Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Will the Mariga Factor Spill Over?

With just five minutes remaining on the clock and Inter Milan comfortably coasting to a would be famous victory over Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League, TV pictures beamed a footage that will forever remain etched in the memory of many Kenyan football fans. A boyish smirk plastered all over his face, a nervous-looking MacDonald Mariga responded to coach Jose Mourinho's last minute touchline instructions with rhythmic nods of the head.

That was the night of 16th March 2010 and history was in the making. A minute later, the lanky attacking midfielder strode into the hallowed grounds of Stamford Bridge as a replacement of Dutch cross-master Wesley Sneidjer. It can only be left to the figment of one's imagination the immense swelling of emotion that must have been bubbling inside this young lad at that historic moment.

And this outpouring of emotions for the unprecedented achievement by 'one of our own' was just too infectious. At my Eastlands humble aboard, Mariga's cameo appearance was greeted with a spontaneous round of rousing applause from the many adjoining dingy video showrooms. Even in the studious of a local TV channel, FKL Technical Director Patrick Naggi was visibly besides himself with pride as he heaped superlative upon superlative on Mariga - his one time protégé at the defunct Kenya Pipeline FC.

It was while we were all wallowing at the apex of that dizzying height that it somehow occurred to many of us that the furore over Mariga's botched move to Manchester City only a few weeks earlier had been misplaced after all. Inter Milan was definitely a blessing in disguise!

With that single act, Mariga had singlehandedly put Kenya on the world map in a sport that we are still considered lightweights. Many years from now (or perhaps just a few), many other Kenyan players will follow in Mariga's footsteps and don the famous colours of some of the best European clubs. Its not a question of if, but rather when this prophesy will be fulfilled. And that in itself portends another question; which way forward now that Mariga has broken all barriers for us?

While it is in order to acknowledge Mariga's accolades, it would be be foolhardy to connotate this great achievement as rocket science. There are certainly many more Mariga's and Olieches waiting to be discovered.

Though its common knowledge that the root course of our football's near death is chronic maladministration of the game by selfish football officials, it would be pointless to dwell on these sideshows here.

For now, it is imperative that we quickly get over this “feel good” effect occasioned by Mariga's exploits. The sooner the better (“hatujafika bado”). Of primary significance now is how to land many more Marigas in the Italian Serie A, the English Premier League and even the lucrative Spanish La Liga.

A good starting point is through tournaments like the just concluded Super 8 and Pepeta Ball football tournaments as well as the ongoing Copa Coca Cola. We could even engage a latter-day “Bernard Zgoll” to revive and revamp the defunct Youth Olympic Centers across the country. This personality would be mandated with the responsibility of using such tournaments in identifying raw talent from the grassroots. Thereafter, a sound follow-through program would be set up to nurture and develop these young players.

Football is all about continuity; with time these players would mature and step-up into the big leagues both locally and internationally when the big boys call it time. As they say, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. This is the way all the other continental powerhouses like Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Egypt have gone to achieve their degree of success. Kenya can only do itself a big favour by aping our 'big brothers' from the West and the North if we ever hope to see many more Marigas doing us proud in European Leagues.

The Face of Hooliganism

Any professional footballer would most probably attest to this- the sight and sound of thousands of screaming fans can be quite an intimidating prospect. Atleast when they are not singing and chanting your praises. It is not uncommon for visiting teams to conveniently blame their loss on the unforgiving twelfth man – the fans!

It was a different story all together last Friday afternoon when Gor Mahia FC played Nairobi City Stars to an empty gallery at the Nyayo National Stadium, following the Independent Disciplinary and Appeals Committee's (IDAC) ruling over alleged misconduct by the former's fans during a previous league match.

If a full to capacity attendance can be intimidating, on the converse, an empty one can be unflatteringly imposing by the depth of its hollowness. What with the reverberating echoes of agitated team officials shouting instructions on the touchline ringing out against the yawning terraces.

For once Gor Mahia's players would have to endure the full ninety minutes on the pitch devoid of the familiar “Gor Biro, Yawne Yo!” war-song that has spurred them on to many memorable conquests in the past. But K'ogallo is famous for its religiously loyal fans who can practically move heaven and earth just to cheer their team to victory.

Long before the 3pm kick-off time, a seizable horde of Gor Mahai fans are already milling around the VIP Entrance. Inspite of the heavy police presence around the stadium's precincts, its just business as usual for these fans – even if it means following the proceedings from outside the stadium.

Inside the stadium, a dull scenario plays itself out as both teams labour through an uneventful first half, though the Kawangware-based Stars seem to be the more composed and creative side. All nought stands the half time score.

Come second half and the power balance dramatically shifts in favour of the home team. Just ten minutes after the breather, a goal bound shot from George 'Blackberry' Odhiambo is handled in the box by a City Stars defender. After much remonstration, a calm Julius 'Awilo' Owino coolly slots in the penalty for K'ogallo.

Now thats when the house come down! Jubilation rings out around the ghost arena. But where are the fans? Lo and behold... a closer scrutiny reveals a handful of fans precariously clutched from the outside of Gate 3 on the eastern side of the stadium. What innovation!

But more drama is still yet to come. A reckless challenge by Gor's centre half Mohammed Musa on Jimmy Bageye inside the box wins City Stars a penalty in the 75th minute. A perfect chance to even the score. Gor Mahia bench as expected is livid. Their indignation is however allayed by their custodian Fredrick Onyango who stretches full length to parry a weak shot from ex-international Justus Basweti for an abortive corner.

Unfortunately, thats just about it as a far as action on the pitch is concerned. An industrious yet clueless City Stars is left huffing and puffing for the next quarter of an hour to no avail. Its a sweet first win of the season for Mighty Gor... and how the fans who had been camping outside the stadium all along celebrate!

“Beneungeyo... Ndalooo... Ndalo Machon... Ok newangeyo!!”

“Gooorr... Gor Mahia... Pinje duto ywakni!!”

The loyal fans are in a carnival mood and it all calls for a song and dance as the gates are finally flung open for the marauding crowd. “Nyaka wagwedh pap” (we have to bless this stadium), one jubilant fan is heard saying.

But if you think that K'ogallo fans will just leave it at that having been denied a chance to watch their team chalk up a famous victory, you are dead wrong. Jubilation quickly degenerates to wrath as hooliganism which is almost synonymous with these fans rears its ugly head again. This time round their object of fury is non other than KPL CEO Jack Oguda whom they quickly find fault for their predicament.

One moment they are singing their hearts out, the next moment they are haranguing and roughing up the pitiful Oguda. Its only the swift and timely intervention of police officers that puts him out of harm's way in the face of a certainly nasty brush with the infamously notorious K'ogallo fans. As a rule of thumb, at this point its time to make a quick beeline for the exit.