Sports

Nick Mwendwa and the fall and fall of Kenyan football

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After a delightful dance in Burkina Faso’s box, John Baraza pulled the trigger and buried the ball into the net — and effectively gave Kenya’s football a rare moment of pride. It had been a riotous half hour in Tunis and Harambee Stars had turned the West Africans inside-out. Final result: Kenya 3-0 Burkina Faso.

This was 19 long years ago at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Tunisia. That this was a dead rubber contest, after the national team had crashed out of the continental showpiece with earlier defeats against Mali and Senegal, didn’t dampen Kenyans’ optimism. Harambee Stars had saved face.

Subsequent performances by the national side read like a horror script. Afcon and World Cup qualifiers always, predictably, end in defeat, agony and humiliation. Little wonder, then, that Kenya has appeared in Afcon only once (2019) in the last 17 years.

Continentally, Harambee Stars have become every side’s favourite punching bag and recent embarrassing defeats against minnows Comoros and Eritrea are testament to their frightfully skidding fortunes. For now, qualifying for the next World Cup in Qatar is out of the question.

To put the skid into perspective, the Burkina Faso team that Harambee Stars dispatched with aplomb that afternoon in Tunis isn’t the same anymore. At position 62 in the Fifa ranking, the West Africans today feature 40 places above Kenya. To local football fans, there’s no limit to how low the national football team can sink. First, they were outraged by poor shows, then they were embarrassed. These days fans are numb to defeats.

So, where did the rain start beating Harambee Stars? From misappropriation of funds to absurd team selection tactics, a high turnover of coaches and political interference, Harambee Stars suffers all manner of ills that could possibly bedevil a national football team.

Former Football Kenya Federation (FKF) president Sam Nyamweya, whose time in office was also marked by various controversies, says his successor Nick Mwendwa has completely mismanaged football.

‘‘We’re in a serious hole,” says Nyamweya. “You can’t have six national team coaches in five years and expect to have stability.’’

Few jobs in Kenya have a higher turnover than the Harambee Stars assignment. So temporary is the job that it’s become a revolving door. In the last 10 years alone, the team has been managed by 10 coaches, seven of them under Mr Mwendwa. Some of these coaches have lasted only a few weeks on the job.

When Francis Kimanzi left the coaching job in a cloud of mystery in 2020, the national team’s future was plunged into uncertainty. But the departure also highlighted the toxic environment that Harambee Stars coaches have had to work in under the current FKF administration.

Says Nyamweya: ‘‘Kimanzi has been one of our most consistent coaches. He fell out with FKF because, unlike other coaches, he refused to be arm-twisted.’’

Then there’s a culture of intimidation at FKF and interdependence between the federation, the media, former and current coaches and commentators. The result has been a toxic environment that makes it difficult to address outstanding issues.

For starters, a majority of these professionals can’t antagonise the federation, even when things are spiralling south. Secondly, few would speak about the ills on record.

When contacted by this reporter to shed light on the relationship between coaches and the federation, former Stars coach Jacob ‘‘Ghost’’ Mulee declined to comment on the subject and hang up. He did not respond to text messages either.

Each regime has had its successes and failures. One sports writer says Nyamweya’s tenure at FKF was characterised by “high-handness and corruption” among other allegations. How does he assess his term?

‘I wasn’t perfect, but football in this country was stable. We also accounted for all the money that the federation received from the government, FIFA and other sponsors. People called me arrogant but only because I stood my ground. Kenyans today acknowledge that we fared better in football during my time,” he says.

If he did so well, why, then didn’t Mr Nyamweya defend his seat? “It’s a thankless job and sometimes you get fed up from being sabotaged. You have your family and businesses to run. I chose not to contest in 2016.”

At the core of woes facing Harambee Stars and football in the country is corruption at the federation. The list of misappropriated resources runs long and thick. In 2016, the year Mr Mwendwa took over at FKF, for instance, Kenya was to buy an Outside Broadcasting (OB) van to help in broadcast of matches. To facilitate this purchase, FIFA disbursed Sh135 million to Kenya. No van was bought.

And in the build-up to the 2019 Afcon in Egypt, the government and the Confederation of African football (CAF) gave out more than Sh240 million to facilitate Harambee Stars during the tournament. Again, these funds disappeared without a trace.

Coming at a time when Kenya has been struggling to attract sponsors, the blow couldn’t have been more fatal. “The buck stops at the federation. It’s up to them to account for the funds,” Mr Nyamweya says.

If pilferage and mismanagement have run Kenya’s football down, political interference has sealed its fate. Some of the federation officials are said to have political godfathers, including senior State officers, who shield them from ouster.

“Mwendwa’s candidature was pushed by a former Sports minister,” says Nyamweya, adding that Mr Mwendwa is also close to a senior serving government official.

Nyamweya goes on to claim that powerful individuals have been using the federation to push their political agenda. With more than four million active fans, this makes football a rich hunting ground for politicians.

“I refused to be manipulated,” he says. “That’s when my politically motivated frustrations at the federation began. The minister blocked funds so that Kenya couldn’t play an Afcon qualifiers match against Cape Verde to embarrass me.”

Veteran football manager and Mathare United Football Club founder Bob Munro sees the fall of the national football through a more solemn perspective. To Mr Munro, Harambee Stars are a major force in promoting national cohesion, pride and integration.

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“When Harambee Stars are playing there are no Luos, Kikuyus, Kambas or Luhyas. Only Kenyans cheering their national team. In a pre-election year, especially, it’s so sad that the national football team won’t be playing any international matches,” Munro laments.

Officials at the federation, he says, must understand the “national responsibility” that the body has in bringing the country together.

The sudden retirement of former Harambee Stars captain Victor Wanyama from international duty shocked many Kenyans. To football insiders, though, his departure had been expected, if long overdue.

Wanyama’s relationship with senior football officials had deteriorated for years. The dispute? Unpaid allowances and bonuses for players who had represented Kenya at the 2019 Afcon in Egypt.

“We were paying our foreign-based players Sh5,000 and Sh3,000 to local-based players per day while on duty with the national team. Today they’re being paid Sh700. That money isn’t enough for transport alone,” Nyamweya says.

By demanding the payout, Wanyama had dug his own career grave. The former Tottenham Hotspurs player, who now plays in the United States Major League Soccer, would be humiliated by officials who allegedly instructed “coaches not to give him a call-up” to the national side even when he was easily the most experienced player in the team.

Internationally, disputes involving national team captains are so grave they rattle entire football systems. Were England captain Harry Kane, for instance, to resign suddenly, shockwaves would be felt across the English football landscape. At Harambee Stars, life goes on after the departure of the most prolific players.

When he was elected in 2016, Mr Mwendwa was a breath of fresh air. An excitable orator, he spoke with the eagerness of a reformist. His passion, intensity and desire to turn tables were palpable.

And, he said, he was a young man who had been involved in grassroots football, mainly through the successful Kariobangi Sharks team. To many, this is what had been missing in the country’s football jigsaw. Uh-oh.

Five years later, a horror show is perhaps the most fitting way to describe the state of the national team.

Our source says that while Mr Nyamweya left Kenyan football “on its knees”, Mr Mwendwa plunged it into ICU (Intensive Care Unit)

She says: “This is the worst FKF management since independence.”

A bone of contention was the recent hiring of the current Stars manager Engin Firat. First, the contract was only two months. For a team that’s looking to build stability to get back into contention, many have rubbished this contract as short-sighted.

That the Turk hadn’t won a single match in 11 outings with Moldova, his previous team, counted for little to dissuade federation officials from that outrageous piece of business.

Kenya couldn’t engage a top coach.

A tried professional would cost the country millions of shillings in compensation in the event of a premature termination of contract.

To the federation, saving money, not salvaging the country’s football, comes first.

However, this FKF regime has sacked coaches without following due process, opening the door for lawsuits and eventual hefty pay outs that have been borne by taxpayers. When he was terminated in 2019, Frenchman Sebastien Migne, for instance, received a payout of Sh50 million. And when Adel Amrouche left in 2014, FKF was due to pay him Sh109 million as damages for irregular sacking.

“When you hire a coach, you must pay them. If you don’t, FIFA will force you to pay them. These professionals are protected by the body,” Mr Nyamweya notes.

But it’s in selection of the national team where greater absurdities lie, say football insiders. Notably, grave accusations have surfaced to the effect that the FKF president has been handpicking players to represent the country, including from Kariobangi Sharks, which is associated with him.

Says football analyst Odindo Ayieko: “Mwendwa handpicks the coach and coaches him how to run the national team. When the team loses, he (claims) there’s no football talent in Kenya. No footballer is proud of such a leader.”

One of our sources, who spoke to this reporter on condition of anonymity, said the government is aware of financial impropriety at the federation, adding: “It’s up to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to apprehend the culprits.” On Thursday this week the High Court allowed the DCI to investigate the alleged misappropriation of federation money.

Football experts in the country are divided on whether the government should step in to restore order. While some say the Ministry of Sports and Culture should rein in rogue football leaders, others frown at the suggestion.

“We should never dare the government to get involved in football affairs. The State has the power and tools to do anything, with disastrous consequences,” says a former television football commentator, who did not want to be named.

Globally, rules of the game are clear: only national federations are recognised by the world football governing body, Fifa, to run football in any country. These restrictions bar the State from meddling in the affairs of the game.

Somewhat, this offers federation officials immunity from ouster. “When an official takes plea in court, you can’t kick them out. They’re protected by Fifa,” explains Mr Nyamweya.

All week, football coaches, former players and other stakeholders have called for Mr Mwendwa’s resignation. It remains to be seen if he will step out with three years remaining in his term.

His track record notwithstanding, the FKF president, though, has been consistent in one area: his oratorical finesse. Often, he has ended putting his foot in the mouth.

Not even bringing Jose Mourinho or Mikel Arteta would turn fortunes of the national team around, was his claim this week. The remarks sparked outrage among football professionals and fans in Kenya.

Mr Mwendwa did not immediately respond to our enquiries. For now, he talks on as Harambee Stars teeters ever closer to the trapdoor to oblivion. BY DAILY NATION


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