NAIROBI, Kenya, Sep 21 – With the 2020-2021 Football Kenya Federation (FKF) Premier League season fading away in the rear-view mirror, Kenyan giants AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia Chairmen took a look back at the tumultuous year and share some of the struggles and lessons as they plan for new campaign.
The two club bosses were speaking when appreciating their sponsor Betsafe for the financial support and enabling them to finish the league last season and they are looking forward for the same this season.
“2020 was a problematic year for us in the field of football management,” said Gor Mahia Chairman, Ambrose Rachier about one of the most difficult years for sports in Kenya owing to the challenges brought up by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rachier noted that football was no different from other sectors affected by the deadly virus, with the economic pressures caused by Covid-19 bearing down on them impacting everything that they did.
“Our lives were all negatively impacted by the pandemic, and 2020 is a year we would very much like to put behind us,” said Rachier, a sentiment that his AFC Leopards counterpart, Dan Shikanda agrees with.
“2020 for us seemed like the end of the world. Everything was uncertain. We didn’t have fans in the stadium which meant our income was severely impacted. It is a year that reminds us impossible things can happen,” said Shikanda.
Neither K’Ogalo nor Ingwe had faced a season as tumultuous and challenging as in 2020-2021. When the country’s phased re-opening started, players were finally allowed back on the field. Getting them to the field turned out to be a different kettle of fish altogether.
“We faced a myriad of challenges that made it difficult to hone our players well enough to perform on the pitch,” noted Shikanda.
It is the normal and simple activities like being able to travel for games that became problematic for both squads because of the new considerations around the Covid restrictions that the teams were not prepared for.
Also, as one would imagine injuries became another big threat to the season. Both Gor and AFC reported numerous injuries caused mainly due to irregular and sometimes non-existent player training regimes. In the 2020-2021 season alone, AFC had 4 players who suffered from ACL injuries that needed surgeries.
“Almost 50% of our players were infected at different times and therefore were unable to play football, we had several of our players who failed their COVID-19 test at a crucial time when we needed them to go and play, we were denied of their services and as a result the club’s performance affected,” Said Rachier.
Over greater concern was the psychological impact the pandemic caused at both clubs. “Once the other players and members of staff who were not infected heard that one of them was infected of course you know the reaction, that these were people to be avoided. This caused a lot of distress, suspicion and in a way discrimination,” added Rachier.
According to the club chairmen, it was going from bad to worse with the rising costs of training grounds, the covid-19 health related challenges that required isolation of some players and staff, and challenges just travelling for games and finding accommodation. This all weighed heavily on the two giants’ balance sheets.
Hope, in the middle of a turbulent period for Kenya’s most decorated football teams, came in the form of a much-needed sponsorship deal the two clubs landed in June 2020. “Betsafe came to us at a time when we had very few options. They have always met their sponsor obligations on time, in fact they had paid for the season in advance and that has allowed us to pay our players and staff and meet other financial obligations,” said Rachier.
“Not many people understand what it takes for a team to appear on the pitch over the weekend to play a league match. It is a week of training, transport, security, and health, all of which are costly,” added Shikanda. “With a partner like Betsafe supporting us, even with the measures they had to take due to the tough economic climate, we can focus on improving our performance for the coming season.”
The Leopards are still buoyed by a strong fourth place finish in the 2020-2021 season, while K’Ogalo have their eyes set on the CAF confederation Cup after beating their arch rivals in the finals of the FKF Cup 4-1 in post-match penalties.
Both chairmen hope they get to play the next season in front of fans after a full season of empty bleachers.
Shikanda, with his days on the pitch still ringing fresh in his mind lamented missing the 12th man. “It is very unfortunate to have played some of our best football without our fans watching in the stadium. The fans are the 12th man, and football without fans is like a human being without a backbone.”
“The physical exclusion of fans from our stadium not only denied us revenue but also had a negative effect on the performance on our players who are used to cheering by fans.” Said Rachier.
For fans to make their way back into stadia, as is happening in the European leagues, is only likely if there is improved herd immunity; a fact both chairmen understand all too well. They stated that their teams are ready to join the drive to sensitise the public on the importance of the vaccine.
Rachier gave K’Ogalo fans the clarion call, “even as we call on the government to relax some of the measures and allow football to resume, if only with a limited number of fans attending games, we also call upon our fans to go out and get vaccinated. This is the way we can convince the government to open up stadia and allow fans back in.”
“To our fans,” concluded Shikanda, “get tested and vaccinated wherever you see the opportunity. We have made sure our players and staff are all vaccinated, and it is the only way everyone can get back into the stadium and see us win.”
After a difficult one and a half years, the two premier league giants are chomping at the bit to get back to their core business – thrilling fans with great football. With the support of a strong sponsor in Betsafe, the age-old rivalry between Mashemeji is heating up for what will be an unforgettable 2021-2022 season of Kenyan football as both teams gear up to take it all.