Chairman Mbori ruled Gor with iron hand, but open mind
- Mbori’s strong personality masked an open mindedness and tactical flexibility that was known only to those who knew him well.
- It is under him that Gor Mahia opened itself up to players from all communities in Kenya.
Zack Mbori, who died in Kisumu last week and will be buried on Sunday, had the reputation of an authoritarian football administrator who brooked no contrary opinion and who did not hesitate to take extreme measures such as suspending half the players of his club.
But the dictatorial streak, such as it were, was only one side, and not the full measure of the man.
He ran Gor Mahia FC as chairman in the days when I was a reporter and I got to know him well. In fact, we struck what I would a call a close, professional friendship.
Mbori’s strong personality masked an open mindedness and tactical flexibility that was known only to those who knew him well. He sought counsel before making major decisions and then assumed responsibility for them, even when they backfired. He was never one to pass the buck. He was a boss who could take the heat that comes with the territory.
As both a football lover and sports journalist, I was a fan of Gor Mahia’s playing style, the hallmark of which was carefree abandon, especially when the going was good.
But I was a severe critic of the club’s past administrations who I thought ran it like a village outfit and not the potential African giant that it was. And I told Mbori as much.
I was surprised at how intensely interested he became with my ideas. Whenever we met at the City Stadium, he sought me out and asked when we could meet to discuss them further. He was deeply committed to his club. He had a messianic devotion to its growth and was willing to take risks, even with unorthodox experiments.
Rather than meet Mbori, I decided to write to him. Before doing so, I quizzed myself: “In what capacity am I writing this letter? Certainly not as a Nation reporter. As a Gor Mahia fan? Not quite because I will readily grind them in my pages tomorrow if need be.” I decided that I would do so as simple Kenyan football fan who hoped to see an African football trophy on our soil.
The result was the longest letter I think I have ever written, 12 pages long, and whose copy I still retain in my archives. It was written on March 19, 1982. I was brutally sincere with him. But after reading it, he took it all in stride. This openness of mind impressed me. He told me that given the circumstances under which he was operating, implementing some of those ideas would be difficult. But he would try, he said.
It is under him that Gor Mahia opened itself up to players from all communities in Kenya. Good players, such as Abbas Khamis Magongo, Jaffer Mwidau, Abdalla Shebe and Dino Kitavi, made their mark at Gor Mahia.
He even imported a Tanzanian forward, Charles Alberto, who unfortunately turned out to be a one-game wonder. It is also under him that the practice of electing coaches during the club’s annual general meeting ended.
In tribute to the man they bury on Sunday, I am going to quote in detail passages from that letter. I do so for another reason as well: as Mbori leaves this world, some of the issues raised in the letter remain in his club’s pending tray 35 years later.
To underscore the kind of relationship we had formed, I addressed him as “Dear Zack”. And I warned him upfront: “You will excuse me for the length of this letter. I am going to be polemical since I believe the problems confronting Gor Mahia cannot be summarised in a paragraph or two. I look forward to agreements and disagreements for either will be a dimension to the growth of the club.”
My first bone of contention was planning. I wrote: “I seriously doubt if past administrations of this club have, upon their assumption of office, drawn out a comprehensive plan of action that should be fulfilled within a given amount of time. A comprehensive plan in my opinion, would take into account such things as the structure and responsibilities of the technical staff, a regular review of the team performance, club discipline, club assets and property (if any) and membership, the electoral system, the recruitment system and foreign trips.
“Theoretically, somebody might say that all these have been taken into account. But if they have, could we still be asking these questions: why is the performance of the team still very inconsistent? Why is the club still at the mercy of the Government and generous donors financially? What became of the ideas of acquiring a clubhouse, stadium and its own transport? Why is the club still unable in 1982 as it was in 1968 to make an overseas trip or at least play host to some big club from Europe or South America? And what has been done to at least try and find out if the oft-repeated assertions by numerous soccer experts from abroad that Gor Mahia has talent sufficient to make it the greatest team in Africa?”
After going for the past administrators’ necks, I told Mbori: “It is very easy to say the referee was biased, the KFF or KNFL is always against us, Cecafa hates us and much more. But when did somebody ever admit failure and say that he has come to a dead end as far as fresh ideas are concerned?
“I contend that there has been little or no planning at all. If there was, somebody could hold himself accountable and if he is principled, he could resign freely for failing to improve on a good performance.”
If there was planning, there would be conspicuous growth. But I could summarise by paying tribute to former officers for planning excellently for the forthcoming elections!”
Our football clubs don’t maintain a credible data base of their membership. It is therefore impossible to know the size of their following. Kenya’s most popular clubs are Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards. But which has the larger fan base? How is that figure arrived at? Anyway, this is what I wrote to Mbori which could be true or false:
“Gor Mahia is the most popular club in Kenya. It commands the highest following. Yet it does not own anything more than players’ jerseys, shorts, stockings and boots! This is one area where I find one of the biggest contradictions in the club. When it is playing an international match, the team is rallied on by people who will number not less than 15,000. This is just but a fraction of the overall following spread out in the country. Now, when it is election time, how many people vote? 1,500? Just about that. Why?
“I am not very concerned about the voting. I am concerned about financial support from the members. Suppose, Zack, you made it that part of your planning will be opening of Gor Mahia offices in all the districts in Kenya. These will be manned by competent and dedicated supporters of the club.
Then, each month, supporters are asked to pay an amount of money at your discretion, say Sh10. When all that has been assembled, added to the gate collections, annual subscription, how much does the club stand to make?
“The Tanzanians are supposed to be poorer than us. However, using a system similar to this that I am proposing, clubs like Yanga and Simba have been able to build their own club houses and stadiums. They have been able to travel outside the country for friendly matches and they have been able to send their coaches to attend such tournaments as the Africa Cup of Nations and European Champions finals and similar ones to Latin America to study the mode of play there.
“Why has Gor Mahia (it is supposed to be the Mighty Gor Mahia but I prefer to call it the Unpredictable Gor Mahia) not been able to take advantage of the thousands it commands in following? Is it lack of faith in its supporters or it is simply negligence. If you make a point of opening up the club to all its fans in Kenya, you will be doing a great service to them and to the club. You will lessen your dependency on the Government and Good Samaritans and you will, I hope, be able to expose the team to international opposition not only on a competitive basis, but also on a friendly one.
“I look forward to a day when I telephone you and you tell me: “Roy, let’s discuss this at the club after work.” At the moment, as you know, we can only meet briefly at the stadium, or in some pub or restaurant. For a club with such a great following and after 13 years of existence, this is a great pity. It should disturb your mind if not prick your conscience.”
Gor Mahia chairman Zack Mbori holds the 1985 Cecafa Club Championship trophy that the club won that year in Sudan. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Zack Mbori took these barbs well. But even for him, things such as club houses and home grounds proved a bridge too far. He has left when the thought that such infrastructure is beyond the capacity of Kenyans is not far-fetched.
Maybe we should just accept and leave them to Tanzanians and Egyptians and South Africans. But his honesty and strength of character inspired such lofty ideas.
He sometimes wielded the whip, as the chairman must sometimes do, but never in vain. He did not loot his club; in fact, he gave of himself.
His mistakes were honest. For this reason, Kenya football fans, wherever they are, should observe a moment of silence and utter a prayer for him, as they release him for eternity.