NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 23 – At the end of the first leg, Sofapaka were deeply rooted at the bottom of the Kenyan Premier League table having won only two matches, losing 12 and drawing two; the 2009 league champions were seemingly heading for the drop.
Going by their nickname ‘Batoto ba Mungu’, their miraculous escape tells it all. A spirited run in the second leg, coupled by results falling in their favor saw them pull perhaps one of the greatest survival stories in the Kenyan Premier League.
Capital Sport has learnt that a training ground meeting over ‘Mbuzi Choma’ at the start of the second leg turned the club’s season around. It was the beginning of the end of their relegation nightmare.
The team decided to slaughter a goat at the team’s training ground to roast it as they discussed how to avoid relegation, a day they dedicated to a meeting rather than usual training.
“We sat down as players after we had lost back-to-back matches na tukaambiana ukweli (We told each other the truth). If we were to help this team, then we had no choice but to work hard and give our best. We had to sacrifice. That meeting is what changed our fortunes because after there, we were a different side,” George Maelo, one of the players recruited in mid-season as part of a Sofapaka ‘rescue team’ revealed.
The same sentiments were shared by the soft spoken John Baraza who was the miracle working coach who engineered Batoto ba Mungu’s grand survival.
“We were wondering because we had played well like for three matches and there was nothing happening. We decided let’s just put the boots aside for one day, sit down as a team, eat, pray and talk to one another. If there was anything preventing us from winning then it should go away. It worked,” Baraza who will deputize Ugandan Sam Ssimbwa next season said.
After losing the first three second leg games narrowly to Gor Mahia, Western Stima and Chemelil Sugar, Sofapaka picked successive draws against Kakamega Homeboyz and champions Tusker FC to spur their confidence.
Despite losing away to Bandari in Mombasa, they went on to pick twin wins for the first time in the season with huge victories against fellow strugglers. They beat City Stars 5-0 and Ushuru 2-0, coincidentally the only sides they beat in the first leg.
“There was no turning back because we looked at the pedigree of the team since we won the league in 2009 and we thought there was too much history to let go back into the second tier league,” Baraza told Capital Sport.
Also Read: Sofapaka survive, Ushuru relegated
It was the decision to recruit experienced faces, a group of players now called the ‘Sofapaka Rescue Team’ that is credited for their grand survival.
They brought back defender Johnson Bagoole from Uganda, his country mate and former Uganda Cranes goalkeeper Mathews Kigonya who turned out to be a pillar in their relegation fight.
Also coming in were Maelo who was turning out for Police FC, Noah Abich who had been released by Mathare United, Moses ‘Dube’ Odhiambo who came through from Ushuru, former AFC Leopards front-man Paul Odhiambo and former Posta Rangers defender Japher Gichuki while Wycliffe Opondo was the only remnant from the first leg squad.
“When we started the first leg we thought bringing a squad of hungry young players would be good for us because we thought they would have a good fighting spirit but we were wrong. In the second leg, we made a decision to bring in players with experience and those who know what it means to play in the league. It paid off,” Baraza recalls.
Another key factor in Sofapaka’s survival is the return of club stalwart and owner Elly Kalekwa. In the first leg, he never attended even a single match as he was rarely in the country but when he came back in the second leg, the tide changed.
“In a home when a father is not there, things tend to go wrong. But whenever he comes, even if there is no meat in the house, there is always a smell close to that. It is the same that happened with us. Once ‘Prezda’ came back, there was some confidence,” Baraza says.
The flamboyant Congolese businessman, as Capital Sports learns rewarded the side with Sh1mn in cash after their win over Thika United and took them for dinner. He also promised to pay them in advance all their salaries until January.
“Since we came into this team, we have never complained that our salaries have been delayed. Everything has been prompt. We have also been paid all our allowances handsomely and that is one thing I credit Kalekwa for. He has really taken care of the team,” one of the players said.
Kalekwa is still bubbling with happiness, three days after his side’s famous escape.
“I don’t even have words. I was confident we would not be relegated but the manner we managed to escape is a story worth telling. We started badly but God stood with us and we managed to remain in the league,” he said.
“We have learnt our lessons. This is the last time ever you will see Sofapaka struggling. We are a team used to fight for titles, not fighting relegation. We are planning ourselves for next season and we are also looking at matters sponsorship to see whether we can have a stable financial base,” the Congolese said.
He also noted he will maintain the same squad but will definitely add in some quality players to ensure they return back to hunting titles.