NAKURU, Kenya- From the early hours of Sunday morning in Nakuru, the air was pregnant with the huge sense of occasion as fans descended to the town for the grand finale of the 2018 SportPesa Super Cup.
The usually serene lakeside town, the fourth largest in Kenya located 160km from the capital Nairobi had for the past 10 days, dutifully hosted its biggest football showpiece as eight sides from Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar arrived to vie for the trophy that came with a ticket to England to play Everton FC.
In the end, one team soared above them all, as holders Gor Mahia FC underlined their regional supremacy by brushing off- yes, brushing off- what was said to be a stern test from Tanzania mainland league winners, Simba SC 2-0 to retain their crown.
With it, K’Ogalo will hop the plane and fly to the famous English footballing city of Liverpool to play Everton FC, the English Premier League campaigners who eclipsed them 1-2 last year in Dar-es-Salaam in their first ever meeting after the Kenyan giants won the inaugural Super Cup.
“The whole team was amazing today, the back midfield and my two top strikers were on top of their game. It was a fantastic display of football.
“We started a little apprehensive in the first 20 but just as they have been all season, they rose to the occasion and I’m very proud,” the ecstatic Gor head coach, Dylan Kerr, who was dressed in his lucky charm light green t-shirt, shorts and football boots said after leading the club to the third trophy of his tenure.
There was no shame for Simba to lose on the day and they can fly back to Dar with their heads held up high after sailing to the final without conceding and bizarrely, without scoring in open play as they atoned for their semi final exit to Leopards on home soil.
“Our mistakes have cost us in the game and we can’t blame anyone but ourselves. My players followed instructions in the beginning but lost their cool and that ended up costing us.
“We have a lot to work on so we can improve and that’s what we will focus on. Congrats Gor,” his opposite number, Masoud Djuma, rued after the loss, having been thrust to the hot seat when Simba ditched Frenchman Pierre Lechantre mid-tournament.
Wekundu wa Msimbazi who brought a bus-load of their own feverish supporters from Tanzania played their part in adding to the spectacle of Afraha, where a game of football sparked some of the most staggering scenes ever witnessed in Nakuru.
As early as 9am local time (+3GMT), Gor fans in private vehicles entered the streets of the town hooting with reckless abandon, even circling the official Simba hotel in what was perhaps an act of intimidation as they waved green and white flags as well as scarves and other club branded paraphernalia.
By 11am, the three-seating stands at Afraha were brimming with supporters who belted chants, songs and tributes to Gor and it was apparent the game and first Gor versus Simba meeting at a final since 1981 would be full house.
However, even tournament organisers, leading bookmakers SportsPesa had not envisaged such a swelling turnout and when Kakamega Homeboyz FC and Tanzanian side Singida United FC took to the pitch for the bronze medal match at 12pm, they were met by a packed stadium, with their handful of faithful swallowed by soldiers of the Green Army.
Armed with Vuvuzelas and healthy vocal chords, K’Ogalo supporters immediately switched their allegiance to Homeboyz, cheering to the rafters when Wycliffe Opondo gave his side the lead with barely three minutes in.
Their compatriots could not however, see out the game as they conceded a second half equaliser for the clash to finish 1-1 and when Singida marksmen plundered in their strikes in the ensuing shootout they won 1-4, a subdued atmosphere swept the stands.
Between lending their support to Homeboyz, huge swathes of Gor fans started belting their full catalogue of songs praising their beloved side, rocking up and down without tiring, a whole two hours before the final was to start.
Outside, amazing scenes were developing as crowds lined up to purchase tickets or visit the SportPesa activation tent were goodies ranging from branded club merchandise, footballs, Super Cup t-shirts flew off the table with enticing competitions involving eating, ‘keepy uppy’ and a roll of the wheel of fortune kept the people busy.
Come 1pm, almost every available corner at Afraha bar the VIP section was filled to the brim with supporters who lacked sitting space taking up positions at the roof of the stands, perimeter wall and floodlight pylons.
With Singida and Homeboyz clearing the scene, it was time for the signature game of the tournament and the noise that greeted Gor players and staff when they emerged from their warm up could have provided enough energy to power the entire Nakuru town.
The cluster of Simba fans who were led to the right of the VIP dias were in fine fettle too, calling out the players in their starting line-up by name before responding in unison anaweza (he can) but few could hear them as their rival supporters drowned them out.
In one of the stands, Gor and Simba supporters mingled adding to the mosaic of colour and the cacophony of noise that turned Afraha into bedlam.
Before returning to the changing rooms, Gor players applauded their supporters to manic reception as the Green Army transmitted their energy to the men they banked on to deliver them another piece of silverware.
Festivities to mark the end of the 2018 Super Cup started rolling out thereafter, with the Nairobi-based Sarakasi Dancers troupe taking to the centre circle to wow the crowd with their gymnastics before the teams emerged from the changing rooms to line-up for kick-off, the trophy they were vying for placed in the middle on a plinth.
Dignitaries led by SportPesa CEO, Captain Ronald Karauri, his Chief Operating Officer, Jakob Kristensen and Chief Marketing Officer, Kelvin Twissa who has been an ever-present in Nakuru since the first kick-off on June 3 going out to greet the teams.
A team from Everton FC, former striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Partnerships Manager, Chris Humphreys as well as academy coaches Lewis Nightingale and David Ness accompanied them.
The crowd was then hushed for the East Africa Community anthem to boom over the tannoy before a deafening roar bellowed around the stadium like thunder as the combatants congregated in their respective corners for the team photos.
Instead of going up to his seat in the VIP stand, ex-Nigeria Super Eagles captain, Aiyegbeni sat next to renowned local football commentator, Bernard Otieno as the television broadcast analyst, a major surprise from the organisers.
Otieno’s erstwhile colleague and former national team Harambee Stars head coach, Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee sat at the top of the VIP stand to have a bird’s eye view of the action for half-time and full-time analysis.
From kick-off, it was evident the tension amongst the two teams on the big stage was rife with misplaced passes and crunchy tackles the hallmark until the third minute when Gor took the lead through tournament top scorer, Meddie Kagere.
That was the cue for the supporters to ran amok, with Afraha vibrating in its seams and for a moment, the was genuine concern the rickety facility would not hold.
From then on, only one team was in the ascendancy and after a few close shaves before the rbeak and after, Simba were finally put to bed in the 55th when his Rwandese international strike partner, Jacques Tuyisenge scored a second.
The magnificent over the top pass from Kenyan international Humphrey Mieno was torn out from the book of revered Spain and FC Barcelona legend, Andres Iniesta, with Tuyisenge not letting the ball touch down before dispatching it past a stranded Aisha Manula in the Simba goal.
That knocked the stuffing out of Simba and the contingent of Tanzanians in the crowd, including those in the SportPesa team who wore gloomy faces, their pre-match optimism swiftly turned into despair as their worst fears were confirmed- K’Ogalo were heading to England.
Outside, another big congregation watched the game from the SportPesa Display and Commentary truck that was parked outside Afraha, making this the largest gathering for a sports event in Nakuru’s history.
It was part of the measures put in place to avoid over-crowding the tiny venue by the team led by SportPesa Head of Security, Lt. Col (Rtd) Matthews Waria that pooled the resources of Police, private firms and Nakuru County enforcement personnel.
In the final chapter of the game, Gor turned on the show as their players wound the clock down against an opponent that was baying to be put out of their misery with over 30 minutes left as Simba acknowledged there were too feeble to rock the mighty Kenyan league winners.
There was to be no extra time at the end of the 90, as K’Ogalo maintained their impressive run in the Super Cup as the only team that has not been stretched to the distance, notching their 14th goal in six matches stretching from last year, conceding none.
When the final whistle went, Afraha’s structure was once again threatened by ear-splitting celebrations and as if the deities were watching from up above, the heavens opened with what was initially a light drizzle turning into a downpour.
If you thought that would put a dampener to the proceedings, thing again. The stage was set at the middle of the pitch where Singida and Simba players walked to receive their medals before Gor, with white t-shirts emblazoned with Super Cup Champions 2018 took to the rostrum.
And the moment Captain Karauri handed their captain Harun Shakava the trophy to lift, confetti and fireworks lit the stadium as Gor fans shouted Igwe (the chiefs) to their players who had once again demonstrated they are the most powerful side in East Africa, not losing a game on Kenyan soil this year.
Kerr, who was masterminding the celebrations then told his players to lay the trophy at the middle of the goal to the left of the VIP stands, clear to the penalty spot and rush as one to the net.
They then picked the cup and started their animated lap of honour, stopping at each corner to acknowledge the crowd that responded by waving in supplication of the majesty of Sirkal (The Government).
Despite the heavy rain, supporters waited patiently for their turn as the players who seemed to care little of being drenched to their skins dutifully paraded the trophy as the grateful followers snapped the moment on their smartphones whose flashlights added to the emotional scenes.
When it was all done, it was time to take over the streets of Nakuru in celebration as the title party that will see most of them report to work on Monday morning beady eyed kicked-off in earnest, increment weather notwithstanding.
Everton, you have been warned, Maiyenga (The Earthquake) is coming to Goodison for you, packing a seismic force of revenge. To Gor be the glory.