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Learn from this failing football club

May 31, 2009 Strategy, Sunday Nation

Newcastle United got relegated from the English Premier League last week.

“Say what”? I hear some (but not all) of you shout in unison. Don’t we get enough mania about foreign football in this country, without ‘A Sunny Day’ adding to the madness? Is it not enough that a deranged young Kenyan recently killed himself, just because his favourite (English) team lost a game? This is too much!

Stay tuned. Newcastle United FC have something to teach us. They are a proud club with an impressive history – or are they? This team has won the English top league four times, and the FA Cup competition six times. Not bad? Well…the last league success was in, wait for it…1927.

80 years of non-achievement, however, did not appear to put any dent in the club’s self-image. It has a manic-obsessive fan base called the ‘Toon Army’, which provides unstinting support to the club come rain or shine. The club itself often refers to itself as one of “the great clubs of Europe”. Why exactly, is not clear.

The Toon Army consists primarily of ‘Geordies’, the hardy inhabitants of the North-East of England. These are interesting folk. I once visited Newcastle city in the depths of winter. I found many youngsters out on the street on a bitterly cold night with the temperature hovering around zero degrees. They were standing outside pubs and clubs, as young folk do. But here’s the thing: all the young men were wearing white tee-shirts and jeans; all the young women were wearing the tiniest of black skirts.

Their pale skin appeared frozen. When I dared to ask why they would put themselves through this needless torture, why they could not wear coats and scarves, or just stand indoors, the answer was simple: they were “hard”. Meaning tough and rugged. Or perhaps it just means obstinately stupid. You tell me. The football fans are “hard”, too. Last week they stood chanting defiance as their club went down into the second division. I didn’t really know whether to applaud their resilience or marvel at their refusal to face reality. In the end, I didn’t clap.

The fact is, Newcastle United’s wounds are all self-inflicted. A sorry circus of club owners, managers and coaching staff have brought the club to ruin. The club has changed its manager nine times in the past twelve years – and four times in the current season. It spends plenty of money on players – none of whom deliver anything. Newcastle United is where ‘mitumba’ English players seem to go to die. And amidst all this non-performance, the fans keep chanting their support and their imagined greatness.

Dysfunctional leadership, inept management, delusional supporters: does that sound familiar, people of Kenya? We have just recorded 1.7% growth in GDP in 2008 – but our leaders kept telling us were looking at 10 or 7 or 5 per cent, in the face of all the evidence. Like Newcastle United, Kenya imagines it plays in some big leagues when it is often a laughable also-ran most of the time. Leaders are utterly detached from realities on the ground, and seem to occupy a cloud on which cuckoos sing “ten per cent growth” and “industrialised nation”.

For years, we have mocked our neighbours and talked down to them. We have considered them our unsophisticated cousins. Today, things appear a little different, do they not? Rwanda has taken over as the economic growth story, clocking in excess of 11 per cent last year. Uganda is the military force in the region. Tanzania is the darling of development partners. We, the ‘regional hub’, are meanwhile unable to build an international airport fit for purpose; unable to run a simple railway line; unable to maintain a road network that works.

I know this sounds harsh, but I think it is high time Kenya came off its high horse and faced facts. A few limousines, mansions, and skyscrapers do not indicate a great country. Until we are able to talk about the living standards of the mass of the people, we have nothing to say. It matters little that we have pockets of world-class practice: development touches the common people or it is meaningless.

As things stand, we live in a country where leaders are afraid to attend national rallies for fear of heckling; where youth militias thrive unchecked; where an honest person is hard to find; where the poor immolate themselves every time a tanker overturns.

Newcastle United, now that it is not by any stretch of anyone’s fevered imagination a great club, has the opportunity to reinvent itself. It can clear the decks and start over. It can sweep out its failed leaders, and it can embrace a gritty realism that might actually take it somewhere.

You can only address a problem once you accept that it exists. For too long, we in Kenya have hidden behind former glories and faded heydays. Our current reality demands that we admit our failures and ignite wholehearted change.

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