When I suggested that Kenya would be next for ’1nildown2oneup’s' global Gooner tour I was overwhelmed with offers of assistance from those that follow my blog on twitter. I wanted to know why Arsenal, what it was like to be a Gunner in Kenya and how passionate Kenyan Gooners actually were? There were however two Gunners who put so much time and effort into what they sent me, it would have been pointless to break it up and use elements in my own blog. Quite frankly the writing was so good that I had two pieces that were obviously blogs in their own right. So without further a do let me introduce the first article from Fabien Odhiambo (@ilfabiano on twittter)
Oh, to be a Gooner! If you ask me, it’s the best feeling ever. Maybe you’d say sex probably trumps that. Well, I’m yet to find out. Growing up, I’ve always loved football, adored it even. Of course the team majorly responsible for this is Arsenal Football Club. Many people tend to ask in bewilderment why I’m so much into Arsenal, a team that is not even based in my continent, let alone my country Kenya. To be honest I’ve always found it difficult to explain this, most of the time I just smile and change subject because I know they wouldn’t understand me. Anyway, the issue here is why Arsenal is so big in Kenya. So I sought to dig into this and see what I could come up with.
First of all, we all know Kenya is a former British colony and also a member of the Commonwealth. Definitely ties between the two nations are always going to be strong and spill over to the other spheres of life, sport included. In the diaspora, Kenya is mainly known for our athletes who have always been world beaters in long distance running in major competitions. In fact one would be forgiven to think that athletics is Kenya’s national sport. This is not quite true. Football indeed is the number one sport in the country. Hence majority of Kenyans are drawn to the English Premier League which happens to belong to our former colonial masters. You get the feel that the most popular league in the country (apart from our own) was always going to be English. Just two weekends ago, the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. It should be remembered that she actually became Queen when in Kenya some sixty odd years ago. Yes, that’s right.
Great Britain and Kenyan, nations and people, a special friendship.
Anyway, enough of ties that bind us. The EPL is the best league in the world (arguably). Needless to say it is quite huge in Kenya. This is not to say that we don’t have a league of our own. Far from it, we have the Kenya Premier League, though for some reasons which I won’t touch on, it has perennially struggled to appeal to the common folk. The biggest Premier League clubs in Kenya are without a doubt Arsenal and Manchester United. In that order? Probably so I’m afraid. A few years ago, a survey held found out that Arsenal was the most widely supported EPL club not only in Kenya, but in East Africa. I don’t have the exact stats, so just take it as I’ve said. It should be observed that this survey was done before or at the onset of Arsenal’s infamous trophy drought and so the rankings may have changed (minimally). Nevertheless, together with Man United, Arsenal remains the best supported European club side in Kenya.
The Kenyan Premier League fails to inspire like the EPL
Why this obsession with the North London club? Kenyan football lovers have always been purists, developing a liking to teams that play attractive and silky football. Since Arsene Wenger came to the English shores, Arsenal has always played the best brand of football in the Premiership, even if it hasn’t always been matched with equal success. Even the United fans here acknowledge that. Despite their success, whenever we have banter with the United fans, we the Arsenal fans can always drop on them the line ‘but we play better football’ and leave with heads held high, shutting up a mouth or two.
One factor that really played in Arsenal’s favor among the Kenyan football legion is the golden generation that culminated into the ‘Invincibles’ in 2004. I think between 2002 and 2005 was Arsenal’s best years under Wenger and this helped gained the club a huge number of converts and admirers. At that time Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, etc were household names. Even ordinary mothers who never watched football were well conversant with them thanks to their husbands and sons who would wax lyrical about them unending. And those players were really good too, in Arsene’s famous words, ‘absolute super quality’. I remember on the last day of the 2003-04 season when the club finished their season without losing a single match, it was headline news here. Yes, it was that huge! For a long time it was the talk of town, in bars, homes, schools, streets, everywhere. Arsenal had won the hearts of many Kenyans, probably forever.
Everybody has their Arsenal story, right? So what’s mine? Well, I’ve loved the club since 1998, making it 14 years now. I’m 21, so it means I’ve supported Arsenal for two-thirds of my life. It all began at that time, and in a quite funny way really. Well, for starters, the two biggest local clubs are GorMahia and AFC Leopards, mainly ethnic-based clubs, I must say. It goes without saying that one becomes a follower of either by birth. So I was born a Gor fan. The first match I ever watched was a Gor match with my dad and even though we won, I wasn’t overly captivated. So some time after that, I turned on the TV and there was a match on. I think I was either 6 or 7 years old. It was Manchester United v Arsenal. Now, at the time, there was this brand of bread that I disliked, and it was called ‘United’. Instantly I associated the ‘United’ bread to the Man United team. Thus, I picked Arsenal, just like that. Oh, and Arsenal won that match 1-0.
Supporting Arsenal isn’t rosy. That’s just a universal fact and everyone here agrees. Maybe that’s why the number of Arsenal fans here in Kenya has slightly reduced. As a result the number of Chelsea and Manchester City fans is on the rise. It hurts too. To see someone you screamed your hearts out for Fabregas alongside some time back, now bragging about Chelsea’s fluky Champions League triumph or Man City’s last gasp title clincher breaks one’s heart.Though as a friend of mine pointed out to me, Kenyans are so used to misery that they grown a thick skin. So in truth, the Arsenal fans here (at least the vast majority) will remain loyal.
Oh, I almost forgot. Arsenal has always signed, nurtured and groomed many African players who have then gone on to be world class in their positions. This has definitely appeased many Kenyans and indeed Africans in general and probably is where Man United has missed out on. NwankwoKanu, Lauren Etame Mayer, KoloToure, Emmanuel Eboue, Emmanuel Adebayor, Alex Song and Gervinho are some of the African exports who have thrived at Arsenal and made the world (Kenya included) to take notice. For some people, when they want to choose a team to support, the presence of African players they associate themselves with help sway their decision. There is also another segment that has been influenced by their idols and celebrities to become staunch Gooners. For instance, the current Prime Minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga, is a well known Gooner. On top of that, he enjoys a cult, near-fanatical following in the country, more than any other Kenyan politician. So many people who want to be associated with him, go as far as declaring their allegiances to the Prime Minister’s team, Arsenal. In fact, locally Arsenal is known as timu ya baba, which loosely translates to ‘the father’s team’. The father here being Rt. Hon. PM Odinga.
De De De De Raila’s a Gooner!
One thing that is clear is that Kenyan Arsenal fans love their team so much, and support it through thick and thin. Nothing better proves this than on the night of that infamous thrashing at the Emirates at the hands of a Ronaldo-inspired United in the 2009 Champions League semi final, when a devout Arsenal fan couldn’t take it anymore and instead took his own life, somewhere in the capital, Nairobi. Granted, it was a bad night, one of the worst for Gooners, but what the guy did, well, shocked the whole nation to say the least. I guess being a Gooner is more than life and death, combined.
I could go on and on about my beloved Arsenal. Our only hope as Arsenal Kenya Chapter is that the glory days may return soon and that the Arsenal family may grow even bigger. Oh, and since this year, the first team will visit Nigeria, we really hope that soon the next African destination will be Kenya. Long live The Arsenal. Victoria Concordia Crescit.
Thanks to Fabian, who in Part 2 of ’1nildown2oneup’s’ Passionate Kenyan Gooner series has shed further light on the special bond between GB and Kenya. He has further explained the phenomenal love of Arsenal FC in his part of East Africa. Part 1 was from myself, with guest contributions, was warmly welcomed and I am sure you will showFabian (@ilfabiano) the same appreciation. Part 3 to come.
Until next time thanks for reading and keep supporting the ’timu ya baba’
Like what you read? Then follow me or comment on this blog on Twitter – http://twitter.com/goonerdave66