NAIROBI, Kenya- There is a paradigm shift sweeping across Kenyan football and the catalyst of an exciting future in the local version of the sport is none other than SportPesa Premier League (SPL) champions, Gor Mahia FC.
Twice in three days, the Dylan Kerr coached domestic giants have proven that local teams can compete against and even better anything the world can offer with belief and above all, exposure.
Last Sunday, Gor took on the challenge of English Football League Championship side, Hull City FC that was everything but the international friendly it was billed to be where they impressed with a dogged display.
On a rain-soaked and bitterly cold evening at the same Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani on Wednesday night, the most-decorated club in Kenya was left wondering just how they did not beat Algerian titans, USM Alger (USMA).
This was not another friendly but a 2018 CAF Confederations Cup group phase fxiture where victory for USMA would have set them on their way to top Group D of the competition, sinking Gor to the bottom in the process.
So much was at stake but once again, Gor belied their underdog status and left USMA relieved they had escaped a sparsely filled Kasarani with a precious point in the bag.
Few, if anyone can vividly remember the last time a Kenyan side took a North African team to football school, especially one reduced to 10-men shortly after the start of the second half.
“I think we are cursed! It could have been SuperSport United; there were many Sangoma (witchdoctors) when we went there. I can’t explain why we are not scoring,” Kerr remarked with jest.
However, his face turned serious when he addressed their profligacy in front of goal, admitting he could explain why his side were misfiring despite creating a glut of chances.
On Wednesday night, they could have well been out of sight by half time, with winger George ‘Blackberry’ Onyango in particular, wasting their best two chances of the half.
Ivorian striker, Ephrem Guikan who ran his socks off and club record signing, Jacques Tuyisenge, also passed up golden opportunities to strike.
Midfielder Francis Kahata put such an imperious display of link up play that made those watching wonder if they were not seeing a player belonging to Spanish giants FC Barcelona, not a man who had returned to the SPL after a failed spell in Europe.
“I’m delighted with my players. They are getting better in training but we can’t score. We always want to go out there and make our fans go home happy and we should have won,” Kerr rued.
No one who can begrudge the British coach for what he said next at his pre-match press conference at the VIP section of Kasarani.
“Gor is changing the face of football in Kenya. We have to believe in ourselves and we know there are problems in Kenyan football but we have to go out and do our best.
“I’m proud we salvaged a positive result playing with 10-men in a Confed Cup match is not easy. Rayon and Yanga who play USMA next will look at this result and see they are not invincible,” the former Hai Phong and Simba SC head coach remarked.
The biggest problem Kerr was referring to is the lack of finances needed to turn the immense potential to international success.
As recently as last month, it took the intervention of Nairobi Governor, Mike Sonko, to bail out the team at the last minute to enable K’Ogalo honour the return leg of their Confed Cup play-off against SuperSport where Kahata’s precious away goal in a 1-2 defeat sent them through.
Such embarrassing close shaves had become a thing of the past when the club signed a three-year deal with bookmakers SportPesa but the partnership was cut short in January when the firm was forced to suspend involvement in local sport following the imposition of steep Government tax on their operations.
Therefore, it was a big respite for K’Ogalo when their title partners came back on board on April 24 just before they embarked on their group stage assignments in the Confed Cup.
As the most popular team in the country, one would expect Gor to have partners queuing up at their offices but this is not the case because as a product, Kenyan football has little commercial appeal or so everyone thought.
However, SportPesa proved last Sunday that the appetite for local football is still alive and an untapped market that can revolutionise the country’s ailing economy exists when more than 60,000 Kenyans trooped to Kasarani.
Derelict stadiums, low spending power of supporters, isolated incidents of violence, political undertones and being in a country where Government pays little regard for sport have however, combined to limit the growth of Gor into a powerful football brand as equal as any in the world.
Think Barcelona, LaLiga rivals Real Madrid CF, English titans Manchester United FC or closer home, Egyptian greats Ah Ahly alongside Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs of South Africa.
For decades, North African sides have piled untold misery on Kenyan football teams at club and national level. As recently as 2014, Tunisian aristocrats, Esperance de Tunis, blew Gor away 8-2 on aggregate in a CAF Champions League first round clash.
When the same opponents locked horns again earlier this season, Esperance squeezed past Gor 0-1 employing the dark arts to prevail in two ill-tempered games, the return in Tunisia gaining notoriety as the Black and Gold knocked out the Kenyans.
USMA came to town no doubt expecting to roll over the SPL giants, buoyed by their 4-0 demolition of Yanga in their opening Group D clash but in the end, their head coach, Miloud Hamdi, hailed K’Ogalo as he delighted with the point gained.
“This is a good result from a difficult situation. We played a good team with good players,” Hamdi confessed.
K’Ogalo’s performance was an echo to the past, specifically the 1987 season when they beat Esperance on the away goal rule in the final of the Cup Winners Cup (Mandela Cup) to seal the domestic league, cup and continental trophy treble.
At the time, Kenyan football had reached a peak, with the country featuring in three Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals in a row, 1988, 1990 and 1992.
The co-relation between club and national team football around the world means Gor’s success can be the Launchpad for Harambee Stars to realise their dreams of returning to the AFCON finals for the first time since 2004 or make the 2022 FIFA World Cup in what would be a maiden appearance.
“We played good football and it is my hope that Stars head coach (Sebastian) Migne was here to see what Kenyan teams are capable of.
“Our success would mean nothing if the country does not follow suit,” the retired Malta-born English defender Kerr outlined.
Since breaking their domestic title drought in 2013, Gor have added three other trophies and finished second in 2016 when the SPL crown slipped from their grasp.
Kerr’s predecessors, Zradvko Logarusic (Croatia), Bobby Williamson (Scotland), Frank Nutall (Scotland) and Jose Marcelo ‘Ze Maria’ Ferreira (Brazil) have all had a hand in moulding the side into returning to the apex of local football but the Englishman can take credit in forming a formidable side that is not cracking under pressure.
Since arriving last July, Kerr has only lost three competitive games, two outside Kenya and despite playing 21 games since the start of 2018, his side is yet to lose on home soil.
“I always tell my players to grab every opportunity they can, it’s the only way they will make it,” he said after the Hull game.
On this evidence, they are certainly listening and no matter what happens in the Confed Cup or any other competition this term, a team that identifies with green and white has planted the seeds of future success in Kenyan football.