NAIROBI, Kenya, July 21 – The tide in Kenyan league football is changing and being the champion club may no longer an appealing option.
Since what is today known as Kenyan Premier League (KPL) was founded in 1963, Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards and Kenya Breweries (now Tusker FC) enjoyed stretches of dominance of the national title.
Such was their might–especially the first two–that supremacy battles among the trio spilled over to regional and continental competitions.
Tusker, the defunct Oserian Fastac, Ulinzi Stars, Sony and now Mathare United have held the league trophy aloft since the turn of the century.
In any league worldwide, five clubs winning the domestic title in eight years should be considered as a sign of healthy competition and hailed as exciting.
While European leagues such as English Premiership, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and German Bundesliga enthral, their main criticism remains the mono or duopoly of title winning sides.
Manchester United (England), Real Madrid and Barcelona (Spain), Bayern Munich (Germany) and Inter/AC Milan (Italy) spring to mind.
While the above will be in the frame for their domestic championships in foreseeable future, the situation is quite opposite here.
It can be said ‘the curse of the champions’ is slowly creeping into the KPL.
Lately winning outfits have looked pale shadows of themselves during their title defence seasons for a variety of reasons.
Sony Sugar (2006), Tusker (2007) and reigning champions Mathare have found the task of holding on to the KPL trophy a hard ask.
“The set-up of the clubs nowadays is not the same as in the past. Preference of short-term player contracts in the league is making it difficult for a club to hold on to their best players,” Mathare coach, Francis Kimanzi, observes.
The former national team coach adds: “Clubs like Ulinzi and Sony which used to offer players full time jobs in their companies no longer do that. With permanent jobs, players felt stable since they had regular incomes and could commit to a club for long.”
According to Kimanzi, the current operating KPL environment does not favour successful clubs.
“When a club wins, their best players are in demand and there is little one can do to prevent them from seeking greener pastures. In 2007, Tusker lost top scorer Allan Wanga. Last year, I lost my best striker, Francis Ouma,”
Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee, who was hounded out of Tusker after winning the 2007 title as well as the CECAFA Club Cup with the brewers, supports his views.
“It’s been hard for clubs winning KPL to retain the same squads they won the title with. In addition, you become a target after winning and I got into trouble when results did not go my way during the title defence,” Mulee, who also handled the national team remarked.
While the ‘losing the best players’ reason is widely fronted to explain why it is becoming difficult for Kenyan league champions to follow up success, both tacticians are in unison on the real problem facing titleholders.
“It’s not often reported in the media but our club patrons, chairmen and administrators are the big obstacles for successful teams,” Kimanzi disclosed.
“When we sold Ouma to (Tanzania’s) Azam for instance, the money gained from the move was diverted to pay salaries for the squad instead of investing in three or so quality players who would have replaced him adequately,” the Mathare coach added.
“We were forced to turn to veterans and relatively inexperienced players to fill the void left by Ouma in attack and Austin Makacha in midfield who were key to our title winning,” he decried.
Mathare re-hired their veteran former player, Paul Ambembo and promoted youngster Innocent Mutiso to fill the Ouma shaped hole in attack.
In midfield, another seasoned former Mathare lynchpin, Titus Mulama and another sage, Andrew Oyombe were recruited to spur the creative spark vacated by Makacha who now plays for IK Sirius in Sweden.
In support, Mulee noted, “The patrons ignore what coaches recommend and think that enough investment has been made by winning the title.”
“Most owners do not understand efforts made by the coaches to get the clubs to the top. I sympathise with Kimanzi since he has been forced to attempt to achieve the same result as last year with a squad of less quality,” the former Tusker boss now media pundit said.
Mulee, who blames his sacking from Tusker on the mentality of sacrificing coaches when the sailing gets rough, called for club administrators to stop taking football as a hobby and instead strive to introduce business practise in their outfits.
“Look at Real Madrid for example. After losing the La Liga and Champions League titles, they have broken the bank in an attempt to regain their crown. Our clubs should invest more to strengthen them,” he urged.
He cites current league leaders, Sofapaka who were promoted to KPL this season attributing their lofty ascent on massive investment by their Congolese owner, Elly Kalekwa.
“They are doing well because of financially motivating the players and investing heavily in the squad. The question is, will the owner continue with this practise once they win the title? Only time will tell.”
“Our chairmen should look at themselves in the mirror and realise that to remain competitive, they must invest in quality,” Kimanzi charges.
“They should look at Sudanese clubs El Merreikh and El Hilal who have qualified for the lucrative last eight of CAF Champions League and whom I played against during the CECAFA Club Cup as examples.
“Their league cannot even be compared to Kenya and without massive investment they are enjoying, would be relegated if they played here. Their owners have brought in foreign imports and by qualifying to the Champions League Super Eight, their investment has been recovered,” the Mathare coach says.
Amazingly, both tacticians were speaking separately to capital sport but their synchronisation of views highlighted a shared problem by coaches who fulfill their clubs’ objective of winning the domestic title.
Simply put, winning the KPL crown is a poisoned chalice.