Late last year Football Kenya Federation launched the 10-year strategic plan for the development of football in Kenya. I have not managed to trace the document but I have read references to the same. One of the key proposals by the federation is to have an expanded premier league, from 16 to 18 teams; an approach that seeks to give more players a chance to grow and develop the standard and quality of the game. This is currently a major bone of contention in a war pitting the federation on one side and the Kenyan Premier League on the other, but that is a story for another day. This article aims to propose a strategy for football development in Kenya and Africa as a whole.
In a country where more than 40% of the population is aged between 0 and 24, the age where in my opinion talent can be discovered, nurtured and fulfilled, I think the proposed strategy does not suffice. From the face of things, it looks like a top-down quick fix approach that does little to aid the growth and development of football. Having two extra teams will only increase the number of participants by a maximum of 60 players; the quality of players would also be questionable. You might argue that the effect will trickle down the structure, but that is where the real question comes in: where is the structure?
The Education System
For football to grow and develop it is my view that Kenya and by extension Africa should take advantage of already existing structures, systems and facilities in coming up with a strategy. The education system is a great place to start; and more so at the primary school level, where enrollment is estimated at 112%.
During my primary school years, I always looked forward to break time and lunch time – food was rarely the reason. It was time to run down the field for a match of football. We would quickly organise ourselves into 2 teams, or in some cases we had organised to play against other classes so we had line-ups already drawn up. Break time match was too short, maximum 30 minutes, with the teacher on duty often having to “blow the final whistle”. The second half often started around 1 pm, usually after a quick bite. Never mind some times we would have up to 3 matches in one pitch, just don’t get in the way of the older boys!
However, the matches were not always possible, as some times we did not have a ball to play with. I remember once after a few weeks of not being able to play, Dann came up with a proposal. He could manage KES 300 and he wanted the rest of the class to contribute the rest. A good ball cost about KES 700 then. Within a week we had raised the money and we had a class ball – a show of great organisation and passion at an early age. This is something that football administrators should tap into.
In our quest to develop the great game, I believe we should take advantage of the school system. We should make football (and other sports) a key part of the school curriculum. In my primary school we had two periods per week dedicated to swimming classes and even though I did not like it I learned how to swim. Those who were naturally talented ended up doing very well, representing the school at various levels. They also got extra hours in the swimming pool during breaks and after regular classes all the time supervised by qualified trainers. Imagine if we had the same for football, where natural talent is in abundance. The facilities are already there as most primary schools have a football pitch. We should only look into ways of improving the same while protecting them from proxy owners.
Schools in partnership with the football federation can employ qualified or even trainee coaches who can supervise the game, teach the theories of the sport and identify and develop talents. We constantly complain about the lack of proper youth structures as one of the main reasons football has failed to develop in Kenya. Some people have tried to set up academies or hold tournaments to tap young talent but the results have not been forthcoming. In my opinion most of these academies are set up with very narrow and selfish goals, top of which is spot talent good enough for a trial in some European country. It is high time we considered developing talent for our own ‘market’ thereby raising the standard of the game. Only then will the international market value what we have to offer. A good number of talented players have travelled abroad in the name of trials only to return a few months down the line, often being told that they lack an understanding of the game.
My brief stint here in Europe has made me understand the reason behind the poor show of most Kenyan trialists. I have watched children as young as 6 participate in training sessions. Some of the drills they are being taken through are the things I was learning while playing for Strathmore University FC under my first qualified coach, Mickey Weche. I was over 20 years old then. Take the case of Wesley Sneijder, Dutch international currently playing for Galatasaray S.K, who joined the Ajax Youth Academy at the age of 7, the same time I was joining primary school. He is approximately 2 months older than I am. He graduated from the academy at the age of 16; I had still not played under a qualified coach. Of course the Dutch system is a very high bar to compare to, but what is clear is that we need a system that works for us. We have neither the resources nor the time to start investing in youth academies. We have schools. A few hours per week of organised football (and other sports) will not only develop and grow the game but will also help the youth develop key life skills such as confidence, leadership, teamwork and self-esteem. These are skills that even those who do not take up football as a career will find very useful.
A Tool for Economic and Social Development
Some might argue that developing football through schools is perhaps a lack of priorities for a country where formal education is greatly valued. It is interesting to learn that the same scenario is observed in the early medieval era where official orders were issued which sought to ban, control or restrict the game. In his book The Ball is Round – A Global History of Football, David GoldBlatt observes that at one point, there was a need for the populace to focus on archery as a rationale for controlling the game. A statute of Edward IV from 1477 reads, ‘No person shall practice any unlawful games such as dice, quoits, football and such games, but that every strong and able-bodied person shall practise with the bow for the reason that the national defence depends upon such bowmen.’
Indeed the prosperity of a country depends largely on the quality and spread of eduction, the modern-day bow, but you cannot underestimate the value of football (sports) in the same society; and the need for the two to co-exist in a bid to grow and develop the quality and standard of both.
With the current team, “TeamChange”, led by Nick Mwendwa having been in office for slightly over a year now it is rather unnerving that we still do not have a clear (documented) strategy on the way forward. Perhaps more time is needed and just to give credit where it is due we have already seen some improvements, especially in Women’s football. However, a lot remains to be seen and done in the coming year and beyond.