Why English football rules!

| May 14, 2013 - 11.33UTC

With Manchester United freshly crowned Champions of England for a record 20th time, Arsenal fan Carol Radull wonders why English football is so revered in Kenya, and how the local game can compete

I watched my first Arsenal game– the first I can properly remember– in the early 1990s. Up until then the only football I had access to was Football Made in Germany. I can’t remember who Arsenal were playing then, but I do remember how I felt as I watched the game. George Graham was the manager, and it must have been 1993 because I remember Arsenal won an unprecedented FA Cup and League Cup double. I fell in love instantly.

The English have a way of producing their football on television with such style that it becomes a programme, not just a game. From the fans thronging towards the stadium carrying flags and wearing club jerseys and scarves to players getting off the team coach with earphones on to block out the world around them. Sometimes I wonder if they  actually do have calming/inspirational music on or whether some are silent and just for show.

I love the Bundesliga, but clearly Kenya was hungry for football that wasn’t made only in Germany. DStv, and with it Supersport, came to our country at an opportune time; by the late ’90s and early years of this century Kenyans were hooked! It was impossible to go to a pub on a Saturday and not find hordes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool fans all draped in their club colours watching the English Premier League (EPL). Most Chelsea fans will admit that it was only when Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 and began to buy players left, right and centre that they began to wear blue. I knew two Chelsea fans in Kenya pre-2003, now I know plenty.

The quality of football in the EPL is high, and it gets better each year because the best players from all over the world tend to want to play in England. While the quality is also high in Spain, Italy and Germany, the British press hype their league so much that all the decent players become household names.

EPL, KPL or both?
I wasn’t in Kenya for some of the 1980s, when Kenyan football was big, but I have read about it. Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards were on fire then, winning nearly every league title and several continental plaudits as well. I do remember that whenever we were in Nairobi on holiday my uncle and his very loud friends would seem to always be going to a Gor Mahia game.

Something has happened since the ‘90s, when Kenyans completely abandoned the local league. Coincidentally, this was also when the English Premier League began to be beamed live on our screens. Suddenly we went from seeing EPL matches two days later on the national broadcaster to watching it live. The excitement was unbelievable.

Radio presenter Larry Asego says he started supporting Manchester United when he fell in love with Eric Cantona. Larry, who comes from a family of sportsmen, confesses: “I loved Eric Cantona and I wanted to be like him.”

However, Larry is one of a growing number of Kenyans who appreciate local football, or, should I say, Gor Mahia.

“My father was a Gor fan and he took me to their games as a child,” says Larry. “Gor fans are passionate and faithful. The way the team is playing now, their game is fast-paced and exciting, and the goals are flying in.”

Larry’s love for foreign football has little to do with the local game. “Locally we have way too many issues that get in the way of football development,” he says. “If it isn’t about somebody sliding off with gate receipts, then it’s the leadership wranglings that are centre stage. It’s the same old guys trying to apply 1960 techniques to football in the year 2013. Most of the administrators should have retired ten years ago!”

Breakfast Radio presenter Maina Kageni is undoubtedly Kenya’s most well-known Manchester United supporter. When asked why he supports United, his response was simple: “Always have, always will!”

In Kenya, Maina supports Mathare United. “I’m biased because I am close friends with the captain, Anthony ‘Modo’ Kimani,” he says.

It isn’t uncommon in Kenya to find someone supporting a club for very personal reasons, and not because they admire how the team plays. However Maina doesn’t attend Kenyan Premier League (KPL) games, though he never misses a Man United match. He says he prefers the EPL because it’s “unpredictable”.

With regard to other European leagues – such as La Liga in Spain – he is less enthusiastic. “La Liga may have more quality, but only Barcelona or Real Madrid are ever going to win it,” Maina says.

He believes admiration for foreign football does not impact the Kenyan game at all, rather it is other factors closer to home. “There are just too many other issues with our local football, such as management and organisation; it has nothing to do with foreign football,” he says.

The EPL has rich and flamboyant superstars for us to admire, Maina explains, adding that local players are so poorly paid that often they ask their ‘richer friends’ for cash. It’s hard to imagine that they are superstars, but we need sporting heroes who young people can aspire to be like…

It’s true that financing has been slow in the KPL. Broadcaster Supersport and title sponsor Tusker allow each club to receive some cash but it’s still way short of the estimated Ksh2.5 million needed each month to run a club properly. As Maina says, the result is that players don’t get paid regularly. The knock-on effect is that some of Kenya’s best footballing prospects opt to take ‘regular’ jobs because football is too unpredictable financially.

Sport presenter Kieni Githinji is a Liverpool fan. He says: “My father brainwashed me, and I grew up in an era when Liverpool were winning all sorts of trophies. And because my father was also heavily involved in AFC Leopards, I grew up knowing them as a great team.”

Kieni says the EPL has heritage and is very competitive: “The English Premier League is entertaining, and without a doubt the most well-marketed league in the world. It would be fake for anyone to say that they love football but do not support the EPL.”

According to Kieni, the issues in the local league and Kenyans’ love for European football are related. He explains: “When leadership issues disrupted the local league in the 1990s, Kenyans’ thirst for football naturally led us to the EPL.”

Michelle Katami is a sports journalist who is very active in covering the Kenyan Premier League. But Michelle, too, has a team she supports in England: Arsenal.

She explains: “I fell in love with Arsene Wenger’s policy of nurturing young talent instead of going for ready-made product. Wenger is always patient and his belief in raw talent is amazing. Arsenal also play, or at least used to play, beautiful football. The magic is in the passes and the moves, but we aren’t seeing much of that this season.”

In Kenya Michelle supports Mathare United because, just like Arsenal, their policy has always been about “nurturing players from the slums, giving them a chance to showcase their talent”. Its feeder organisation, the Mathare Youth Sports Association, “also promotes football within their youth structures”.

Michelle enjoys the competitiveness of the EPL:  “There is no team so small that it cannot beat a big team.”  She also loves the drama of the EPL, citing the last minute goal that won the league for Manchester City in the 2011-2012 season. “Even the transfer season is dramatic,” she says, “enhanced of course by the British media.”

Bigging up our game
At this point I stop to wonder whether the Kenyan media should be doing more to hype the local game. I personally led a campaign in early 2008 to get fans back through the turnstiles. My friends and some workmates thought I was crazy, but others joined in and we made every Sunday an event at different stadia across Nairobi.

Our ‘following’ grew and I continued to cover the KPL in prime-time sports bulletins and shows, and slowly things began to change to where we are today. We are still a long way off from the day when all stadia will be full of fans, but Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards have certainly stepped up to the plate to create excitement in the league.

As a journalist covering the KPL, Michelle Katami admits that progress has been made in attracting sponsors and fans but “there is a long way to go”. She adds: “Hooliganism, unfortunately, often takes us two steps back, but it’s a work in progress.”

Another sports presenter, Roy Karuhize, is also a Manchester United fan. He says: “United represent the work ethic of sport. Players are hired and trained to have the right attitude and put personal skill second. They demonstrate the professional attitude lacking in many sides, and more so here in Africa.”

As for the KPL, Roy is a Sofapaka supporter because “they seem to have initiated the professional approach to football here in Kenya”. Sofapaka was the first KPL club to negotiate a big-money corporate sponsorship; their current deal with East African Portland cement is worth a reported Ksh30 million a year.

Roy says: “The English Premier League has it all. Great stories are created and shared to build stronger interest in the action. For example, players shake hands before a game, the fans are more vocal, the commentary is full of character and information, the camera work is incomparable and very close to the game, as opposed to the bigger stadia in Spain and Italy. The stadium and kit quality are clean and unmatched. I could go on forever…”

Unlike the others, Roy admits that the foreign game “does divert our attention from local football”. If United are playing at the same time as a Sofapaka game, “it’s a no-brainer as to what I would prefer to watch,” he says. “A lot needs to be done to develop the local scene, such as more engaging journalism, attractive corporate backers, building of regional clubs rather than corporate teams, and so on.”

Most of the people I spoke to on this subject of EPL vs KPL were just fans with no real stake in either league, so I sought the views of the Managing Director of the Kenyan Premier League, Jack Oguda. Jack has been managing the league ever since it became the Premier League in 2003.

“The Kenyan Premier League has gained in viewership over the years since it started being broadcast,” he says. “This can be seen in the growing attendance in the stadia and the following that we have on social sites and websites. However, we could do with a lot more government and corporate involvement.

“The EPL has its share of our local fans, but that league is 20 years old and many local supporters got engrossed in it when our own football was in the ‘dogs’. We still have to market our league better, as well.”

While Jack acknowledges that financial support is key, he says the main aspect of league growth is “good governance, transparency and accountability”.

“As a league we have still to make our clubs fully professional and able to attract more sponsors and partners. Better pay for players, coaches, referees and club officials would raise the quality of our league. It is important fans feel that they have a stake in the growth of the clubs.”

Stars still shine?
All the people I spoke to care about the Kenyan team and its fortunes, but say the national federation needs to be more organised. The country needs credible leaders with clear strategies. Last year Football Kenya Ltd hired Frenchman Henri Michel as national team coach for a reported salary of upwards of Ksh3 million a month, but results were poor and he quit after just four months in charge.

Kenya sat out the Africa Cup of Nations 2013 and now faces an uphill task to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, following a home draw against Malawi and an away defeat to Namibia– although we did manage a credible 1-1 draw in Nigeria in March. Only one team qualifies from our group, so it seems as if CECAFA (Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations) Cup, and maybe CHAN, the Africa tournament for locally based players, is as far as our Harambee Stars can go.

Jack Oguda had clear views on what needs to be done:  “In Kenya we need structures right from the grassroots as there is no shorter route to success than youth development. We need to get more coaches in Kenya to look for talent from the age of eight years, and have a specific method of play. Kids need to be handled in a professional manner at a young age, and then we will not have incidents of indiscipline as they grow and become better athletes.”

The general consensus here is that Kenyan football is not suffering as a result of the EPL. Kenyan football has unique problems that must be sorted out by management. Solid marketing is required, accountability from club officials in order to attract sponsorship is needed, and, once the quality improves, the fans will return.

In the meantime, there is no harm in catching an Arsenal game on a Saturday evening and a Gor Mahia game on Sunday. I have room for both, and I’m loving it!

Ones to watch
The Kenyan Premier League is full of stars in the making, but who is the next big thing…?

The next… Gareth Bale
Francis Kahata (Thika United)
Style: He has a lethal left foot, is calm on the ball and is an excellent passer. A set-piece specialist.
Form: Showed his class when he scored a fantastic goal from a free kick during Kenya’s recent 2014 World Cup qualifier against Nigeria in Calabar, embarrassing the experienced Super Eagles goalkeeper Victor Enyeama.
Gossip: It is only a matter of time before the Thika United and now Harambee Stars regular moves to a bigger club locally or in Europe.

The Next… David Silva
Rama Salim (Gor Mahia)
Style: Plays as an attacking midfielder, winger or second striker. He is a great passer and is ideal when it comes to possession football.
Form: Scored 11 goals for his club in the 2012 season, helping them to second position in the league. He also scored for The Harambee Stars at last year’s Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup in Uganda.
Gossip: Earlier this season he went for trials in the United Arab Emirates and was rumoured to be going for trials in Finland as well. However he soon returned to Gor and is back to his scoring ways.

The Next… Wayne Rooney
Paul Mungai Kiongera (Gor Mahia)
Style: Has an eye for goal and is also comfortable when employed as a winger or second striker. Powerful, agile and good in the air.
Form:  Scored 11 goals for his former club KCB last season, almost single-handedly sparing them from relegation. As with Wayne Rooney when he was at Everton, a bigger club (Gor Mahia) snapped him up during the December transfer window and he has already impressed.
Gossip: There has been talk of the player setting his sights on playing abroad, but no concrete offers have been forthcoming.

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