Zoo FC players before the start of a previous match.

| Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Grace to grass: Kericho's top club Zoo FC faces tough fight to survive

What you need to know:

  • Good work being done in the community by Kericho-based club now in jeopardy as reputation suffers
  • Club founder and chairman Ochieng’ alleges local plot to fix his team following a Fifa ruling on match manipulation and vows to clear the name of the self-supporting outfit and return it to the FKF premier league. But will he, can he, with all the suspicion the top league in the country has attracted in recent years of rampant match-fixing with many involved in the vice?

Zoo FC is in the news for the wrong reason. The Fifa disciplinary committee ordered the expulsion of the Kericho-based club  from the Football Kenya Federation Premier League for manipulation of football matches.

The relegation of Zoo over this sporting scourge comes two years after four players, Johnstone Ligare, Martin Elungat, Sammy Sindani and Norman Werunga from the same club were implicated in match-fixing.

But unaware to many football fans, the club which is undoubtedly the pride of Kericho, has come from far.

Zoo has discovered and nurtured talent in the tea estates that have put Kericho, better known for producing world-beating athletes, on the national football map.

Zoo became the first club to represent the agriculture-rich county in Kenya’s top football league.

Several players discovered by Zoo have gone on to join the big boys of football in Kenya like Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards and Tusker.

The growing list of talented football stars that started their trade at Zoo FC and are now playing in the top flight league include Isaac Kipyegon (AFC Leopards), Mike Madoya (Tusker) and Nicholas Kipkirui (Nairobi City Stars).

Madoya was crowned the 2017 Kenyan Premier League Most Valuable Player (MVP). In that season he was won the Midfielder of the Year, the Fair Play Player of the Year and the New Player of the Year accolades, pocketing a handsome Sh1.7 million in prize money.

From left: Mathare United defender George Owino (Defender of the Year), Michael Madoya (MVP), Posta Rangers goalkeeper Patrick Matasi (Goalkeeper of the Year), and Badir Yasin (Centre Referee of the ear) pose for photos with their trophies during the SportpesaKenyan Premier League Awards Dinner Gala on January 12, 2018 at Sankara Hotel in Westlands.


Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Other notable players that honed their skills at Zoo are Danson Namasaka and Collins Agade (Bandari), Kevin Omondi and Sammy Sindani (Vihiga United) while former player Samwel Koko is at Wazito technical bench.

Zoo, one of the few self supporting clubs that have seen action in the Premier League are now confronted with a one of the biggest crisis in their history that could very well determine whether the club survives or perishes.

Fifa has fingered it for match-fixing and ordered it be relegate to the third tier of  national competitions, FKF Division One.

Zoo chairman and founder Ken Ochieng, a lawyer by profession, has vowed to clear the name of the company.

Zoo FC chairman Ken Ochieng

 Zoo FC founder and chairman Ken Ochieng'.

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

“We have been perennial victims of frustration from FKF and this setback will not discourage me to task my legal mind and help clear our name from these accusations,” said Ochieng'.

Relegation battle

Interestingly, before Fifa’s ruling,  Zoo were set to resume playing in the league with a big battle in their hand, that of fighting relegation. They were lying bottom of the 18-team table before their untimely relegation.

“I love Zoo FC and I will go to whatever length to get the team back in the premier league. These claims of match-fixing are meant to frustrate the club because there is no evidence. I'm preparing court papers to appeal,” says Ochieng, who was born and bred in Kericho.

He continued: "How do you accuse the team of match-fixing without any evidence? This is a pure witch-hunt that has backing here at home simply because my star is rising too fast. The players whom we suspected of match-fixing were fired four years ago."

“We are used to these kinds of frustrations. We twice won the National Super League but we were never promoted when our points were slashed for no apparent reasons. We were dropped from the Kenyan Premier League but we were reinstated by the court. We shall go back to the same court and I believe we shall be vindicated,” said Ochieng'.

Ochieng' is a down to earth learned friend when you see him freely mingle with ordinary citizens. He cuts the figure of a true football fan.

 Zoo FC founder and chairman Ken Ochieng'.

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

His commitment to Zoo is unquestionable.

The 42-year-old lawyer is determined to erase the club’s name from Fifa's list.

He has represented Football Kenya Federation in legal suits at the Sports Disputes Tribunal.

“I will use all my legal knowledge to fight for Zoo,” he said.

Education

The Zoo founder studied law at Moi University after he missed an opportunity to study for his preferred degree, engineering at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

“I wanted to be an engineer and work in the tea estates. I wanted to go to JKUAT but it was very competitive,” recalls Ochieng, who is an alumnus of Kaplong Boys Secondary School.

He says the idea of forming Zoo FC started after he left university.

“I was playing handball and when I left campus there was no place to play handball and I decided to mobilise professionals in Kericho to play football and that is how the journey started in the early 2000s,” he recalls.

He reveals that the name Zoo was derived from a two minutes cartoon advertisement during the 1998 World Cup finals in France dubbed “Zoo Kab” where animals were playing football.

“People who knew us used to make funny jokes that the only football we could play is Zoo Kab because of our tummies and that is the genesis of our club name,” said Ochieng'.

The club attracted many talented players from the tea estates and as old guards faded, Ochieng' who also doubled up as the club coach, decided to register the team for the district league.

Zoo took to the league like fish to water promptly gaining promotion to the National Super League in 2015 and the Premier League in 2017.

Tough times

He said running a football club and his law firm is not a walk in the park.

“It is very expensive to run a football team of more than 30 players and 15 technical officials. I dip into my pockets most of the time to keep the club afloat particularly at this time of the Covid-19 pandemic when we cannot earn gate collection at Kericho Green Stadium.”

He says he has partnered with Keroka Technical college and players who want to pursue studies in vocational courses are sponsored to realise their dreams as they play for Zoo FC.

"I'm happy at least 30 players have been able to get diplomas in various skills. I'm happy if their football careers come to an end and they have skills that can help them do something productive with their lives."

Ochieng' also thanked James Finlay tea company in Kericho for employing some of his players.

But the question is, will the club survive falling from grace under such grave circumstances?

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