NAIROBI, Kenya, January 31 – For many years, Kenyans have not been stirred by their clubs sides featuring in continental club competitions.
A worst case example is when the defunct Nzoia Sugar FC faced Tanzanian outfit Simba in the 2003 in a continental match-up.
Nzoia, who were based in the Western town of Kakamega, moved the match to the Nyayo National Stadium in an attempt to attract more fans to fully make capital of ‘home advantage.’
To their consternation, only about 200 fans, mostly employees of the parent sugar millers who had travelled or based in the capital attended the match despite the sustained media hype surrounding the match.
After all, it was the first international match that a Kenyan team was featuring after a two-year Fifa ban was lifted.
The same weekend, European champions, Manchester United, were playing Fulham, then the leaders of the Championship (first division) in a FA Cup fifth round tie at Craven Cottage. Bars, restaurants, hotels and other social joints were jam packed with city residents cheering/hating on the Red Devils.
Needless to say, buoyed by the indifference shown by Kenyan fans towards their team, Simba promptly claimed a 2-0 away victory and wrapped up the match 4-0 on aggregate in the return leg before a jam packed Benjamin Mkapa National Stadium in Dar!
However, the renaissance of Kenyan football in the past one year has triggered renewed interest in the progress of local clubs.
Following a year where the Kenyan Premier League enjoyed rebirth with live coverage on pay television, the fortunes of champions Mathare United and Gor Mahia on the continental map are commanding attention of local fans.
"Our aim is to sell our football to Africa by doing well in the Champions League. If we get to the knock-out stages, we shall have achieved our primary objective," Mathare coach, Francis Kimanzi said before his side departed to Zambia.
His team will take on the Zambian league winners, Zesco United in the copper belt country’s second city of Ndola on Saturday in a CAF Champions League first round clash.
"Playing in the competition is a heavy burden but I am sure that the team can perform well. I know they have technically gifted players but the fact that everyone says we are that small team from the slums could play to our advantage," the coach, recently fired from his role as national team Harambee Stars head coach, said.
He intends to draw on his experience from handling the national side in the 2010
World Cup/Nations Cup qualifiers and Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup.
Kimanzi led Kenya to the final phase of the qualifiers and the final of the regional competition before he was shown the door.
"I have learned a lot from handling Stars especially the right mentality and game plan required in tough away matches like this one. I have already passed on to my team some of whom were in the national team with me," Kimanzi offered.
Only the loss of the club’s top scorer, Francis Ouma, who signed with Tanzanian outfit, Azam in the close season can be said to have put him in a spot of bother.
"It’s still too early to determine the impact of his absence. I have enough players who can fit into his shoes but it will all become clear after two to three weeks of competition," he observed.
He has managed to hold onto the core of his squad who finished second in the league in 2007 before securing their first ever title last season, a factor he revels in.
"I have worked with them for a long period and they understand my methods. The additions I have brought in have also experience in the Mathare way and those I released were either third or fourth choice players."
Former players, Titus Mulama and Paul Ambembo have been signed from Sweden’s Vasteras SK and KCB with experienced utility player, Andrew Oyombe, his brother Kevin Oliech (striker) and right back Lloyd Wahome also coming in.
Exciting attacker, John Onami has also joined the league winners among others with midfield lynchpin, Austin Makacha, defensive rock Edgar Ochieng and captain Anthony Kimani still in the team’s ranks, Kimanzi has every reason to be bullish on his chances.
"Morale is high, we have no injury concerns and we are focused for a positive result. The worst case scenario for us will be a draw since we are aiming at gaining the advantage for the home leg," Kimani said.
It will be Mathare’s first foray into the $1m (Sh75m) competition but the club has featured in continental football thrice previously.
They made a CAF Cup first round exit in 2002 and also featured in the 1999 and 2001 Cup Winners Cup competition exiting at the second and first rounds.
But the team whose return to continental action has set the pulses racing is Gor Mahia, the 12-time league champions who will field against Rwanda’s APR in a CAF Confederations Cup match at the Nyayo Stadium on Sunday.
After many years in the abyss since winning the 1995 league, Mighty K’ogalo are back to the stage their diehard fans believe they are destined to be.
They will be beginning their journey back to the big time at the very venue they became the first and only Kenyan club to be crowned continental champions when they won the 1987 Mandela Cup (Cup winners Cup).
"It’s been long in coming but we want to make the most out of it. I have an exciting young squad whom I believe will get somewhere in the competition," said coach James Siang’a.
Having performed a minor miracle when he took Tanzania’s Simba to the 2003 Champions League semi, the same year they walloped Nzoia and knocked defending champions, Zamalek at the quarters, Siang’a is itching to repeat the feat with Gor.
"I am using the same policy of using more young players instead of going for established stars. They are easier to deal with since they listen to instructions and are totally committed," the coach said after his team handed Mathare a 3-0 toasting at last weekend’s KPL Super Cup.
In his short stint at the helm, Siang’a led Gor to the KFF Cup thus gaining entry to the Confederations Cup and more importantly, forged the team into a formidable outfit that is set to challenge for honours this season.
At the close season Christopher Wekesa, Peter Opiyo and Ben Gemenet are some of the players recruited from Bungoma United and last year’s national secondary schools championships in Machakos.
The three impressed during the Super Cup with Gemenet scoring the third goal in a match the rapidly improving Habil Otieno scored twice. Otieno also netted in a 3-1 friendly loss to Homegrown on Wednesday, a match Siang’a used his reserves extensively to access his options.
Pointedly, 30 years ago (1979), Gor became the first East African club to reach the Confederation Cup final and Mathare played in their first CAF competition 20 years later. Could this be the year where Kenyan clubs make shockwaves in Africa?
PERFORMANCE IN CAF COMPETITIONS
African Cup of Champions Clubs: Eight appearances
1977: Second Round
1980: Second Round
1984: abandoned in Second Round
1991: First Round
1994: First Round
1996: First Round
CAF Cup: 2 appearances
1993 – Quarter-Final
1998 – First Round
CAF Cup Winners’ Cup: 7 appearances
1979 – Finalist
1981 – Quarter-Final
1982 – withdrew in First Round
1983 – Preliminary Round
1987 – Champion
1988 – Quarter-Final
1989 – Semi-Final
CAF Cup: 1 appearance
2002 – First Round
CAF Cup Winners’ Cup: 2 appearances
1999 – Second Round
2001 – First Round