NAIROBI, Kenya- The Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani was painted blue and white on Saturday as AFC Leopards SC fans descended on the cathedral of Kenyan sports to witness their beloved team claim the 2017 GOtv Shield.
In what was the last chance for the local giants to salvage a nightmare season, Ingwe supporters went into orbit after the final whistle when their side claimed a 2-0 victory over Kariobangi Sharks FC in an afternoon where heavy showers did little to dampen the party that continued well into the night
Although the 60,000-seater recently refurbished stadium had large swathes of empty stands, the area around the VIP section was teeming with Leopards faithful who joined the players in dancing without care after the final whistle, with celebrations spilling from the stadium and into the busy Thika Road Super Highway.
Delirious supporters took to social media to congratulate Robert Matano and his charges for putting them out of misery in a season they have had to sit back and watch bitter rivals, Gor Mahia FC bulldoze to a 16th SportPesa Premier League (SPL) title, four above Ingwe in the all-time Kenyan honours list.
“@AFCLeopards now on to the CAF confederation Cup. Count on my support ALL THE WAY! #INGWE #GOtvShieldFinal #MunguMbele Hongera (God before everything, congratulations)!
“Congratulations @AFCLeopards mighty proud of the new GOTV champs!! #ingwe #GOtvShieldFinal,” Nairobi Senator, Johnson Sakaja, who was among the supporters decked in the famous blue and white at Kasarani alongside Makadara MP and former Leopards Secretary General; George Aladwa, tweeted in glee.
“Congratulations AFC LEOPARDS for winning GOTV SHIELD earning a ticket to CAF Confederations CUP 2018 #Ingwe,” club legend, Dr. JJ Masiga, also posted on the micro-blogging site.
And there was a touch of class from 2016 Shield winners, Tusker FC who within minutes of the final whistle, tweeted, “Congratulations @AFCLeopards 🏆 2017 Gotv shield champions.”
“Congratulations are in order @AFCLeopards. They walk away with KSh 2Million a Trophy and a chance to play CAF confederations Cup in 2018. #GOtvShieldFinal,” SPL title partners, SportPesa added.
While winning the 10th domestic cup in their outstanding history was an occasion to savour for Leopards, the biggest winner of the afternoon was the tactician known as ‘The Lion’ head coach; Robert Matano, whose unrestrained joy as soon as Victor Oburu struck the second told the perfect story of a vindicated man.
Belying his age, the former Leopards no-nonsense midfielder, raced across the touchline to give the goalscorer a bear hug as the man who always wears the tough look of a military drill sergeant let all his emotions loose during that moment of sheer delight.
A year ago, Matano, frail and in ill health, was sensationally denied a chance to vie for the cup when was forced to step down from the helm of Ulinzi Stars FC and was not on the dugout when the soldiers fell 1-0 to Tusker at Afraha Stadium in Nakuru.
His then assistant, Benjamin Nyangweso took charge as Matano watched from the sick bed; and as his condition worsened, a funds drive was organised to offset his soaring medical bill.
The two-time SPL title winner left the soldiers and pitched camp at second tier Bidco United FC where he was fished from to rescue Leopards when the club descended into a managerial farce when Briton Stewart Hall quit before Romanian Dorian Marin was hired and quickly fired.
“Happy #MashujaaDay to @AFCLeopards coach Robert Matano; wrestled cancer to the floor and today won @GOtvKenya Shield, kudos the Lion,” Boniface Osano tweeted in one of the many online tributes to the tactician who is heavily linked with a return to the Brewers.
“I do not come to finals to lose. I’ve come here to win,” Matano told SuperSport who aired their last ever game on Kenyan soil live after terminating their broadcast deal with the SPL in April, in what silently marked the end of an era in local football.
Matano took his opposite number, William ‘Kanu’ Muluya to school in tactics, ensuring his side sat back and snuffed out the Sharks attacking threat led by 2017 Shield top scorer, Masoud Juma, who cut a desolate figure and in tears after the contest came to an end.
Football Kenya Federation (FKF) President, Nick Mwendwa, who led his Executive to the stadium spotting ‘Team Change’ t-shirts was jeered by a section of Leopards supporters during the encounter.
Others held placards written, “We are tired of Stanley Okumbi. Okumbi must go,” and the ‘Okumbi Must Go’ chant rent the air in protest against the under-fire Harambee Stars head coach who Mwendwa has strongly come out to support despite increasing calls for his head.
The crowd’s ire was also directed towards Sharks, a team Mwendwa saved from oblivion in 2011 before establishing them as a top flight team when they won promotion last season, although the federation chief stepped down as chairman soon after his election.
Winning the Shield on Saturday for their first domestic title, would have been a remarkable achievement for Muluya and his boys to underline their credentials as an emerging force in Kenyan football but instead, they were left to rue catching Leopards on a day when they were at their ruthless best.
Critics have singled Sharks as the face of Mwendwa’s FKF administration in the SPL and Leopards fans did not waste the opportunity to chide the FKF boss who is feeling the heat from the loss of the 2018 Africa Home Nations Championships that has been awarded to Morocco and poor performances of the national team under Okumbi.
The loss of his ‘pet’ was another grim day for Mwendwa, who watched proceedings unfold and was sometimes animated to the point of climbing down to the Sharks dugout before he looked forlorn when Oburu buried in the second.
Amid the politically charged climate in the country; the Luhya hit song Vindu Vijechanga (things change) re-vibrated around Kasarani as the Ingwe faithful toasted to their first piece of silverware since winning the 2013 Shield where they beat none other than the old enemy, Gor 1-0.
Leopards, who exactly two decades ago suffered a humiliating and stunning 4-1 hiding to upstarts Eldoret KCC in the final of the competition then known as Moi Golden Cup, will look ahead to their fortunes changing for the better next season where they will mark a return to continental football for starters.