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Refugees light up Kenyan football

NAIROBI, November 10 – They came to Kenya as refugees escaping the bloody conflict in Eastern Congo two years ago and now they have proved their worth by clinching the Kenya Premier League title at their first attempt.SOFAPAKASofapaka are made up of players from a refugee camp mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who took sanctuary under a church organisation in Nairobi.

"They have made a whole new difference, they have brought a breath of fresh air to the Kenyan game," said Sofapaka manager Jimmy Ambajo.

The players have been given refugee status by the Kenyan Immigration Department who waived immigration rules to allow them to play in the league.

Like Sofapaka, former champions Gor Mahia, who became the first Kenyan club to win the African Cup Winners Cup in 1987, have also enjoyed the fruits of including foreign players.

The arrival of 18-year-old striker Baldwin Ngwa from the Cameroon league champions, Tiko United and his compatriot Simon Pierre, a defender, have helped revive the fortunes of Gor Mahia which was facing relegation from the 16-team championship.

"The two players have been outstanding in our campaign. Since arriving in the middle of the season, our performance has improved," said coach Gedion Ochieng.

"We were performing dismally but their resilience has lifted the club from the lower reaches of the league to becoming strong contenders. Ngwa is a hustler and a committed player. He encourages the rest of the team."

Their presence has also injected a much-needed boost to Kenyan football, grappling with administrative wrangles and financial crisis.

Most of the Kenyan clubs which relied on community support have been forced to disband while others such as Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards have survived on handouts from politicians.

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However, things appeared to have changed for the better when the Kenya Premier League Limited (KPL) signed a four-year deal with South Africa’s Supersport to televise matches, where each of the competing teams are assured of receiving three million shillings (40,000 US dollars) per year.

BOB MUGALIABut Sofapaka, who are set to compete in the lucrative African Champions League in 2010, are proud to have set their own club management standards.

"We are not just a football team but people who are out for fellowship with the less fortunate members of the society," said Ambajo, who is a church pastor.

"Our club also has a 20 million shilling (270,000 US dollars) budget. We are innovative, and want to create new ideas to better develop the game," he said.

"Sofapaka FC is ready to lead the way as Kenyan football moves to the next level and we are ready to take that challenge," added club president, Elly Kalekwa, a Congolese businessman.

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