Monday, February 22

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Still more football

Kenyan Premier League began the 2010 season on Saturday. Sofapaka dismantled Sher Karuturi 2-0 and Tusker stepped all over Posta Rangers 4-1, both keeping in form with their hopes of again challenging for the league championship. Red Berets surprised by holding Thika United, one of last year's contenders, to a 1-1 draw in Nakuru.

I missed all of it. I was watching the last half of Everton whomping on Manchester United and the beginnings of Chelsea over Wolverhampton and Arsenal over Sunderland. In my defense, that wasn't the plan. Originally, it was to attend the afternoon rugby match between Nakuru and Strath. Having never been to the Nakuru Athletic Club before, we ducked into a kiosk to avoid the torrent for an hour or so. When it diminished to a drizzle, we found the Athletic Club not more than a block away. The stands were even covered, and because rugby players are real men, they played through the sheets. We could have enjoyed a good match and begun learning the rules. As it happened, we were wet and cold and would have had to pay full price for only the second half. We opted for two pots of tea at the nearest thing Nakuru has to a sports bar.

The point? I am what's wrong with East African football. At least, according to Nicholas Musonye, general secretary of the East and Central African Football Federation. Really, check it out. It's an interesting article. Some of it's stupid, like the suggestion that East Africans just aren't built for football. It makes sense if your only qualification for comment is shared blood with the guy who formerly captained the Czech national team, but the fact that Kenya fields a half-decent rugby 7's team that can give New Zealand and England a good match seems to suggest otherwise.

The greater question of whether the English Premier League is to blame for the lack of football development in Kenya, though, is fascinating to me. Absolutely people here care more and know more about the English Premier League than the Kenyan Premier League. I know you can buy AFC Leopards jerseys and fairly sure you can find some for Sofapaka. Probably Gor Mahia and Tusker, too, though those are just guesses. In any case, I never see people wear those. On the other hand, a day you don't see anyone wearing a Man-U or Arsenal knock-off is a day you spend alone in your room with the curtains drawn. SuperSport has even picked up a decent contract with KPL this year and broadcasts about two live games a week. Kenyans don't even have to make their way to a field now to watch their local teams. They just need to trundle to the nearest bar with a satellite, but the TV's remain fixed on Liverpool and Chelsea.

I can understand this to an extent. The teams in the EPL are some of the top in the world. They win the most and have some of the best players. The most important thing, though, England has that Kenya doesn't? Completely professional football. Seriously. Workshops were held before this season to inform players of all their responsibilities and rights, like the right to be paid for their participation. For the first time in league history, full-time, professional referees will be officiating. AFC only made the CAF Cup this year on a last-minute appeal because no one bothered to tell them earlier that the roster, only about three members of which remained on the team after transfers, that they submitted last year was the valid one, not the one they submitted a a month and a half after the deadline.

It's vicious. Kenyans don't care about their own national league because it's a disorganized mess, and the KPL can't attract any interest with Kenya Football Limited and Kenya Football Federation struggling for control.

There's hope, I think. McDonald Mariga was picked up by Internazionale Milan and can be a model for Kenyan success at the highest levels. During the European off-season, there are a few golden months where the only football available is local. More money is coming into the league through the SuperSport contract and two consecutive record-breaking sponsorship deals. That ought to motivate for greater professionalism and higher levels of competition. Or corruption. Whichever.

All of these posts on football have come as something of a surprise to me. Except for the now sadly defunct Minnesota Thunder, I never attended a game. I kept track of Gonzaga's men's team online while I was in Germany when they made their scramble into the NCAA tournament, but even free entry couldn't entice me when I came back. Now I care.

Sports are my break from the center. Nakuru has an absolute dearth of public spaces. There is nowhere you can just be and enjoy yourself without spending money. Shopping, never my favorite activity, has no real pleasure either as once you go through the door, a salesperson will follow you the whole way to make an offer on anything you touch. With football and rugby, though, I can pay a dollar and have two hours away from work and, more importantly, two hours away from the kids.

Not such a fan of selling advertisement space on the jerseys, though. I'm not going to pretend that sports are some sacred realm that should be beyond the reach of marketing. That's a laugher. They're a business and need to make money. It may be annoying, too, for a team to rotate through sponsors and force the die-hard fans to buy new jerseys every few years to keep matching the team, but I can see there being a special appeal to those jerseys and sponsors for that miracle championship run. My problem is that some of the ads are just ridiculous. I know why Sofapaka edged out Mathare United last year. It's because they were sponsored by a cement company and not margarine. Honestly. How tough can you feel when an ad for the oil-based alternative to butter is splattered across your chest?

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