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Kenya has great runners, so why not footballers? An economist explains…

“At the London Olympics, Kenyans won eleven medals, two of them gold. Although more were expected, Kenya remains the global powerhouse in running…Many other countries can only dream of achieving Kenya’s Olympic performance. At the same time, Kenya is underperforming in many other sports, especially in the nation’s other favourite: football. Why such a difference?”

WOLFGANG FENGLER Realizing the Kenyan Dream (2013)

Wolfgang Fengler has been the World Bank’s Lead Economist in Nairobi for a few years. He is a man with great zest for this part of the world, as well as a powerful analytical mind. So far so good, but Wolfgang has a third attribute: he can write clearly and plainly – which, frankly, is not the norm in the economics profession.

Wolfgang has been typing out a regular column in the Daily Nation for some time now, and the best of the bunch have recently been collected in a book, ‘Realizing the Kenyan Dream.’

Today, let’s look at one of the more thought-provoking ones, excerpted above. Kenyans are world-beaters when it comes to athletics. Yet it is not our national or even favourite sport. That honour belongs to football. So why should we be brilliant in one, and perennial underperformers in the other?

The standard explanations for our running prowess hinge on things like altitude or physical aptitude or even genetics. So why don’t those things make us great at football too? We have so much additional passion for it, after all…

The truth of the matter lies more in the economics realm. Here’s one answer Wolfgang proposed: Football has more entry barriers than running does. Running just needs a pair of shoes – and even those have been optional for many of our greats. Soccer, on the other hand, requires proper pitches, kits, goalposts – and, more importantly, skilled coaches. It also needs well-organized competitions for players to grow and improve.

A second reason is universal: success breeds success. We had our early running greats in the 1970s: Kipchoge Keino and Ben Jipcho, to name just two. Their global success and accolades spurred on a whole generation of youngsters from their home areas to take up running. Bjorn Borg had a similar effect on Sweden.

But the most telling point is about industry structures. Team sports like soccer demand complex organizational structures. Well-run and well-funded teams are vital; as are credible and accountable governing authorities. In Kenya, as I have written elsewhere in the past, we handed over the running of football to political schemers and self-interested goons long ago. Our global standing of 123rd – both Congos are way ahead of us – says everything you need to know. It also tells us why a highly organized nation like Wolfgang’s own Germany is always near the top of the FIFA rankings.

There are wider lessons for success in any field. It isn’t enough to have some ‘natural’ advantages, like location or climate or good genes. Some critical ‘man-made’ advantages are also necessary, like strong leadership, good governance, proper structures and value systems. The latter set is fatally absent in Kenyan football, and therefore our footballing inadequacies are self-inflicted.

The sad thing is that a nation of soccer-mad youngsters is unable to distill that precious passion, unable to use it to fuel an economic engine and create value for the economy. Instead we fill the coffers of far-off teams in foreign lands, happily donating our best players, our attention and our spending to support teams we will never visit and players we will never meet.

This inability to create accountable structures or a national ethos will cost us dearly in any other industry that requires teamwork and collaborative effort. Football is not a game for politicians, but we have allowed it to be. An awful own goal, if ever there was one.

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