NAIROBI, Kenya- On a baking hot afternoon in the sprawling low-income residential estate of Kariobangi in north-eastern part of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, two teams are preparing to face off in a football match on a dusty pitch.
For them, the poor playing surface represents the start of a dream that could one day, land them a place in the Kenyan topflight- SportPesa Premier League (SPL)- or better still, a chance to ply their trade abroad with Europe the preferred destination.
The pitch in question, Kariobangi Community ground has no corner flags, its marked in chalk, the goals have no nets and there no ambulance in sight with no linesmen patrolling the touchline as is common in well organised football games.
Still, that does not deter the men from home side Kariobangi Sports FC and Korogocho Youth FC from playing their hearts out with the sides competing in the Football Kenya Federation County League, the fifth-tier of the country’s football structure.
On this particular day, November 22, 2017, a special guest is among the sparse crowd watching the match in the shape of Everton Football Club legend, Leon Osman, who was touring Kenya to drum up support for the Kits for Africa initiative started by leading bookmakers, SportPesa.
He was here to witness first-hand the conditions which players hoping to break into the big time endure in a country that has abundance of talent but lacks proper structures and facilities to develop them into international stars.
Earlier, Osman had attended the annual Koth Biro estate tournament clash between Santos FC and Githurai All Stars at the Ziwani Community grounds before he toured the Hope Centre in Kawangware the following day where Psalms 105 FC and Vapor Sports FC played in a friendly.
Served by only a single Nairobi City County maintained school, the vast estate that sits between Outer Ring Road on the eastern side and the Nairobi-Thika railway line on the western and southern parts is divided into Kariobangi North and Kariobangi South.
Like other City County estates, Kariobangi has suffered its fair share of maintenance neglect that has erased its original identity and character following years of uncoordinated housing extensions and poorly-planned new high rise real estate developments.
Talent hot bed
Once a hot-bed of sporting talent, a number of open playgrounds have been grabbed and turned overnight into low cost permanent or semi-permanent housing units that due to the strain on providing social amenities, have bred the rise of insecurity.
With a lot of talent going to waste as a result, initiatives such as Kits for Africa cannot come soon enough to aid the youth who have steadfastly resisted the urge to turn to crime for upkeep.
“These grounds are important to this community. It is amazing to see the good level of football being played on a ground where goats are feeding.
“What I would tell these player is to believe in yourself, you call it Tujiamini (believe in ourselves). That is the main thing. Have belief and desire to achieve what you are capable of,” Osman who played for the nine-time England league champions for 16 years remarked.
Standing beside him as the game wore on was Stanley Okumbi, the ex-Kariobangi Sports player who rose to be national team, Harambee Stars head coach before he stood down for Paul Put towards the end of November to become the Belgian’s assistant.
Having been born and bred in the estate, Okumbi took ownership of Kariobangi Sports to prevent the team from going under and has sustained the outfit from his pocket, spending roughly KSh350,000 (USD3,400) to keep the side afloat and participating in the County League annually.
The former SPL teams- Mathare United FC and Kariobangi Sharks FC- head coach uses his connections with the SPL clubs to shift some of the better players, with 10 having joined the latter who were promoted to the top flight last season.
“The problem we have in most of these teams is lack of equipment- kit, balls, boots and the fact they are unemployed. You must dig deep into your pockets to buy equipment and pay to enable them honour games and report to training.
“Most of these players lack KSh10 or KSh20 bus fare to come for training or join their teammates when travelling for games. We train three days a week, Tuesday to Friday and the weekend is match days,” Okumbi narrated to SportPesa News.
Playing under such conditions is a game of Russian Roulette as far as the welfare of the players is concerned with lack of proper medical equipment in case of serious injury but that is a small risk to them considering the big promise the world of SPL football or beyond offers.
“We have been lucky to have not had bad injuries and we take care of the small ones the players suffer. For Kariobangi, I connect them with team doctors at Mathare, Sharks and the national team.
“They realise they are here because these are feeder clubs but most companies in the country do not help grassroots football.
“We have to keep telling these players not to give up and for them to get a chance, they must work hard and you must paint them the picture of what can happen to them and the society when they make it,” Okumbi stressed.
Only a handful or less among the 38 players currently in the books of Kariobangi Sports, will advance to the next level and for the remaining hopefuls, these community clubs encourage them to pull their meagre resources together to establish businesses that will support their livelihoods after football.
“Football pays but the truth is, not all will get that chance. So, we encourage them to start businesses that will sustain them such as opening PlayStation booths or DSTv match screening centres where they can show live games at a fee and any other venture in the expanding communications sector.
“This gives them the motivation and hunger to work hard to be here since they know even if they will not get to the top of the game, their involvement here is a stepping stone to secure their future,” the former Stars boss underscored.
Okumbi lamented the negligible local corporate involvement in grassroots football in the country, lauding firms such as SportPesa who have launched campaigns such as Kits for Africa that will go a long way in sparking the revival of teams in the lower tiers of football.
“This is a sign for us that good things are coming. If we can have these players in proper kit and equipment, it will inspire them to aim higher and make it easier for them to express their talent,” the ex-Mathare and Sharks coach offered.
Robert Ocholla, one of the organisers of the off-season annual Koth Biro estate tournament, echoed Okumbi in outlining the challenges faced by community teams spread across other County estates in the bustling Kenyan capital.
“This is where players such as Victor Wanyama started and initiatives such as Kits for Africa will bring more young talent closer to realising their dream. We have had to turn away many teams from Koth Biro since they are not properly dressed to play football.
“Some come bare-chested, others without boots or uniform and this affects over 90 percent of the players who register for this tournament. Kits for Africa should look for ways to support more community teams and I’m sure the benefits will be there for all to see in the near future,” Ocholla, who told Osman of Tottenham Hotspur FC star and Stars captain, Wanyama’s roots at Santos FC emphasised.
“It is great to see such young players giving their all in an attempt to break through the game.
“It’s encouraging to see a lot of youth keen on playing football to better their lives and this is far from what we have in England where young kids grow up with good pitches and equipment,” Osman who has been at Everton since his teenage years remarked.
The Kits for Africa initiative is a rallying call to players, fans and management of Everton, fellow Premier League side, Southampton FC and Championship outfit, Hull City Tigers FC to donate kit and other equipment towards the cause that will be shipped in and distributed by SportPesa.
Already, the teams concerned have drummed up support the drive at their matches in England by wearing special t-shirts with the message with the first batch expected in Kenya towards the end of the year or sometime in January.
For players of teams such as Kariobangi Sports FC or Korogocho, the equipment cannot come fast enough as they take on to dusty and sometimes, muddy pitches to chase the elusive dream of making it in the most popular sport in the world.
The positive thing is through Kits for Africa, their plight has been heard at the stage that one day, they hope to bless with their talent.