press bench” in 1981 when Leopards clawed Gor 3-1. Why they didn’t win 6-1 heaven only knows because after taking the lead through a Sammy Owino penalty, Gor Mahia came apart exactly like the infamous Brazil collapse in the World Cup semi-final against Germany in 2014 that led to a 7-1 rout.
In fact, I once wrote a derby preview specifically on this subject. My argument was that analysis of form and fitness played no role in the outcome of Gor Mahia versus AFC Leopards clashes. It didn’t matter how smoothly one machine was purring and how rusty the other one was.
There was always a profound respect between these teams that far outweighed such situations. There also was psychological weight. It appears as if the players carry something heavier than themselves.
Whatever it is, they are rarely separated by more than two goals. Mashemeji Derbies never start with a weaker team because such a team doesn’t exist. And the beauty of this contest is that the players always seek to become better than themselves. And so, too, do the fans. In the past, they have sometimes gone way overboard in their loyalties. But they are the lifeblood of the teams. I expect this pattern to be maintained tomorrow and I support the campaign to fill up every last millimetre of the terraces.
On May 5, 1968, Gor Mahia were utterly dominant, but they still only managed a 2-1 victory. Both goals were scored by “Chege”. Here is how Polly Fernandes reported the derby for Nation Sport: “William ‘Chege’ Ouma, Gor Mahia’s mercurial leader in attack, blazed in two crackerjack second half goals to send reigning National League champions Abaluhya crushing to defeat in this action-packed encounter at Nairobi’s City stadium last night.
“After the match, delighted Gor Mahia supporters swamped the pitch to chair off man-of-the-match Ouma, and the ten other heroes who worked so meritoriously to achieve this victory. And no team deserved more to topple the league champions than this power-packed Gor Mahia side. Throughout the match, they sought to play attractive, on-the-ground soccer and it must be said to their credit that never at any stage during the match did they try to frustrate Abaluhya’s chances of a revival by reverting to a defence-minded negative game.
“For Joe Kadenge, Abaluhya’s free-scoring winger, the match was one of lamentable failures. He missed a guilt-edged chance of paving the way for the equaliser when, in the 72nd minute, he blazed wide a penalty.”
On that afternoon, what Polly Fernandes described as Joe Kadenge’s jet-propelled bursts were abundantly thwarted by Gor Mahia’s Paul Ndula and Joseph Okeyo. In the case of Okeyo, not only did he ably marshal his defence, but he was the prompt of many attacks by his midfielders.
Gor Mahia had this game to themselves for large swathes of the first half and only the brilliant play of defenders Moses Wabwayi and Anthony Mukabwa kept Chris Obure and “Chege” at bay. But there was no stopping them in the second half when the persistent probes of Walter Molo finally paid off. Twice, he was able to release his lethal striker and twice “Chege” had Tiema fetching the ball from the back of his net.
Noah Wanyama on the left wing did everything to make up for the shackled Joe Kadenge. But for his troubles, he could only pick up an injury and limp off the pitch. Nevertheless, he had the consolation of having the man who substituted him, Henry Misango, get his name in the score sheet in the 80th minute. However, that was as far as Abaluhya came to evening the scores.
James Siang’a, Arthur Omondi and, of course, Okeyo had Gor Mahia’s defence locked and the key misplaced and it was the lively Yongo who looked eager to finish his team’s near perfect evening with a flourish.
Thus at 2-1 for Gor Mahia the first Mashemeji Derby ended. I don’t expect the surviving members of this match, such as Chris Obure and Joe Kadenge, to show up at Afraha Stadium tomorrow.
It may prove too taxing for 83-year-old Joe to return to the town of the birth of his football career while Obure may still be picking up the pieces of his political career. But let the derby begin.