Passion of sports amateur years was feverish and infectious

What you need to know:

  • It was my fortune to watch Gor Mahia 1979 and 1987. It was my joy to know in person this enchanted group of amateurs who worked their jobs by day and played their football by evening, who sang and danced to rumba music and then translated its rhythms into flowing moves on the pitch and who, 40 years before Eliud Kipchoge gave words to this pursuit, made us know that no human is limited

Forty years ago, the best football club team ever assembled in this country fell at the final hurdle of the Caf Africa Cup Winners Cup. Limitlessness was temporarily made limited before the successor team avenged that loss and won the Cup in 1987.

On Sunday, a generation a universe removed from those magicians of yore makes its painfully laboured steps along the same path of what is now called the Confederation Cup.

It was my fortune to watch Gor Mahia 1979 and 1987. It was my joy to know in person this enchanted group of amateurs who worked their jobs by day and played their football by evening, who sang and danced to rhumba music and then translated its rhythms into flowing moves on the pitch and who, 40 years before Eliud Kipchoge gave words to this pursuit, made us know that no human is limited.

In 1987, Gor Mahia played football with their hearts, for the joy they derived from it and the adulation they got from their fans. It was a labour of love.

We believed that we could be African champions and we became.

They say history repeats itself and there is abundant proof that that is indeed the case. There are bright eras when optimism permeates the nation and almost everybody believes everything is possible (“yote yawezakana”). And then there dark periods when new, grim catchphrases gain currency: “kwa ground vitu ni different” — “Things are different on the ground,” to describe the disconnection between what the rulers are saying and what the ruled are experiencing.


Kenya sport is currently going through a solar eclipse. By various indications, this could last some years and in all likelihood get worse before getting better.

Some football clubs will fold. Others will exist in name only. The stronger ones will struggle in a life-sapping tedium, doling out partial salaries to their players if and when they come by some money while managing boycotts half the time. These players are condemned to never reach their full potential. Only the lucky few who migrate to other countries will stand a chance.

But even mediocrity has a shelf life. This period will pass. And when it does, greatness will be reincarnated. In some time in the future, Kenyans will watch the amazing Gor Mahia teams of 1979 and 1987 alongside the hockey national team of the 60s and early 70s and the Hit Squad of the 80s. The only question is when that will be in the future.

Gor Mahia fans welcome their beloved players in celebrations at JKIA after the team returned from Monrovia where they had beaten Liberia’s Oilers 3-1 in the return leg quarter-finals of the Africa Cup winners Cup after a 0-0 draw in Nairobi to sail into the semi-finals. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Let me tell you a nice 1979 story. In the quarter-finals of the tournament, Gor Mahia came up against Kadiogo of Burkina Faso, then called Upper Volta. The flight plan from Nairobi was a stopover in Lagos, Nigeria, Lome in Togo and then the final leg to Ouagadougou, the Burkinabe capital. On reaching Lome, the team learnt with surprise that the aircraft designated to fly them to Ouagadougou was a 20-seater and there was space for only 12 of them.

The other seats had been taken up by crew and some other passengers. Gor’s travelling delegation comprised 22 players and officials. The match was scheduled for the following day, in the afternoon. There would be another fight by the same small plane that would arrive in Ouagadougou at the time that the second half would be underway.

The players protested, saying it was wrong to divide the team. Some said that if they could not all travel together, they should not travel at all. It fell upon Allan Thigo, the player-coach, to resolve the matter with the players and airline officials.

“Fifa rules put seven as the minimum number a team can comprise to count as a competitive match,” he told them. “We are allowed 12. We must travel. The second batch will join the first tomorrow during the second half.” There was grumbling all around, with some players asking what would happen in the event a substitute was needed, especially the goalkeeper.


Thigo stood his ground. But who would travel and who would be left behind, they asked? He had a plan for that as well.

“I am not going to select the team,” he told them, “and neither will the team manager. All of you will.” He then told each player to write his own list of the starting XI.

He prohibited them from writing their own names. He would then put together the lists and see who had the most votes from goalkeeper to left winger. It was a bizarre way of selecting a Cup quarter-final outfit but it worked. It even became a bit of fun.

Most important, it was done transparently. Each player forwarded his list to Thigo who read it aloud and so everybody was satisfied that none had sneaked in their own names although the esprit de corps among them was so high that such an act would have been inconceivable. In the end, the team that selected itself was: Goalkeeper — Dan Odhiambo, captain and right full back — Paul Oduwo and then the following players: Festus Nyakota, Bobby Ogolla, Mike “Machine” Ogolla, Jerry Imbo, Andrew Obunga, Nashon Oluoch, Laban Otieno, Martin Ouma and Tom Oyaki. Player/coach Thigo naturally travelled as the 12th man.

“Believe it or not,” Thigo said, “the team by the players is the one I myself would have selected. That is how much we knew one another.”

When the first batch was finally on board and the door was closed, they witnessed something they had never seen before. The door to the cockpit was open and so they could see the flight crew at work. Before powering up the engines, the pilots started praying. They prayed loudly. And although the players did not understand much French, it was obvious to them that it was a Christian prayer.

Thigo remembered somebody saying in Swahili: “Tutafika Kama hao ndio wanaomba? Hata afadhali tungebaki tuje na wale wengine.” — “Are we going to arrive if these are the people praying? It might have been better to stay behind and come with the others.”

It was the only time in their lives when they found prayer, normally an act of self-fortification, unsettling.

But the prayers, if the pilots could have been asked, worked. They arrived safely in Ouagadougou. The following morning, it rained heavily. Most of the sandy pitch became waterlogged. The Burkinabe team, a desert people, were uncomfortable with the conditions and they requested the Ghanaian match officials to postpone the fixture.

Our Equatorial compatriots on the other hand, who were used to rain in plenty, said the conditions were just fine with them. Perceiving their advantage, they objected to the Kadiogo request. The English-speaking match officials, who were evidently comfortable when haggling with the Kenyans, were ultimately of the view that the match should go ahead. And so they ruled.

Playing to win rather than preserve their 2-1 Nairobi advantage, Gor were dictating terms when the second batch of players arrived about midway through the second half. But they were useful only as spectators. Only late in the game did Masanta Osoro come in for Bobby Ogolla. It was done and dusted, another 2-1 win for an aggregate victory of 4-2. This set up a memorable semi-final clash with Guinea’s Horoya, the defending champions and Sunday’s opponents with our Bandari boys in the Confed Cup.


I tried as much as I could to understand what drove the players of 1979 and after by forming friendships with them and their friends but still retaining a healthy distance between us so as to be able to criticise them without causing hurt.

It worked sometimes and sometimes it didn’t. There was no social media then and there were no mobile phones. But there was word of mouth. One day I reported on a match between AFC Leopards and Gor which Leopards won handily 3-1.

AFC Leopard’s Joe Masiga scores against Gor Mahia in one of their many closely contested matches played at a jam-packed Nyayo Stadium in 1984. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

For most of that day, many people I knew told me that Gor Mahia’s Hamisi Shamba was looking for me. I guessed why and I wasn’t in a hurry to make myself available to him. We didn’t meet until Gor Mahia’s next game which was in the midweek. He wasn’t playing and he came straight to where I was among my media colleagues.

“Why are you trying to get me killed?” he asked in a mixture of pain and anger.

“How?” I asked him.

“You are inciting these fans against me. They believe everything you write.”

In my report, I had said the main blame for the defeat went to him. I still believed it, and he knew the truth of that view, but I still felt bad for him. He simply had had a bad day, but a very costly one to his team. He was a nice guy, and a joy to watch when trapping balls on his chest and controlling them with his feet. Ball juggling defenders produced magical moments and made the heart skip a bit in equal measure.

Mentally, I worked against the sentiment of regret about what I had written to make sure I was still in a position to write something similar next time — if need be. Friendship wasn’t going to get in the way of truthful reporting or else it dies.

The 1979 and 1987 players were not motivated to play by money. They were motivated by the possibility of discovering the best in themselves. They explored their abilities to the outer limits. They loved what they did with passion. They were also lucky that save for a few bad eggs, a critical mass of officials who handled them were also in it for the love of the game. They did not see them as automated teller machines.

President Daniel arap Moi, seemingly Kenya number one football fan, gives some tips to Gor Mahia players led by Peter Dawo when the team called on the Head of State before their Africa Cup Winners Cup final return leg match against Esperance of Tunisia in 1987. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Writing about Brazilian passion, the captain of his country’s beloved 1982 squad, Socrates, said: “I am absolutely enchanted — in all sense of the word — by passion. It is what guides us through the unknown like an experienced commander; angry seas never scare us when we face them with the madness of love.”

Here too, passion and love defined that bygone era of so very long ago.


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.