Let me begin by telling you a story. Sometime in 2007, I made acquaintances with a retired civil engineer. A Kenyan of Asian ancestry, he told me he had undertaken his basic and high school education locally before proceeding to Britain for his university studies.
He returned home in 1970 and was eagerly looking forward to working on his first project which was upgrading of the seven round-abouts on Uhuru Highway into inter-changes to separate transit from local traffic.
Although I had lived in Nairobi almost all my life and used those round-abouts uncountable times, I had never counted them. I didn’t know they were seven: Nyayo National Stadium, Bunyala Road, Haile Selassie Avenue, Kenyatta Avenue, University of Nairobi, Museum Hill and Westlands.
The engineer told me the projected never materialized – as I could see for myself. But he was willing to bet his lifetime savings that the money for the project was “faithfully eaten year after year.” The inter-changes manifested themselves in obese offshore bank accounts, apartment blocks and shopping malls, he told me.
He had become an old man waiting to work on an architectural masterpiece that never started and now, grey, slow and wise, all he could do was sip whisky in the evenings as he watched the sun drop over Lake Victoria from Kisumu’s Hippo Point.
I couldn’t verify his claims. But sometime in 2012, on my way to Westlands, I drove for the first time under the now operational Museum Hill inter-change and laughed to myself. I remembered the old engineer and thought: ‘We have finally arrived where we should have been in 1970! One down, six to go!’ I drove on, shaking my head.
Please minimize this window for now so that we can go to another story; we shall return to it later.
In 1968, English FA Cup champions West Bromwich Albion became the first premiership team in Europe to make a tour of Kenya and play local sides. They were here after hearing good stories about us from their kinsmen.
It so happened that Sir Stanley Mathews had toured Kenya and the then Tanganyika in 1956 and so liked what he saw that he declared himself our envoy when he got back home. “It’s been grand,” he said. “You people have got yourselves an ambassador in me.” He kept his word and returned to Africa several times.
At that time, Mathews was the right winger for the Premiership side, Blackpool and was reputed to be the best player in the world. That was before Pele, Eusebio, George Best and company happened on the scene. Next, the Scottish national team came for our Independence Day tournament in 1963 and went back happy despite a 3-2 loss to the future Harambee Stars brilliantly led by striker Ali Kadjo.
West Brom’s tour involved playing against Kenya, Uganda and an East African Combined. The tour threw up several local stars, top of whom was Uganda’s goalkeeper, Joseph Massajjagye.
West Brom’s manager set the tone for all future European tours of Kenya before they came to an end in 1976 shortly before KFF chairman Kenneth Matiba, the obsessive driver behind them, relinquished office. He said: “We are not here on holiday. We are here to play competitive football. We are not underrating any team. We are at full strength and we have come to win.”
That is how all touring sides after them came. None was here on holiday; they were at full power, World Cup stars and all. Most of them handed us good thrashings – but it was our pleasure to accept.
If you don’t believe that losing is not always the worst thing that can happen to a competitor, just recall the words of John Adshead, coach of the New Zealand team to the 1982 World Cup after falling 4-0 to Brazil in a group match: “It was like playing in the 21st century,” he crowed. Far from being downcast, he was elated.
Coventry City, another English Premiership side, were going to be the next club to come calling. In fact, all arrangements for their 1971 tour were complete. The names of the travelling party – 15 players and five officials – and their itinerary were released to the media. They were to arrive at Embakasi Airport on May 24, 1971 and play their first match against Mombasa Combined on May 26. The tour was sponsored by Nation Newspapers and Kenya Breweries, of which Matiba was Managing Director.
There was a hitch at the very last minute and the tour was scrapped. But another one was arranged in short order. This time, it involved a Bundesliga team, Eintracht Frankfurt. On June 16, 1971, their striker, Bernd Holzenbein scored the fastest international goal on Kenya soil with his 15th second strike after kick-off as the visitors beat Kenya 3-0 at the Nairobi City Stadium.
The tour was arranged to coincide with a series of coaching seminars led by Dettmar Cramer, then the top ranked Fifa coach in the world. He had been a member of the technical staff of the German team to the 1966 World Cup and was now the world’s most sought after football expert. He was here in Kenya to lay the foundation of national football academies.
These were his words: “Of the 15 African countries I have coached, Kenya has the best potential. It may not be the leading African nation now but the talent is there and it has to be exploited. This is no lie. I am not a diplomat and I do not go around African countries praising them just to maintain good relations between them and Fifa. I mean what I say.”
For Harambee Stars’ preparations to their first Africa Nations Cup tournament in Cameroon in 1972, the preparatory matches were played in Nairobi against a Swiss premiership team called Grasshoppers who brought with them four internationals. Our boys ground them to three draws.
In 1975, the famous tour by Norwich City which Matiba touted as his definitive fight against witchcraft in Kenya football took place. In that tour Norwich, featuring World Cup star Martin Peters and fellow England caps Collin Sullivan and Phil Boyer, thrashed Gor Mahia 4-1, Abaluhya 6-1 and Mombasa’s Champion 8-0.
But when it came to Mwenge, who were the only team to declare upfront that they would use witchcraft against the visitors, they could only manage 3-1. Mwenge declared that a victory. And, believe it or not, the Nation seemed to agree with them with this headline: “Mwenge ‘succeed’ in losing narrowly to Norwich.”
Finally, on May 28, 1976, Notts County arrived in Nairobi for a four-match tour. It was to be that last in a memorable stretch lasting almost two decades. By this time, we were coming of age and Mwenge (again!) under the leadership of goalkeeper Mahmoud Abbas, beat the guests 2-1. Kenya Breweries went one better and beat the Magpies 2-0. But the giants, Abaluhya and Gor Mahia, fell – the big cats 0-2 and K’Ogalo 0-1.
Last month, Gor Mahia beat AFC Leopards 3-0 in the final of the inaugural SportPesa Super Cup. The pickings from their win included a match against English Premiership side Everton next Thursday in Dar es Salaam. When that happened, Gor Mahia fans were over the moon.
For the first time in 41 years, a Kenyan club was going to play an English Premiership side and I was inundated with requests by fans to write about it. A bit surprising, a good many of them didn’t know that once upon a time, touring sides from Europe were almost routine. And so I laughed to myself as I thought: “We are almost back to where we were in 1976!”.
In 1976 and the years before, the touring sides came to Kenya! Now one will need to fork out a small fortune to travel to TZ, as our people are wont to call it, if they want to see Gor Mahia play Everton.
By any standard, this is a great distance to travel – backwards. Even Eric Awori, the conman who once duped Kenyans into believing that he had driven a car in reverse gear from Mombasa to Nairobi couldn’t conjure a distance greater than this one.
But this is the world we have come to embrace. It is a world that markets least expectations as a virtue, well expressed by the slogan I once saw on a matatu’s back: “God can bless you with something from nothing.” Indeed, something.
Pity then the old engineer, who as a young man saw himself within touching distance of accomplishing something of excellence for this world. But he ran out of time waiting, and he now had to watch the daily misery of hundreds of thousands of commuters as they ruined their health in preventable traffic jams.
But “at least” one inter-change was built – 42 years later. I remembered my nice drink with him as I politely told friends that I didn’t “feel” the Gor Mahia versus Everton match. I have seen much better – here, not in Dar. They disagreed. They told me that I should be positive and be grateful that “at least” our football is now going places.
These are the “lucky” ones who have never seen some of Africa’s – and in some cases the world’s – best players in Kenya, courtesy in part of the self-same Gor Mahia, and therefore do not know any better.
The lot of others is different. They cannot undo their own experiences. They feel as if they once enjoyed a cool balcony breeze with a panoramic view of the beautiful outdoors but now find themselves enduring life in the building’s basement.
And they must be thankful for the supply of clean air, however limited, because “at least” they have air and should not complain about the carbon dioxide fumes left behind by that departing car because “at least” the boss has seen them.