BY MACHEL WAIKENDA
From Ancient Greece and the city-state of Sparta, we got the longest-running sport, the Olympics and the Marathon. Successive generations of humankind have staged sporting events, some with a winner-take-all bent and yet others as tools of cohesion and expressions of camaraderie between neighbours.
In more recent decades, we have engaged in sports for attendant health benefits and also as a source of income. But we have not forgotten that the least common denominator of any sport lies in the participation and triumph of the human spirit, enhancing goodwill through healthy competition, complete with rules of engagement.
Kenya is a world sporting powerhouse, especially in middle-and long-distance athletics. All other sporting disciplines have not fared quite as well, but the jury is still out on whether we need to specialise in particular disciplines and throw our national weight and resources at excelling in these.
But then again, soccer is the world’s most popular sport with a three-billion-strong audience during the best of times, especially the World Cup. Despite our lowly ranking on the world stage, soccer has remained very popular in Kenya. That is why it is important to understand why some soccer fans wrought a trail of destruction through Machakos town recently.
The true football fan is generally a very committed adherent of his chosen team or soccer league, but there are also the wannabe fans who bring intolerance and violence from the touchlines and stands. These are hooligans… criminals – period.
The negative energy witnessed in Machakos by supposed Gor Mahia soccer fans, or at least people dressed in Gor Mahia-branded jerseys brought back memories of previous stampedes witnessed at various stadiums around the country, usually triggered by a losing side or fans aggrieved by a suspect referee’s decision.
Funny though, it is almost always the same clubs that are associated with bringing the sport into disrepute over the intervening years.
Would a club fine running into millions of shillings deter this criminality? Will CCTV and other media shots of the hooligans be sufficient to drag them through the corridors of justice? Who will bear the cost of destructive force that was visited on the shops, offices, cars, homes and physical infrastructure of Machakos town?
I deal with young people every day, and I can attest to their boundless energy. Better channelled, it brings enormous benefits to the communities where they reside, and ultimately, to the nation at large. But the pictures from Machakos were not of teenagers, rather, young men and women who should know better; young and middle-aged hooligans who could afford to make the road trip to Machakos and pay their way into the match.
Machakos is considered one of the most forward-looking counties, constantly trying to open up to the rest of Kenya and the world to business, and sports facilities and various get-togethers and has registered top billings. Recently, the county hosted thousands of rugby fans during the three-day Masaku Sevens. Then came the bike-a-thon among other tournaments.
The hooliganism that blitzed through their town last week is not welcome and is a stain on the fabric of any sport. And on a week when the world turned its eyes and face in Kenya’s direction as the financial hub of the Horn of Africa, the hooligans spat in the face of their hosts and are unworthy of the green team colours they sported.
The two teams will have to play their last two season matches without fans. This means that peace loving fans are not only blocked from supporting their teams but also that the teams lose a chance to make money from gate collections. Not forgetting the hundreds of traders who will not make money at the stadiums on those days.
All sporting fans must conduct themselves with restraint because such incidents not only hurt the game but also destroy the image of Kenya as a sporting nation. Which African nation will want to dispatch their players here should Kenya host AFCON all the while dreading the loss of life of limb, God forbid, should their Kenyan hosts lose a game?
As Kenya develops in other areas, we cannot neglect sports or behave in a way that does not help the growth of the sector. The Jubilee administration has committed itself to the development of sports in the country by channelling more money to sporting infrastructure.
County governments have also taken the cue and are developing their own facilities and organizing major sporting events. But if the scenes in Machakos are anything but a tip of what fans can do, no government will be willing to invest in the sector as we have seen.
Developing sports has a direct benefit to the country and its citizens.
If we can develop sports to the extent of hosting international tournaments, we will find ourselves attracting many visitors and investors. The country can do with sports tourism as an added source of income.
That is why, for instance, Uasin Gishu County has branded itself the Home of Marathon Champions and seeks to build on the runaway, globally-acclaimed success of its sons and daughters.
International tournaments or even incident-free local tournaments will also attract sporting talent scouts, meaning young people have an opportunity to showcase their talent to a global audience and eventually move their trade to commercial levels even in more developed sporting venues.
Kenyans must encourage fair play and discourage hooliganism in sports. Let’s always put the benefits of sports for current and future generations as we go cheering our favourite teams.
(The writer is a political and communications consultant. Twitter @MachelWaikenda)