The day Kenya’s passionate football fans found new home in Nairobi
- For many years, City Stadium hosted all key international and local tourneys, until Nyayo was completed.
This week, Tottenham Hotspur fans were all mellow at bidding farewell to their 108-year-old home at White Hart Lane. Some wept. All of them wallowed in nostalgia, remembering their legends and the first time they went to “the Lane” as they call their square-shaped arena. A rainbow was formed over it as the demolition work that will end in the building of a bigger new home, a 61,000-seater facility, started.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Argentinian head coach Mauricio Pochettino looks on as fans wave flags during their English Premier League match against Manchester United at White Hart Lane in London, on May 14, 2017. PHOTO | IAN KINGTON |AFP
Did I join them? Oh, no! I was too busy remembering the first time we “moved house” from Nairobi City Stadium to Nyayo National Stadium in November 1983. We did it hurriedly and if any tear was shed, it was of joy. Leaving the City Stadium for Nyayo reminded me of a remark once made by a relative after she and her new husband had moved from their cramped, one-bedroomed flat to a maisonette with three bedrooms. She was very heavy with child. I asked her how their new house felt. She replied: “At least here I can be able to turn!”
NEW WORK STATION
At Nyayo, we too, felt we could finally be able to stride through the doors of our new work station without having to walk sideways. But first things first. In 1979, after Canon Younde beat Gor Mahia 2-0 in the first leg of that year’s Africa Cup Winners Cup, I ran into them at the airport as they prepared to depart.
I was on a different assignment. I tried to get somebody among them who could speak English but it was difficult.
Finally, Theophile Abega, their star midfielder, laboured through my questions in a brief interview.
After asking him for his assessment of their opponents and what they thought the second leg had in store, I requested him to give me their impressions of their first visit to Kenya.
His response was telling. I will paraphrase the answer. He said they thought Nairobi was a beautiful city with an infrastructure that could compare well with any modern city they had visited. What they could not understand was the stadium. For them, it was basically a school playground. He asked me why this was so as other players nodded in agreement while wearing looks of curiosity. Well, I did not know the answer either!
Canon were not the only ones. Before Nyayo Stadium opened, we sports journalists regularly faced that question from our colleagues from much poorer countries. We used to tell them it was a question for the Government to answer; they always said it was ours to ask.
Be that as it may, the City Stadium was the national sports shrine. By whatever name it went since it opened its gates sometime in the 1940s — African Stadium, Donholm Road Stadium, Jogoo Road Stadium — the City Stadium was always where the big action was.
Whether it was hosting Sir Stanley Mathews’ exhibition matches in the 1950s, or the tours of English Premiership sides West Bromwich Albion, Norwich City and Notts County in the 1960s and 70s, or staging the one and only Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Games that featured world athletic champions Edwin Moses, Alberto Salazar, Steve Williams and Henry Rono, all roads always led to the 12,000-seat arena.
And over and above all this, the City Stadium was the home of our football giants, Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards.
I do not have the foggiest idea how the two groups of their fanatical fans decided that AFC Leopards supporters would always occupy the part of the stadium with its back to Jogoo Road while Gor Mahia’s would colonise the one adjacent to the Nairobi-Mombasa railway line.
Actually, one of the reasons for which I made haste to the new Nyayo Stadium as soon as it was opened was to see how the two fierce rivals would apportion it among themselves.
I expected a big fight, as was common during their matches. Surprisingly, there was not even a hint of any.
Leopards’ fans took their place with their backs to the Nairobi CBD while Gor Mahia took the Nairobi West side. It happened with the naturalness of a day-break. It is safe to assume, therefore, that the gods themselves, in their unfathomable wisdom, ordered that in perpetuity, Gor Mahia would sit to the right of the Main Stand and AFC Leopards to its left.
Nyayo Stadium was undergoing the final touches when the preliminaries of the 1983 Cecafa Challenge Cup were under way. The first match to be played there was the semi-final between Kenya and Malawi. Both Gor and Leopards’ fans would have given anything for one of their players to be the one to “officially open” the new stadium.
On that day, the Harambee Stars line-up was: Mahmoud Abbas, Hussein Kheri, Peter Otieno Bassanga, John Bobby Ogolla, Josephat Murila, Sammy Taabu (Captain), Nahashon Mahila, Douglas Mutua, JJ Masiga, Wilberforce Mulamba and Ambrose Ayoyi.
Wilberforce Mulamba (right), then an AFC Leopards striker, was among the stand-out players who emerged from Bernhard Zgoll’s Olympic Youth Centres. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Going by this team, it was obvious that Leopards had the upper hand in the stakes of such history.
Their hot marksmen, JJ Masiga and Wilberforce Mulamba were in glowing form. Gor Mahia had nobody up-front, save for Sammy Onyango Jogoo who alternated with Mahila on the wings.
Their only other probable was playmaker John Okello Zangi who alternated with Mutua but who was not as goal-hungry as Mulamba.
Fate, however, contrived a move to deny either of the two giants bragging rights about the first goal to be scored in the new stadium. If you do not know who scored it, that is simply because to the despair of their cheerleaders and spokespersons, it was a player from Nakuru.
Ambrose Ayoyi, who played for the Kenya Army team, Scarlet, which was based in Lanet, went by the nickname Golden Boy. At the height of his powers, he was a joy to watch. He had a terrific left foot. He put it to the use that enters history books when he beat Malawi’s goalkeeper, John Ndzimbiri, in only the third minute of that semi-final. But Leopards, as expected, could claim one up against their eternal rivals. Ayoyi was fed by Masiga while Mulamba scored the second goal in Harambee Stars’ 2-0 win.
That set the stage for Nyayo to become Leopards’ home ground while Gor Mahia opted for the old City Stadium in later years.
From the beginning, Nyayo Stadium was beset with a big problem – its playing surface. This problem has never quite been solved. Because of its convenient location and the obvious security advantages offered by an enclosed structure like it as opposed to an open air venue like Uhuru Park, the country’s political leaders have always preferred to hold rallies for national holidays there.
Today, Kenya has three national holidays – Madaraka Day (June 1), Mashujaa Day (formerly Kenyatta Day, October 20) and Jamhuri Day (December 12). For many years, it also had Moi Day (October 10). For days ahead of each holiday, soldiers numbering hundreds pounded the grass with their heavy boots while rehearsing for these occasions.
Then came the main celebration. More pounding. The result is that footballers have always complained of the unevenness of the surface. It is difficult to control awkwardly bouncing balls and very easy to incur injuries.
Experts have talked themselves hoarse about this problem which always falls on deaf ears.
The original plans to build a sports stadium in the plot where Nyayo National Stadium stands today were mooted by the colonial government in 1957.
The implementation did not happen until 26 years later. That had much to do with the character of the country’s second president.
After reading so much about “the country going back to the dark days,” one student asked me, as one who was an adult throughout his 24 year reign, whether there was anything good President Daniel arap Moi ever did. I told him: “Yes, girl child education and sports.” As President, Moi genuinely liked sports. He built two international-standard stadiums, one complete with an Olympic-sized aquatic stadium, a 5,000-seat indoor arena and a three-star hotel.
He brought the All-Africa Games here and clearly saw winning sportsmen and women as more than mere objects for photo opportunities.
Nyayo – and Safaricom Kasarani – have, however, remained Kenya’s only international standard outdoor sports arenas. Around the country, you see nothing more than dilapidated colonial era facilities. They are a loud insult to the world-beating performances returned by our athletes since 1956.
Some county governments are trying to rehabilitate their stadiums. Their superhuman struggle with so paltry an enterprise inspires pity rather than admiration. I say to them: Think big. Think multi-billion 21st century sports industry. Go the Tottenham Hotspur way and demolish them. There is nothing to rehabilitate; that should have been done 30 years ago.
And those rickety structures with bold inscriptions of “Boda Boda shed donated by Hon So-and-So” represent 19th century thinking.
In 1976, the Kenya Football Federation chairman, Mr Kenneth Matiba, announced that Kenya was thinking of bidding to host the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations.
He thought a way for private enterprise could be found to accomplish it. He told the Daily Nation: “We are exploring the possibilities of doing it on our own as we believe that public funds should not be spent on such ventures as far as possible. I believe that public funds should be used for more pressing needs.”
Forty one years later, hosting the Nations Cup remains a pipe dream.
We cannot even be sure that we shall pull off the small CHAN tournament next year which Rwanda could have done blindfolded if they wanted to.
And this is the country two of whose past sports ministers blithely told the world that we could host the Olympic Games. Lucky them: Legal experts say that if you can prove a case of temporary insanity, a court would let you free, however outrageous your words and deeds.