Football is a mirror of our social soul where tribalism, corruption and herd hentality are defensive traits

By Kenyatta Otieno In the build up to 2017 African Cup of Nations finals, Kenya played Zambia in a Group E qualifier on Sunday 6th September in Nairobi. Kenyan coach Bobby Williamson sent out a cry well in advance. He decried our lack of creative midfielders to launch attacks, which has reduced our chances of scoring goals in international matches. The Scott is damn right even if some people may have looked at it as an excuse for lack of preparation. Lackluster preparation for our national team is as common as the drama that emanates from the camp. It is not new. That does not water down the fact that we are more endowed in the defensive side of football than attack. The rule of the thumb in football is that attack is the first line of defense. Even if we put up a great defensive show, our lack of ammunition upfront will always expose us at the back. To those who are not conversant with the football side of life, here is a crush course. When you hear of football formation like 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, first of all it means that the goal keeper is a constant so he is omitted from the equation hence the total of the figures is ten instead of eleven players in a team.  Secondly, the three figures imply defense, midfield and attack. So 4-4-2 means four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers. The midfield is always divided into four; defensive, central and attacking midfield and sometimes wingers are also classified as midfielders. Midfield players can oscillate between two of the mentioned roles, which gave us the term “box to box” midfielder while attacking midfielders are called creative midfielders. Attacking or creative midfielders who have played for Kenya over the years are Zangi Okello, Wiberforce Mulamba, Jamal Mohammed, John Mo’ Muiruri, Titus Mulama who have since retired while Humphrey Mieno is currently at Tusker FC. Across the seas, we find Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha, Ronaldinho Gaucho, Kaka, Cesc Fabregas and Iniesta. The bottom line of the midfield role is that it can never be taught, it is inbuilt. A player either has it or he doesn’t. It is part of player’s character and personality and it can be spotted in a player’s first touch when he receives a pass. The secret is in incubation, once the talent is spotted, it must be kept in the game at all cost by football academies that we lack in Kenya. We end up losing such talent to other industries that have enough manpower like car wash and hawking. Midfielders control the game by linking the defense with the attack while keeping the opponent from the ball or the ball from the opponent. It is common in football to hear that whoever wins the midfield battle, will win the match. Looking at Kenya, we like the shortest route to winning a match, making money, cut even for a business and to success. It does not work like that in raising creative minds. Ask Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs. The central and defensive midfielders are combative and physical as their role is to win back balls and scatter the opponent’s moves. However, the attacking midfielders tend to be more of crispy and superb ball handlers and distributors. Kenya has more than enough defensive minded midfielders but a handful creatives who cannot meet the threshold for being capped in international matches. This has been our undoing in football. So, where does football cross our social culture as a country? To begin with, our football players are derived from our societies. They are bound to represent who we are. The traits that we glorify as a society will always prevail against those that the society does not appreciate. To this end, our social culture has flowed into our football. Tribalism and Corruption The symbiotic relationship between tribalism and corruption and their effect on the Kenyan socio-political space can never be overstated. The two have permeated every level of our social space so much so that even a child cannot do a favour for you and fail to ask for a “kickback”. Tribalism is a defensive attitude where someone feels comfortable with “one of his own”. Corruption is also a defensive strain where someone is happy to keep other people away from what is rightfully theirs. It is a scarcity mentality of “I can only prosper at the expense of others”. These two traits of Kenyan society are well displayed in our football. We are good at defending than attacking but our defensive minds are always exposed when we can’t keep our opponents on the back pedal upfront. Bobby Williamson highlighted the competition for defensive roles in the national team. It means that this is the trait that thrives in our society so the creative mindset is inhibited from developing for lack of appreciation. Tribalism has also fragmented our country. That is why we only do well in individual sports like athletics. Football being a team sports requires high level of unity and teamwork, which lacks in our divided country. When the world admires javelin hero Julius Yego’s personal dedication to conquer the world, it in turn says a lot about our belief in the “unholy” trinity of; me, myself and I. Kenyans tend to give their best only if it will benefit them as individuals. The day we will be united, as a country is the day our football will also grow. Today, even when we lose matches, individual brilliance never lacks on the pitch. Herd mentality Now that we lack creative midfielders in our football, is it not a product of our herd mentality? This is a country where the moment we see signs of heavy clouds, everybody is out on his way home leading to heavy traffic, which eventually keeps the same people on the road past midnight if it rains. No sooner had someone put up the first small shops of one metre by three metres space for stalls than it became the norm. We are a typical “fools rush in” society. To avoid opening up healing wounds, let me not go into the details of pyramid schemes and quail business. All these point to our lack of ingenuity as a society so our lack of creative minded midfielders is not a surprise. We bring up our children to pass exams by any means necessary; stay on the known path but cut everyone off the way. This means that aggressive traits are appreciated more than the subtle diplomatic types. Creative midfielders tend to be cut from the cloth many people will call “softies”. When no one wants to be near someone who uses “soft power” over hard power, we slowly transform creative minds into the usual brawn powered defensive types or they end back stage and fade out of the social mainstream. One place this is evident is on our roads, driving around Nairobi has turned shy and restrained drivers, especially ladies into traffic ninjas. When one newspaper launches a special magazine, you can always bet the competition will come up with a similar idea without doing a market research. Every local TV Show has a version of prank show that was started by one TV station, which had also lifted the concept from Western programmes. One local daily has opted to retrench staff due to reduced revenue; what they don’t know is that our newspaper headlines and content have become as predictable as the next teachers’ strike. We are safe in the pack. As long as I am in the crowd of same ethnic, social class or like-minded people then I am safe. This makes everyone to play safe so as to err on the side of caution. If you follow our football, you will notice that our coaches think alike. No one is enterprising enough to venture into the untested territory and try out formations like 3-5-2 that is more offensive oriented. This social trait has inhibited our creativity in other spheres of life, from TV, radio, music, performing arts, writing, politics, and business to sports. Ever since Safaricom gave us Mpesa, you can always guess how the next song, TV Show, radio show or book that comes off the blocks will look like. We all know that every hospital will now be a “Teaching and Referral Hospital” and it will have a doctors’ plaza.  This has made our edge on the international scene blunt because innovation is the stuff that differentiates the ordinary from the exceptional. Back to football A creative midfielder will get the ball and swim his way around a few opponents. In the process, several opponents will move out of position to cover his path. Meanwhile his eyes are on his strikers. He will then release a sublime pass on the path of the striker for a superb goal. In short, he creates space by displacing the opponent’s defense lines giving his teammates time to run into scoring position. This position requires superb ball handling skills, exceptional dribbling and above all, a third eye to read the game and see the chance for a defense splitting pass and a strong mind to dictate the speed and direction of play. He will be involved in almost all the moves of the team so it requires high levels of fitness. In short he is the engine that drives the team and when you have such a player, you build the team around them. On the flip side, when you see our great companies like Kenya Airways, Mumias Sugar and Uchumi Supermarkets struggling, know that it is because we want to reap maximum harvest with little efforts. Because creative midfield requires high levels of physical and mental fitness, talented players will always underperform in the role as they expect to perform with little effort. Next time you say that we are better off ignoring football and concentrating in athletics, remember that our football is a manifestation of who we are. We have to change how we do things so that our football and other team sports players can follow. Our football is a mirror image of our society.

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