As the country delves into the “hustler vs dynasty” politics, it seems the “hustlers” have the upper hand in the infamous proletariat revolution in the football world. While sports is a matter of grit and gut, footballers from plush backgrounds find it hard to break even in the local scene. And even when they do, they face prejudice from coaches and teammates alike.
“Huchezi kama mtu ametoka ubabini” (You don’t play like someone born in affluence) was what Otieno Pala, a Poster Rangers player, was once told by his coach at Ligi Ndogo.
Innocent as that statement is, it defines the state of local football across all tiers.
Despite sports providing a unifying avenue for diverse cultures, it is also breeding ground for discrimination and bigotry from players and fans alike. For example, the football world has witnessed lewd events of racism, so much that FIFA has joined in on the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. In article 4 of FIFA’s statutes, discrimination against people on race, gender, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, disability, language and religion is prohibited and may lead to suspension or expulsion.
From Ronaldo to Bolt to Lebron James to the home-grown “Lion of Muthurwa”; Victor Wanyama, the sports world is marred with “from rags to riches” stories. It is perhaps because for such people, even with the apparent presence of talent, sports is conceivably their only way out of desolation. Indeed it is a justifiable means to an end, and it makes a good story, one that the working class can resonate with. But what happens when talented people are denied a place in the team because of their opulent social class?
For one Otieno Pala, who grew up in Langata, how he made it to top-flight football remains a mystery to his boyhood teammates who played at Ligi Ndogo, a football academy in Ngong.
“We have a WhatsApp group, and they cannot believe I play in Kenya’s top flight. I was equally amazed when I signed a deal with Sofapaka. It was an unreal moment,” he says.
Making his dream debut under former Posta Rangers’ coach Sammy “Pamzo” Omollo, Pala admits his journey to Kenya’s top-flight football is one for the books. Having found no success in local clubs, he got a chance to play for clubs in the 7th and 9th tier in England. Pala, who had no hopes for playing local football after his stint in the UK, admits that the prejudice he faced as a young player in Kenya is the same bias he faces despite being a premier league player.
“The discrimination is still there. I still face it in Posta Rangers,” he laments. But I have learnt to adapt.”
An Uber driver, it does not help that he drives to practice when his teammates take the team bus to practice and games. Having been dismissed by Sofapaka in 2020, Pala had to service a loan to buy a car for taxi services to fend for himself during the pandemic.
His demeanour, often a determining factor of your social status in football circles, rarely gives him away. Donning free form dreadlocks, a striped t-shirt and sweatpants, Pala discloses that he had to adapt to look the part. Modestly, he admits, he is aware of the class disparity, but it doesn’t faze him, except for when it is mentioned in a negative light.
“It reached a part where I had to become smart. Something just clicked, and I stopped talking a lot about myself. In some instances, I have had to lie to show that I’m not from an advantaged family,” he said.
The subjectivity of what makes a good player leaves a lot of room for politics in team selection. Whether it is tact, brawn or work ethic, coaches field players for various reasons. Moreover, different coaches prefer a specific calibre of players. Pamzo, an assistant coach at Gor Mahia FC, likes experienced players in the central defence and goalkeeping department. But does the social status of the players affect him?
“It doesn’t. If he ticks all the boxes that I look for in a player, such as good discipline, talent and effort, he will thrive in my team. But if it is a matter of their social status, it does affect some coaches,” he said.
Unlike the football market in Europe’s elite leagues, coaches in Kenya earn more than the players. In fact, they are part of the player’s salary negotiations. This may be a precedent for why Pamzo thinks some coaches may not choose a player because of their social status.
“It comes down to the personality of a coach. If he has an inferiority complex, it will probably affect him; for example, it may offend a coach when the player comes to the pitch driving, yet the coach does not own a car.”
During a Kenya Women’s Premier League match involving Gaspo Women against Kayole Starlets at Ruiru Stadium in Kiambu county, an unlikely crowd gathered to watch what would turn out to be an upset in women’s top-flight football, with underdog Kayole Starlets bagging four goals against the Gatundu based football club. While that could have easily gone unnoticed by the oblivious fans who were perhaps drawn to the pitch because of the production truck that was streaming the game live, what also stood out was a lush car parked next to the production team. It turned out it belonged to a family that had come to watch their daughter turn out for Gaspo.
Coach Maluki Isaac of Gaspo Women admits that social prejudice happens in the local scene, stating that the players are often viewed as “untouchable” or “not talented enough.”
“This mostly happens in football academies where players are often stereotyped to come from affluence. On the contrary, these are talented kids, yet most of them do not make it to top-flight because of discrimination,” he said.
Veteran footballer, Peter Opiyo, acknowledges that the stereotype exists, saying: “Some coaches may assume the player is not putting in enough effort because they have little to lose,” he states.
But he asks a pertinent question. “Does it mean if I work hard and become rich, my child should not play football even when they are talented?”
Such scenes of a player’s family coming to watch them play are unlikely even in men’s football. Often, parents from wealthy homes reprimand their kin for playing football. Compared to players whose only hope of making it out of the “hood” is through football, players from rich backgrounds face gruelling conditioning from their parents against pursuing the sport as a career. In the face of all that, players from plush lifestyles still hold dreams of playing in Kenya’s top-flight football. Some parents, even, buy-in on the vision and enrol their children in academies.
Elite Soccer Academy is one such entity. Located in Karen, the academy is home to U19 players who balance school work and football practice. As such, they only practice during weekends. Pamzo believes that just enrolling in an academy is not enough.
“I look at street footballers. Players like Maradona, Ronaldhino, Messi, and Pamzo started as street footballers who played for five hours without anyone to guide them. The decision making is up to them,” he said. “Therefore, someone who only plays during the weekend for two hours cannot surely compete against street footballers.”
Still, these academies brag of producing players who play in Europe’s elite leagues. Richard Odada, who went through the ranks in Elite, plays in Serbia’s premier league. Eric Mulu, a Ligi Ndogo prodigy, competes in Spain for CD Almunecar City. Ayub Timbe, a regular in the Kenyan National team and recently signed a professional contract in Japan’s premier league, is also from Ligi Ndogo. This begs the question if these academies can produce players who meet international standards, why do they struggle to make it in local football?
Philip Muia, an assistant coach at Liberty Sports Academy, expresses that a lot factors into the selection of a player in the local big clubs. He states that sometimes, players need someone to put a word in for them to get selected. He agrees that despite prejudice being there, it is often implied or passive.
Not every player who features in these academies comes from a wealthy home, where parents can foot bills, should they get an opportunity to attend trials abroad. This leaves them to fight for opportunities in local clubs. As blurred as the line is on discrimination, so it is when it comes to determining what social background a player is from, especially on the pitch.
The discrimination from coaches might be passive, but football fans do not hide their stance.
Ligi Ndogo’s captain, Christian Lubulu, tells how he has experienced tongue-in-cheek comments on the pitch by fans.
“They call us ‘watoto wa spaghetti’,” he says.
Whether to imply that spaghetti is food consumed by the bourgeois or that players cannot deal with the game’s physicality because of their diet, the true meaning is left to the unknowing to demystify.
They say “literature is the mirror to society”. In this case, so is sports. As rampant and as expected as it is in society, class conflict is alive and kicking in local football. And the rich are crying.