“Football is a game of the gentlemen watched by thugs… Rugby is a game of thugs watched by gentlemen and Golf is a game of the gentlemen watched by gentlemen…” these are the famous words of Prime Minister Raila Odinga as once quoted during a rare day out at the golf course together with his nemesis-turned-partner President Mwai Kibaki.
In as much as the man must have made his rib tickling off-the-cuff remark purely to lighten up the otherwise informal occasion, it was a statement that anyone whose ever set foot on a football or rugby pitch must have concurred with – only that the modern day rugby player is becoming an increasing suave athlete.
But all that is beside the point. Any serious sports fan, will agree that nothing beats the experience of catching the action ‘real time’ on location as the drama unfolds. Forget about all those beer guzzling armchair/barstool fans that are perversely taking over sport. The stadium -football, rugby or otherwise- is a special place to be in if you want a piece of the real ‘action’. The stadium is the real deal - a shrine, a sacred place, some sort of a sports’ follower’s ‘Mecca’ - a place where every serious fan should occasionally take pilgrimage purely to unwind if not to fellowship with other devotees.
Personally, some of my most memorable excursions happen to have been at the rugby grounds. Having transferred to Nakuru midway through high school after my family moved from Nairobi, I took up rugby as a sport. Coincidentally, our new neighbourhood happened to have been just a stone throw away from the Nakuru Athletic Club, literally. Infact, from the balcony I could comfortably follow proceedings on any match day undeterred. But then, just to get up and close to the action, attending the Great Rift 10 Aside tourney became a ritual that I religiously observed year in year out, just before schools opened for the 2nd term.
The atmosphere was always sizzling - for two straight days! And the crowd? There is one particular guy by the name Arigi who was something of a permanent phenomenon during theses events. Although many rugby followers will recall that Arigi owed his allegiance totally to University of Nairobi’s Mean Machine, over the years he gained notoriety (or perhaps popularity) as the official cheerleader of the students’ team who would seized every opportunity available to relentlessly engage the opposing fans in a lighthearted banter. Regardless though, his touchline antics, with a barrage of brickbats to boot, were always worth all the while.
If the rugby grounds were a standup comedian’s launch pad- ala Arigi, then the football stadium must have been a hooligan’s paradise. During my primary school days, this is the one place that I vividly recall my old man admonishing us from exploring. His concern was obviously borne out of fear that such ventures would inevitably expose us to the hoodlums who were a commonplace at the football arenas. But being the brats that we were, the temptation to sneak out every Saturday afternoon was often overwhelming.
Ironically, most of the times - being kids - the much prized match tickets were way too prohibitive. For all our troubles, we often found ourselves cooling our heels at the gates for a good part of the match, only to be let in through the benevolence of the gatekeepers barely ten minutes to the end of the game. ‘Ten Percent’ was the common parlance for this little misadventure back then.
Thankfully, all that is a thing of the past. Nowadays I can afford the occasional match ticket. The only worrying trend is the shrinking crowds, which have dampened the once memorable stadium experience. Gone are the days of the bitter rivalry pitting Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards that would practically bring all business in town to a standstill on the day of the big derby. The intensity and hype of the pre-match buildup and thereafter the celebration parties that would often degenerate into running battles between the two group of fans by far makes the so called Man U-Arsenal charades in Nairobi’s drinking holes a mere child’s play.
But its not all gloom to those who, like me, still hold the beautiful game close to heart. For me, the football stadium remains the choice destination on any Saturday afternoon. Yes, the matches are rather drab but all the sideshows by devout and passionate fans on the terraces makes up for all the bad football.