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Why Kenyans are crazy about foreign football

Last week my respected fellow columnist Professor Makau Mutua laid into Kenyans for following English rather than Kenyan football. The good professor was concerned about this new “colonisation” of the minds of Kenyans by its former ruler.

Now, I have raged against inauthenticity and mindless mimicry myself many a time on this page, so why should Prof Mutua’s diatribe worry me? I am usually incensed by those Kenyans who don’t teach their children their mother tongues, and by those who twist their mouths into unnatural shapes in a misguided attempt to sound like they were born American.

But the support of English and European soccer, I would like to suggest, has different roots. The professor is quite right to observe its obsessive nature; many Kenyan men can think of little better to occupy their spare time than the manic pursuit of their favourite footballing side. But why do these Kenyans spend so much time, money and effort following a “foreign” team, rather than patriotically supporting “one of their own?”

The professor knew the answer, but chose not to dwell on it. He wrote: “You are going to say that the state of Kenyan soccer is so mediocre that no pleasure could be derived from it.” If he had watched Harambee Stars lose to Mozambique last Sunday, he would know that his statement is utterly, comprehensively true. Kenya’s English Premiership fans are not rejecting their nation; they are embracing excellence.

When I was a boy, Kenyan soccer had some substance and some excitement around it. The exploits of the AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia of the day were real talking points. But let us never forget that we are referring to Abaluhya and Luo Union respectively (until the cosmetic name change). These were palpably tribal teams, supported to the hilt – by their tribesmen. If we have left that tendency behind and started supporting multicultural teams (even if they are foreign), I would argue that this is progress.

What else are Kenyan football consumers rejecting? The awful shambles that is football administration in this country. I don’t believe I have the words with which to describe how bad our running of football is. It should be a case study in managerial incompetence, corruption and parochialism. We have put thugs, comedians and charlatans in charge of our national game. If the result is that no one wants to watch it any more, we should not be surprised.

The procession of failed national coaches, each one complaining about payment not received, says it all. The refusal of our best players to play locally speaks volumes. The haggles over allowances, the shambolic elections, the name-calling and mudslinging, the breakaway leagues – none of it bears repeating. No one in their right mind would want to be associated with this mess.

Where the professor is unrealistic is in asking individual Kenyans to be patriotic and support their local and national teams regardless of how bad they are. The average consumer will go for the product which offers the greatest entertainment, value and accessibility. In the past twenty or so years, that product has been the English Premier League (EPL). And it is followed not just by Kenyans, but by football lovers all over the globe – including those with great leagues of their own, such as Spain and Germany, and who were never colonised.

Professor Mutua is also wrong in attributing this to a love of things English. The intense attachment to the EPL grew when it turned into a global product attracting the best players in the world – not when it was a scruffy English affair. This should be obvious when you consider that most Kenyans turn to supporting Brazil, not England, when it comes to country tournaments. And I predict that if and when Spain’s La Liga surpasses the EPL in attracting the best players, our interest will move in that direction.

So this is no colonial hangover – it is globalisation. Asking Kenyans to buy a bad local product is the same thing that was done by our toilet-paper manufacturers in the 1990s. I remember when they ganged up to place adverts pleading with Kenyans to “buy Kenyan and build Kenya.” But what they were asking Kenyans to do was buy something that bore more resemblance to sandpaper than soft tissue, at high cost. Needless to say, there were few who risked their backsides. Kenyan toilet paper was only improved by the foreign competitive onslaught, not by misplaced patriotism.

Salvation may come from the private sector – when someone is given the incentive to make money from good football. But here too frustration rules the day. The recent debacle with renaming Nyayo stadium sent Coca-Cola, a huge global patron of soccer, running for cover. At a stroke, we could have had a refurbished and renovated national stadium. But we chose to play narrow politics, and Kenyan football fans switched off. They will delight in supporting local sides – when someone gives them a reason to.

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