NAIROBI, Kenya- There are no words fitting enough to to describe what transpired on Sunday, May 13, 2018 at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani where a single game of football brought an entire nation together.
The momentous international friendly between domestic giants, Gor Mahia FC and visiting English side, Hull City FC was reduced to a sideshow amid emotional scenes that for those lucky enough to witness the spectacle, will linger on for ages.
It was a tacit reminder, if anyone needed one, of the astonishing passion Kenyans have for football as an enthusiastic crowd of 60,000 fans from all walks of life filled the country’s sporting cathedral and put on a dazzling show of raw patriotism.
Incredibly, more supporters were locked outside when the largest sporting facility in the country filled to its rafters which only served to create an unforgettable experience even for those who missed out on the football action.
The last time Kasarani saw anything close to Sunday was on January 12, 1997 when Harambee Stars hosted the mighty Super Eagles in a 1998 FIFA World Cup qualifier.
However, that occasion where Kenya recorded a memorable 1-1 draw under the late German head coach, Reinhardt Fabisch, did not prompt the scenes that unfolded during the match dubbed #HullCityInKenya.
The title was chosen by organisers in honour of the Tigers’ maiden trip to Africa, not as a broadside to Gor by casting them as the underdogs.
“It was special. My group of player and staff will remember this forever,” Hull head coach, Nijel Adkins, brilliantly summed later Sunday when they were hosted to a dinner by leading bookmakers, SportPesa, who organised the match.
“The unifying power of sport was there for all to see. Everyone knows that Kenyans are good in athletics and they can run fast but we wanted to prove that we are good in football as well.
“When we set out to play our part in helping to showcase our talent we never expected we would witness anything like this and we can only do bigger things next time,” SportPesa CEO, Captain Ronald Karauri, remarked.
Signs that something iconic was about to happen at Kasarani started in the morning of the game that Hull eventually won 4-3 on post-match penalties after a pulsating 0-0 draw when the sun came out following weeks of daily heavy rains.
That prompted fans to start arriving at the stadium from 9am local time (+3GMT), six hours ahead of kick-off in what started as a trickle, then a steady stream by midday and finally, a huge surge that almost overwhelmed security forces deployed to maintain order minutes to the first whistle.
Inside and outside the stadium, a carnival atmosphere greeted the supporters who made their way where the sight of Gor’s eternal enemies, AFC Leopards SC faithful dressed in their team’s colours were among those who thronged the venue to support K’Ogalo.
Domestic football, ethnic, religious and racial differences were put aside as Kenyan football lovers trooped to Kasarani to back the home side while according visiting English Football League Championship side Hull the respect that melted their hearts.
Massive queues formed along Thika Super Highway as the clock ticked towards kick-off, creating a traffic gridlock.
Thousands willingly walked to the stadium located 16km from Nairobi’s Central Business District in the baking sunshine driven by the desire to part of sporting history.
Full of song and colour, with some attire bordering on the insane strangers shared water and other consumables with the ticket booths almost overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and it was no surprise that they ran out by noon.
What has seemed improbable, a sellout of Kasarani where many events have struggled to fill had happened.
Yet that did not stop the supporters from trying to be part of proceedings, some even risking their wellbeing by trying to force their way. For the few who flirted with danger, it was a small price to pay to be part of a landmark moment in Kenyan sporting history.
“It was unbelievable. My players were taking photos of these masses of people who were making their way to the game in the bus as we headed to the stadium. The cheering as we passed them was unreal,” the Hull boss Adkins later said.
While the scenes outside Kasarani were a spectacle to behold, inside a thunderous atmosphere was brewing and it hit its peak when both teams emerged for their pre-match practice. You had to see it to believe it.
Organisers had arranged a wide range of entertainment- it was not just the football- and this played a huge part in whipping up a mad atmosphere that served to add to what will go done the annals of Kenyan history as a watershed day for domestic football.
Reggae spin master, Chris Odhiambo, known to most as DJ Kris Darlin’ of Dohty Family Entertainment, popular comedian and radio personality, Felix Odiwuor aka Jalango Jalango as well as SportPesa’s Tom Bwana shared the Master of Ceremonies duties.
The trio worked up the crowd inside the stadium and at the SportPesa activation tent located just outside the VIP gate to a frenzy with an array of activity including dancing competitions, trivia questions and good old music.
It all hit a crescendo an hour to kickoff when it became apparent Kasarani would register a record crowd. By then, most supporters had navigated through the traffic and security checks to take their seats at the stadium.
Others opted to ignore conventional sitting and hang from the television camera ramp near the emergency exit as others just stood and sang their hearts out.
At 2pm, an erotic dance routine by Ohangla songstress Lady Mourine and her troupe sparked deafening cheers before MC invited members of the crowd to a dancing competition where Hull legend, Dean Windass, became an instant star with his belly flop routine.
When Gor head coach, Dylan Kerr emerged for his pre-match media duties and a lap of honour, all four corners of the stadium rose to acclaim, performing the Nigerian Igwe (chief) bow of honour in acknowledging his work at the record 16-time league champions since he took over.
At 2:21pm, Adkins led his Tigers out and they too were greeted with resounding applause and the Igwe bow as they responded to the love by going round to greet the fans.
Four minutes later, K’Ogalo players almost brought the house down when they appeared, supporters chanting the names of their star players and belting out tunes in praise of their heroes.
“I thought I was used to the great support we receive from our fans but I was wrong. When we came out, it was unbelievable. I will remember this day forever,” club record signing and Rwandese international striker, Jacques Tuyisenge confessed.
At quarter to 3pm, the teams retreated to their dressing rooms and the energized crowd kept the party alive by singing a medley of terrace favourite songs in praise of Gor and soon after the starting XI were named over the tannoy.
Each name read out was greeted with booming cheer that reached ear-splitting levels especially when Gor players were called out.
At 2:56pm, the famous Gor anthem, led by club number one fan, Jared ‘Jaro Soja’ Obonyo, the self-styled Commander in Chief of the K’Ogalo Defence Force, was belted out with such fervour that literary shook the ground.
“Kogalo, Goooor….Gor Mahia.. Kogalo, Goooor..Gor Mahia…Pinje duto ywakni, Gor..Mahia…Kogalo Gor, Gor Mahia…Nyiri duto ywak nu, Gorrr…Gor Mahia…,” they went with such passion that almost brought tears to the eyes.
Loosely translated, the anthem proclaims the majesty of the most popular and decorated club in the land and chides their opponents by reminding them that all team cry because of Gor.
With the teams out at the middle of the pitch, the sight of former Prime Minister and chief guest, Rt. Hon. Raila Amolo Odinga and fellow dignitaries making their way to the ground was the cue for pandemonium in the stands.
Some cheered, others jumped up and down, others broke into a jig and others raised their hands in supplication as the man fondly known as ‘Baba’ (father) to his region of supporters waved to them.
The entire Hull squad rushed then rushed onto the pitch to immoralise the moment with photos, breaking the standard tradition where only the starting XI take a pre-match picture and taking cue, Gor followed them suit.
When the game started, fans maintained the explosive atmosphere right through to the end of regulation time, acknowledging the good football that was played at the brand new Kasarani pitch.
Field captain and seasoned forward, Frazier Campbell, exciting young talent Jarrod Bowen and Will Keane came close to breaking the deadlock for Hull while Ivorian striker, Ephrem Guikan, Tuyisenge and the effervescent midfielder, Francis Kahata, threatened to score for the home side in an evenly contested first half.
After the break, a raft of substitutions slowed down the pace without compromising the quality with substitute forward, Meddie Kagere, who came on to a huge roar in the 63rd minute coming close to grabbing the headlines with a winner for Gor.
Fittingly, neither side could fashion victory in the 90, huge reward for the industry and commitment they showed and the game had to be settled via post-match spot kicks.
Gor keeper, Boniface Onyango saved the first two from Hull to invite delirium from the fans before Tigers keeper, Callum Burton who came on in the 68th produced his own heroics to stretch the shootout to sudden death.
Burton then denied Kevin ‘Ade’ Omondi and Cercidy Okeyo to clinch it for Hull in the shootout but that did little to puncture the joy of the supporters.
Some invaded the pitch to snap photos with the Hull and Gor players as others trooped out to continue the party outside.
“I hope that Football Kenya Federation, the Kenyan Premier League, the Ministry of Sport and Government can use what we saw today (Sunday) to develop football.
“I tell my players all the time that they can be the best and the showed that. I’m sorry gaffer (Adkins) but we pumped you! The talent here is unbelievable and all it needs is support,” Kerr stated in the aftermath of a landmark day in Kenya’s football.
“Dylan, you have a good team and it is my wish that the current Gor team that has done such wonderful things can go on to inspire the next generation of Kenyan players to realise the goals of playing at the highest international level,” the Hull head coach responded.
During the dinner held at a Nairobi hotel, both sets of players exchanged gifts and received medals as the sense of it all sunk in, knowing they had contributed to what could be a defining chapter in the future of Kenyan football.
“This is overwhelming. We simply marketed the game as a Kenyan versus English team and we knew we would have good turnout but no one expected something of such a scale,” SportPesa Head of Marketing, Kelvin Twissa remarked.
The Kasarani spectacle left no doubt there is huge appetite for football and sports can stoke patriotism and unity under the national flag.
It was a timely wake up call to authorities, who were no doubt watching the match live on television, to tap into the momentum and accelerate sporting development.
Inspired by the record turn out, SportPesa will no doubt be inspired to organise ‘bigger’ events as Karauri pledged but at the end of it all, the buck stops at the Government.
Missed the match? Watch it on YouTube.