What you need to know:
- Harambee Starlets players slept in the changing rooms of Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani in May 2015 ahead of their 2016 Olympic qualifier against Botswana, that they lost 1-2
- But since the entry of 40-year-old Nicholas Kithuku Mwendwa as president of the federation three years ago things have turned for the better
- Professionalization of the national teams from youth categories to senior team has left Mwendwa purring
- Mwendwa asserts that the Sh100 million pumped into women football from FIFA’s Forward Programme will be a game changer in women football that has struggled in Kenya
The setting is November 2015 and Harambee Stars players are stranded at Wilson airport where they have gone to board a chartered flight to Praia for their 2018 World Cup qualifying match against Cape Verde.
Earlier, the players had refused to leave camp until their allowances were paid in full. But with their dues settled they now could not fly out because their chartered flight had not been paid for.
It takes the intervention of the government in a desperate effort to see the country honour the fixture for the flight fee to be sorted in order for the team to fly out in a race against time to get to the western part of the African continent. Yes, they make it to Praia, a fatigued and hunger-stricken squad, two hours before kickoff and, unsurprisingly, lose 2-0 to the hosts to put paid to their World Cup qualification hopes.
A month later, the Kenyan contingent is detained at their hotel in Addis Ababa on their return from the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup on December 3, 2015 over unpaid bills.
There were more chaos. Harambee Starlets players slept in the changing rooms of Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani in May 2015 ahead of their 2016 Olympic qualifier against Botswana, that they lost 1-2.
These are just a few examples of the chaotic management of the game in the country by the previous Football Kenya Federation office.
But since the entry of 40-year-old Nicholas Kithuku Mwendwa as president of the federation three years ago things have turned for the better. Scowls have been replaced by smiles and the future looks brighter, or does it?
Mwendwa beat closest challenger Ambrose Rachier by 50 to 27 votes. He ran on a platform of change. Change that long-suffering Kenyan football fans yearned for.
After years of piled debts, inertness of national teams, poor league structures, revolving door of sponsors, perpetual strike of Harambee Stars players over owed dues ad infinitum.
“We had a league we never knew the promotion and relegation criteria. Fixtures could be changed overnight,” the technopreneur tells Nation Sport as we settle down for a one-on-one interview at his Riverbank Solutions Limited offices in Nairobi.
In the first 100 days, FKF toiled to reclaim the abandoned Goal Project offices at Kasarani which had been shunned by the previous office in preference to rented space at Nyayo stadium.
“Fifa had put Kenya on an embargo. They gave us conditions to account for $250,000 (Sh25 million) that had been sent to FKF before we assumed office. These money was withdrawn from the FKF coffers but we couldn’t tell what it was used for.
“We inherited an office where statements of account were not handed to us,” he delves into the mess he had to sort.
“There was no contract between FKF and SuperSport for the very GOtv Shield that ran for five years at $90,000 (Sh9m). We asked for it in vain before agreeing to see it through for the sake of stability,” said Mwendwa.
Sports betting firm SportPesa later bought the naming rights of the domestic cup for Sh23 million for the next three years.
“A heavy load of debt occasioned by bad decisions affected our financial position,” notes Mwendwa, who was in Lauzanne, Switzerland last Wednesday to defend an appeal case filed by former Harambee Stars coach Adel Amrouche’s at the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) over illegal dismissal in May 2014.
The Algerian-born Belgian coach appealed against FIFA’s ruling in a case he had filed directing FKF to pay him Sh60 million for wrongly terminating his contract.
And then there is the case of the wrangles between the federation and the Kenyan Premier League.
“The previous office signed a contract with MP & Silva worth Sh400m for exclusive marketing rights to the Kenyan Premier League (KPL). The marketing firm had already paid $1.8m (Sh180 million) and understandably wanted a refund because they were not given the marketing rights to the league. We battled with them for a year and finally convinced them that we could give them a three-year deal on the second tier league to help recover their money.”
The deal entailed awarding the London-based sports marketing company broadcasting rights of the National Super League (NSL) through Free-To-Air sports channel Bamba Sport in February 2017 for Sh10 million annually.
“The list of debts was endless. We received invoices from the former president (Sam Nyamweya) that we owe him Sh26m. We had to weave through so many things at the same time proving to Fifa that we are using their money for the intended purpose.
"Today, I’m glad that we are among few African countries whose accounts have been approved by Fifa over the past three years,” he said.
Unending squabbles with interested parties is something Mwendwa had to deal with before assuming full power in office. Extreme Sports Limited, who organise grass roots football tournaments, for instance will remain blacklisted until they bow to the local football authorities’ requirements.
Extreme Sports, who run the unsanctioned Super 8 League and Super 8 tournament, was banned in August 2016, while club officials participating in the leagues were suspended for six years.
“In 2016 I sat down with Extreme CEO Hussein Mohammed and Ronald Karauri (SportPesa CEO), I proposed that instead of running a parallel league, we let them run the Nairobi regional league using their sponsorship money then they pay us 15 per cent just like the KPL does. They said 266 clubs were too many and instead wanted a portion. We refused. We no longer speak about them because they aren’t our members,” a furious Mwendwa charged.
Soon after assuming office, Mwendwa was keen on setting up a properly planned youth structure.
In his first year, over 17,000 children were registered in the 20-branch leagues that would be used in forming a Kenya Under-13 that participated in the inaugural Southampton Cup in August 2017. The juniors were later promoted to the under-15s side that trains at FKF’s Centre of Excellence in Thome, Nairobi.
FKF has also partnered with Juja Preparatory and Laiser Hill schools to nurture talent.
“We’ve put them in one roof like the French Clairefontaine system doing home-based schooling,” Mwendwa divulged.
Hold your horses! The French Clairefontaine is arguably the finest football academy in the world with a high reputation of producing the most spectacular range of talent including World Cup winning Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint Germain and Juventus’ Blaise Matuidi just to name a few.
“Talent development accompanied with education and proper nutrition by training twice daily will groom the best in years to come. We’ve been poor in transition from Under-13 to senior players but that’s the place we are heading to and I can promise you that these kids will qualify for the Under-17 Africa Cup of Nations in 2020 as well as the 2026 World Cup,” said Mwendwa.
“With Fifa funding we shall construct a boarding facility with two pitches. The senior team will be camping alongside them,” notes Mwendwa whose plans to improve coaches’ certification were disrupted by the Confederation of African Football's disapproval of Caf “A” licensed coaches under the former regime.
“We had to start from basic training at the grass-roots but with lack of quality trainers, we called along these Caf “A” holder coaches, gave them refresher courses before training the over 2,000 coaches. Every year we hold courses and our target is to have Caf “A” licensed coaches handling KPL teams by 2021.”
Meanwhile, over 1,000 referees have been trained in the past three years.
Professionalization of the national teams from youth categories to senior team has left Mwendwa purring.
“We needed Kenya to play. As they play then we can select our teams. Today, 80 per cent of those players we started with are still in our national team circles,” outlined Mwendwa.
“The U-20s of 2016 have formed the majority in our U-23 that advanced to the Olympic qualifiers second round, whatever the result against Sudan next month or Nigeria in the third round in June. We have created a conveyor belt on transit to qualify for 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).”
“You no longer hear about delayed tickets for foreign-based players or that players have not eaten in camp. Some of these vital things we’ve ensured are catered for. You journalist will never write again articles about late payment, poor condition in camp and such like,” he bragged.
“We’ve crafted a structure and order that never existed before. And if you have noticed, there has been little politics around FKF and infighting because we have an able secretariat at work.
“I believe this order is what has yielded the successes we are celebrating today like qualifying for Afcon and winning the 2017 Senior Challenge Cup. We’ve ensured that on every Fifa calendar we have had an international friendly for Harambee Stars to build team cohesion.”
Mwendwa asserts that the Sh100 million pumped into women football from FIFA’s Forward Programme will be a game changer in women football that has struggled in Kenya.
Resuscitating the women's top flight game has been a passion for Mwendwa.
“We’ve spent 31 per cent of the Fifa grants on women's football when we are required to spend only 15 per cent.
Mwendwa revealed two companies were interested in sponsoring the women's top league which would go a long way in increasing its allure to talented girls.
One of the obstacles FKF has had to live with, Mwendwa noted, is the delay of national team funds from the Sports Ministry who are obliged by the Sports Act 2013 to fund all national teams.
Only Safaricom and SportPesa have entered partnerships with the federation through the Chapa Dimba tournament and the SportPesa Shield respectively. Otherwise, the federation has struggled to acquire mega sponsorships.
Fifa though increased member association grants to Sh600 million per year for the four-year cycle starting January 2019 and this will be a big boost to FKF’s operations.
What are his plans for Harambee Stars?
“The ministry has not reimbursed the Sh59m deficit for the Olympics team and Harambee Stars. We are having problems paying our coach (Sebastien) Migne and Utalii hotel that hosts us, but the ministry has promised to settle the bill,” he said. He stated that they had worked on a budget of Sh500 million for Afcon preparations for both the senior team and the Under-23 Olympic qualifiers.
The federation plans to take Stars to a three-week camp in France ahead of the 32nd edition of the continental showpiece that will be held in Egypt from June 21.
Kenya have already secured qualification from Group “F” with a game to spare (against Ghana next month).
“Kenyans should be happy to see their team on television or even fly to Egypt. I think we can go past the group stage,” said Mwendwa whilst challenging the Stars to create history by advancing beyond the preliminary stages.
He avers that the expansion of the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) from 16 to 18 teams has contributed to the quality of the league in spite of financial hiccups.
The back-to-back qualification of record champions Gor Mahia to the Caf Confederation Cup group stage and dominance of Kenyan teams at the annual SportPesa Cup underlines his assertion.
“We are going the online route. May be our league will be on Netflix in five years, broadcast has changed and that’s why we bought the Outside Broadcast van to produce our own content for sale,” he quipped. The broadcast facility cost the federation Sh130 million.
“We are going to register a new independent entity to run the KPL once the current contract we have with the league runs out in September next year.”
On the minimum wage bill of players he said: “It’s a complex issue because revenue going into clubs from KPL has decreased therefore it’s difficult to ask a chairman to pay a minimum wage when they receive Sh250,000 in monthly grants. Things will change once we reinvent the wheel at KPL and shall set at least Sh25,000 as the minimum pay.”
Hooliganism and match-fixing claims have rocked the beautiful game but Mwendwa is ready to roll his sleeves and work to stamp out the vice.
“In 2016 we did what no one else could do by deducting clubs points and for the next two years, hooliganism disappeared. The scourge is back though. The Independent Disciplinary and Complaints Committee (IDCC) has taken up those cases involving crowd violence, but in future, such disciplinary issues will be handled by FKF.
“This will enable the FA to have timelines to make the ruling within 48 hours because the challenge we have now is that IDCC meets once in two months,” he said.
"Apart from the Guinea Bissau game in 2016, we’ve never had a hooliganism problem during international matches because we know what to do in terms of safety and security.
“I’ve asked the Kenyan Footballers Welfare Association (Kefwa) to go club by club educating our players against match fixing.
“We have also asked clubs to share the evidence with us and we shall root out the culprits. We need to collaborate to fight this vice. It is not a war for FKF alone but all sports lovers.”
Heading into the final year, Mwendwa is confident of being re-elected for a second term when the federation holds national polls in February 2020.
“I want Kenyans to show me an FKF president who has done more than me, at least when I’ve been alive. I believe we need another six to 10 years to gain the stability required in Kenyan football.”
"I want to leave a legacy of having a conveyor belt that churns out talent so that I can sit back and celebrate in years to come,” said Mwendwa.