During the early stages of the African Cup of Nations tournament in Tunisia recently, we learned something important: that the defence of our national team, Harambee Stars, is ‘porous’. This was the adjective favoured by most local commentators, implying that the defence leaks goals. Actually, during the 3-1 and 3-0 thrashings that our boys suffered at the hands of Mali and Senegal respectively, our defence was more non-existent than porous. Opposing strikers seemed to be able to stroll into our penalty box at will and put the ball into the net. Indeed, our defenders seemed to think that they were there purely as observers.
Why did we put in such a dire performance in Tunisia? Why did we seem to have not even the basics of a defensive strategy in place for this tournament? Why, ask many, are we world-beaters at athletics, but nonentities in football? What do the countries that belittled us have that we do not? This column does not appear on the sports pages, so you will have guessed that my aim this Sunday is not to discuss football; rather, it is to get at the roots of our under-performance in this, and other, areas of endeavour.
Let us first take a closer look at the countries that orchestrated our humiliation in Tunisia. Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, is a barren and rugged land of farmers and fishermen. Two out of three people live below the poverty line. Its economy is dependent on cotton, and it gets by on the largesse of donors. Senegal’s economy is a bit stronger, but still heavily dependent on a single agricultural product – groundnuts. It also has the majority of its population below the poverty line (54 per cent), and has an economy approximately half the size of Kenya’s.
Clearly, these people are not better at football than us because they are richer or have access to more resources! Our usual excuse of being poor and lacking facilities will not wash here. Both Senegal and Mali, for all their economic handicaps, are achievers on the world football stage; we are not. Perhaps, then, we could try floating another balloon: could it be that they have more God-given, natural talent than we do? This too, I’m afraid, will not fly. It is not talent we lack; it is the ability to organise and manage our resources.
Take a look at another country, arguably the most consistently successful in world football. I refer not to Brazil, that wondrous producer of spectacularly skilful players. No, my interest is in Germany – whose national team is more like a well-oiled machine made up of precision parts. Mind-numbingly boring to watch, no doubt – but relentlessly successful. It matches Brazil in terms of the number of appearances in World Cup finals – six – but has been much more consistent over the years. Germany maintains its dour and colourless reliability, and keeps notching up results.
You would be hard put to name a single German player that you can recall on the basis of soaring natural talent – they tend to be efficient cogs in a machine that does the job. Talent, then, is a red herring when it comes to success in soccer. The ability to organise, plan, train, practice and practice again is at least as important. And that is precisely where Kenya comes unstuck.
Our preparation for Tunisia was a shambles. The management seemed unable to get the players together for meaningful preparation. The funds promised by government were not forthcoming until the eleventh hour. The team seemed to rely more on a wave of enthusiasm and goodwill from the public than on any serious groundwork. The resulting ‘porosity’ should not, therefore, have surprised any of us. We reaped as we sowed.
This failure to give priority to meaningful preparation, insightful planning, tight organisation, efficient processes and adequate motivation is a national disease. We have simply stopped giving importance to these things. Instead, we focus on individual status and personal enrichment. In Kenya, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.
Wherever there is a national activity with a pot of money attached – be it football, cricket, civic services, or a development project – a motley crew of undesirable characters rapidly congregates. These people are always driven by self-importance and personal gain, and almost never seem to have to good of the game or the people of the country at heart. Their managerial skills are usually measurable with a very small ruler. Yet somehow they will dominate, for years if not decades. They will steal, bully and manipulate their way forward. And they will, inexorably and predictably, bring the country down. In the economy as in football, we must expect many more three-nil thrashings if we allow this class of manager to stay in power.
Our world-class athletes saw this a long time ago, and rapidly made their own individual arrangements with overseas agents. They simply circumvented the monster that is Kenyan management. They make their own money and have access to others’ training facilities. They gain, the country misses another opportunity. It is a never-ending story.
Unfortunately, the example is set at the top, and this is where the problem starts. Consider this: if the Narc government had to form our national football team, what might such a squad look like? Well, for a start the captain would be perpetually on sick leave; when he made a rare appearance, his wife would promptly turn up to pull him off. His close friends in the team would pay no attention to the game, but would always be in the clubhouse plotting the downfall of other players, and indeed would keep arguing that the game needs to be played in an altogether different field, with different rules.
Another group of players would spend all their time agitating about not getting the strikers’ positions, and waving a tattered old team sheet (called an MOU) to prove their point. The newer, younger players would always be playing to the cameras and flashing empty smiles at the spectators. And at the touchline would be a band of mangy barking dogs, yapping and snarling on behalf of anyone willing to throw them some scraps. No real football would be played; no goals would be scored.
Good management starts at the top of an economy, and trickles down by example. If we do not insist on reform at the top, we will remain a fourth-division team. Consider this: it is estimated that there are now over 1,000 African footballers playing in Europe’s top leagues. Yet no African country (with the possible exception of South Africa) has a significant domestic league or adequate facilities. We are still exporting our raw human talent, just we do our unfinished raw materials. The finishing and the adding of value is done elsewhere. The real money is also made elsewhere. Until we learn to manage, that will remain the case.