For a long time football has been associated with the academically challenged. My Mathematics teacher Mr. Otieno Masai once asked us in class who said all footballers are fools. It was a known fact that most football players went to school in heart and soul only during football season, after which they would hang around and wait for the next season.
There have been exceptions though, in Dr. JJ Masiga, Dr. Obwaka and Dr. Dan Shikanda. They combined football to the highest level with the gruesome schedule of University of Nairobi Medical School. They graced the scene long time ago, before the 90s when dynamics were different but I believe still challenging. There has been a change recently, several players in KPL have earned their degrees or are in the process of acquiring one.
I have always believed that our best footballers are not playing football. Several reasons pushed away from a sport they loved. To add salt to injury, many of them are doing what they have no passion for, like pushing papers in offices. They could be earning some extra coins from football if it was well managed. This may change with the net effect being improved football standards.
Something has been happening in KPL albeit slowly but steadily. In 2011 season, Obadiah Ndege became top scorer for KRA in Nationwide League which earned him a place in AFC Leopards in 2012 before joining Tusker FC. Obadiah is a graduate of University of Nairobi. This marked the beginning of what may just change Kenyan football for good.
Since then, Paul Kiongera currently at Tanzanian giants Simba SC and Geoffrey Kataka of Ushuru have since completed their studies. Benard Mang’oli of AFC Leopards and Michael Olunga, who scored an A plain at Upper Hill High School, are still pursuing their studies at Kenyatta and Jomo Kenyatta Universities respectively. Brian Osumba of Tusker FC has also started his bachelor’s degree studies.
Word has it that Tusker FC held a party for Michael Olunga when he received his KCSE results last year. This shows that clubs are receptive to the new breed of players. Olunga deserved it, for a football player to score a plain A, he is a rare breed. According to Olunga, football is like any other extra curriculum activities. People take part in drama, music and other sports and still score As, why not football, he believes it is all in the mind.
According to Kataka who has a Bachelor of Education degree, having academic certificates gives you confidence as one pursues his football career. This is borne of the fact that there is a fall back plan if things turn to the worse in football. He acknowledges that some coaches may suffer inferiority complex when handling graduate players, but says Ken Kenyatta is proud to be coaching him, affirms him publicly and is very supportive.
This trend is bound to cause shifts in clubs and football industry at large. Clubs and KPL managers will need to up their game because now they will be dealing with players who have more than just football knowledge. The pay will also have to improve, when it ends up to a case of a good player who has options, clubs will need to pay players good money to get their services
Clubs will soon be dealing with agents because the new breed of players know the high stakes in the game thus employing appropriate expertise to negotiate better deals. In such a scenario, clubs will have no option but to move away from the pedestrian manner in which their operations are run.
The other notable shift is the university students playing in KPL are better than their student colleagues in many ways. They are earning money however little, from doing what they enjoy. With such an income at an early age, these players are bound to be financially stable as they can access the right information to guide them in investments. This has a price to it though. The players have to walk a tight rope of balancing academics with football, where football gives way whenever there is a conflict between the two.
The other players will learn from their leaned counter parts that the celebrity life in a career where a decade is a very long time is not worth it. They are bound to live their lives with their long term interests in mind.
Lastly I see a different breed of football coaches in the next decade. These are coaches who can understand football beyond the playing field. These bright lads may just give us our version of Arsene Wenger whose scientific approach to football changed the English Premier League. With such a picture slowly taking shape on the Kenyan football canvas, I can bet there will be a shift. I believe the status quo will not take it lying down but they will not fight an idea whose time has come.
When the writer is not talking about football, he works as a groundwater consultant.