I did my sports reporting at a time nicknames for outstanding players was the rule. Thus I covered the “Six Million Dollar Man", "90-minute Man" and "Breakdance."
I took for granted, as I am sure today’s sports journalists do, the given names of these players. Everybody has a name, don’t they?
Not true. There was a time when our players did not have names – at all! They were non-persons. ("Non-person: A non-existent person" – World Book Dictionary). Such a person, in the presence of others, has no rights, much less privileges and is to be seen — if that is a must — but certainly not heard, unless spoken to. I came to this discovery when researching my book, Kick-Off: The Game, The Glory and The Greats of Kenyan Football."
I was so stunned by this finding that I decided to make this the opening chapter.
In the early years of the colonial period, African footballers were non-persons. We shall never get to know who they were because they never existed.
It is the bloody agitation for independence that gave our rulers and their sidekicks in the media of that time a change of heart. Freedom is good. It gives a person dignity.
Today’s being the last instalment of this column this year and on the eve of the festive season, I thought it a good thing to remember our ancestors, the players without names.
If you are appalled by the brazen discrimination they suffered, cheer up, you might enjoy the way my colleagues of yore reported football in those days.
This story is an abridged excerpt from Kick-Off:
The 19th century builders of the so-called Uganda Railway that set off from Mombasa on its way to the source of the River Nile left us a legacy that included football, Kenya’s national past time, a game that we instantly liked.
It was magically simple and exciting. Mombasa is the cradle of Kenya football; this is where the 100 years or so story of our game begins. The railway builders, and the colonists and missionaries who came with them, gave us personal names and names for our football clubs.
Our personal names endured and are the identities that we are known by today.
Yet we did not always have names, at least not as far as the media of the years before World War II was concerned.
The pioneer African footballers were nameless people and we shall never know who they were, much less distinguish the exceptional from the ordinary. That would come in the 1940s decade.
The only people who had names were Europeans. This one-paragraph report in the East African Standard of July 20, 1938 was typical coverage of the early years: "A native football team from Eldoret paid a visit to Nakuru last weekend. On Friday, they were beaten by a Nakuru side by 4 goals to 2 while on Saturday they played and drew with the holders of the Buxton Cup. The score was 3 all."
The Eldoret team, the Nakuru side and the holders of the Buxton Cup, whoever they were, all these were anonymous entities. Compare this with a report in the same paper exactly 10 years earlier – June 2, 1928 – on another match involving the European community:
"On Empire Day, the Caledonians entertained the YMCA and a very poor exhibition of the Association code resulted.
“Mis-kicking was the order of the day and when kicks were effected no one seemed to know where the ball was going to. Passes were very loose and the ball was too much in the air to be of any great assistance to those who suffer from lack of inches. The Callies won the toss and faced VI Avenue and were offside in the first minute.
"Then the Young Christians were off and with both backs missing the call, Rosenstone had a great opportunity but presented the sphere to the goalkeeper who walked about half a dozen steps with it in his arms.
“The YMCA again pressed and hands in the penalty area saw Rosenstone balloon the ball — another gift goal missed. The same player was soon on the run and sent in a hot shot which the goal-keeper had to put over the bar. "Temporary attacks by the Callies were frustrated and then the men in black worried Ramage with three good shots but these were well saved.
“The Scotsmen forced a corner. From a distance out Thompson, the ex-Parklands half-back dropped the ball into the goal and Eastwood being baulked by one of his backs and with the sun in his face allowed the ball to enter the net off the upright.
After some mid-field play Douglas gave a good pass to Tate who lifted the ball over the back’s head when close in and then tapped the ball into the goal. This put the Callies two up and this was the ultimate extent of their victory."
Reports of the 1920s and 30s followed the same pattern.
The biggest tournament of the day was the Gossage Cup played between Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. But not even that one could get reporters to mention African players.
Note the only two people mentioned in the report of the final of 1928 when Uganda took the trophy with a crushing 4-0 victory:
"The Gossage Cup final between Kenya and Uganda which should have been played last year took place on the Nakivubo ground on Tuesday of last week.
“The Kenya team was the taller of the two but also the older and whilst their height aided their admirable heading their age soon told, says the Uganda Herald.
A huge crowd of some five thousand was present and tremendous enthusiasm was displayed. Play opened to Father Morrison’s whistle and proved fairly even for a while the game swinging up and down the Uganda forwards putting in some very pretty work.
The right inside however through selfish play early threw away the chances of scoring on two occasions.
"Shortly after, however, a further miss was given, three quarters of the goal being open to Uganda left-outside’s center and no one there to take it.
This was shortly redeemed by the left inside who put in an excellent shot and opened the scoring.
Uganda pressed again from the kick-off after a clean run through, missed by wild shooting. Kenya by now was already showing signs of strain and shortly after Uganda added to the score which stood at Uganda 2, Kenya 0 when the half-time whistle blew.
"Soon after the re-start Uganda added another goal to the score and this had the effect of galvanizing Kenya into a final spasmodic effort to open their own score. After a pretty run through and some real hard work in front of the goal a beautiful shot was magnificently saved by Uganda’s goalie. This was really Kenya’s only shot and after it they did little. It certainly deserved a better fate. The game became dull and Kenya certainly did not look like scoring for the last quarter of an hour.
"Uganda added one more leaving the final score at 4-0. A more correct idea of the game would probably be given by a score of 8-2 in Uganda’s favour. Uganda’s shooting was appalling and Kenya certainly had bad luck on one occasion and encountered a brilliant save on another. However, it was extremely sporting of the team to have come up and given us the game and to have put up so gallant a struggle. At the conclusion of the match the Hon. Mr. R. S. D Rankine, Chief Secretary, presented the Cup."
Who scored Uganda’s four goals? Who were their outstanding players? Who were Kenya’s best players? Who were mainly responsible for the big loss - the goalkeeper? The defenders? The coach? In a word – who played in this match? But even if we shall never get to put names to the football of our pioneers, there is much comic relief, especially in the more controversial matches. The less than 30 year-old Fifa did not yet have its iron grip on.