Off-season tournaments and lessons thereof

BY DAVID ONJILI

It is not rare that each December holiday football tournaments are organized around the country. Most of them have political undertones, with several politicians being accused of exploiting the rural folk with a tournament where the winners are given balls and poor-quality soccer jerseys branded with the politician’s name. The tournaments have been used by some of them as a brand and marketing tool for their own selfish gains.

Conversely, a number of these tournaments, held by either current or aspiring politicians and also ordinary Kenyans have piqued my interest. The record crowds witnessed in some and the professional manner in which they have been run have exposed the potential that football in the country has especially at the grassroots level.

The Senator Malala Super Cup, Kriss Darling Cup and the Bramwell Karamoja Cup are three tournaments worth noting. The first is held by a sitting politician, the second by an aspiring politician who lost in his bid in the last elections and the last is a former footballer who has never expressed any political ambition. Two of these tournaments, Malala’s and Bramwell’s are held in Western County of Kakamega and the Kriss Darling Cup in Nairobi.

There was an era when all the best players across the African continent wished their nations qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations. This stage was the melting point of soccer talent. It was not just for a nation’s pride to participate and improve their FIFA rankings, it was a market for African talent to European clubs. Seydou Keita of Mali, Lucas Radebe of South Africa are just a few players who benefited from this. With stiff competition amongst top European clubs to tap into the next great African star, much has changed.

No football club wants to wait for such a tournament when they can have a network of scouts across the globe to help in talent identification. Hence, high school games, low tier leagues and village tournaments have been a breeding ground for talent identification and the right players fed to higher tier clubs. This has given much life and seriousness to these tournaments. Players like Benson Omala featured for Kenya Premier League side Western Stima while still a student at Kisumu Day before making the big move to giants Gor Mahia. This is illustrative of talent at the grassroots level.

A Football Kenya Federation (FKF) official who spoke on condition of anonymity, and because he is not the official spokesperson of FKF confirmed that any tournament in the country needs authorization from FKF unless it is an amateur get together kick about. Reason being that most participating clubs in the tournaments are either affiliated to FKF or participating in FKF Leagues. If not, they mainly draw their players and technical bench mostly from affiliated teams.

The match officials too are mostly registered by FKF unless one hires officials and teams of their own (non FKF affiliated), they will always need authorization from the federation. Case in point was the Senator Malala Super Cup finals where the finalists, Sichirai FC and Rangers FC drew a number of their players from MMUST FC that features in the FKF Lower Leagues.

The federation however has no control on players featuring in these tournaments. That responsibility lies with the player and their team.

Senator Malala Super Cup

The just concluded 2020 edition of the Senator Malala Super Cup, which was won by Sichirai FC in the men’s final after beating Kona Rangers FC by two goals to one was the third since its inception in 2018. The lucrative two-month long tournament that culminates in a final in December boasts of a prize money as follows.

The winner takes home Sh1m and Sh500, 000, Sh250, 000 and Sh100, 000 go to teams that finish 2nd, 3rd and 4th in that order. In the 2020 edition, 600 teams featured according to Margaret Sasha Nechesa who was part of the organizing committee of the tournament. Of these, 240 clubs received balls and soccer jerseys. In the final, played at the Mumias Sports Complex, each fun received a Senator Malala’s branded soccer jersey as an appreciation for their support.

The hype of the Senator Malala Super Cup hinged on their adoption of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to adjudge matches, a first, not just in the country, but also in the region. VAR is an assistant referee that reviews decisions made by the center referee with the use of video footage and headset communication specifically to reduce human error that causes substantial influence on match results. It reviews goals, penalty decisions, direct red cards and instances of mistaken identity on the pitch. That a local tournament would adopt such when the top tier league does not have it was impressive. It was a challenge to the football heads at the federation and a reminder of the gains that our football can accrue if all stakeholders were to work as a team.

In the final game of the Senator Malala Super Cup, the VAR would be in full effect as a player who had dived to win a penalty was not able to benefit from his gamesmanship. Cementing how crucial the investment in the technology was.

Karamoja Super Cup

The tournament was launched in January 2019 and the first edition taking place in December of the same year. Its main objective was to use sports to empower the community by identifying, nurturing and exposing raw local talent to the world. The other objective is to “market Samitsi sublocation of Malava Constituency in Kakamega County and open it to the world as a sporting destination through sports tourism,” according to the founder and brains behind the tournament, Bramwel Karamoja.

Mr Karamoja is a sports personality who has been active in the sports industry in the last two decades. Despite his bias in football, Karamoja has been able to exploit its popularity and reach people of different gender, age and culture to offer support, community service and training to several teams across the country.

In 2001, he represented Western Province in the last edition of the famous Coca Cola U-17 championships held in Eldoret. He started his playing career at Amalemba Sportive FC in Kakamega before moving to Undugu FC and later Ngara Youth Pelico both in Nairobi. In 2006, he moved to Gor Mahia and spent the next 3 seasons there. Here, he was voted by the Green Army fans in 2008 as their bet player. He would later move to Dubai to pursue greener pastures away from football. Spending 8 years as a customer service agent working at the Dubai Mall. Later, working as senior sales representative at Orbit Showtime Network (OSN) then as a property consultant with Damac Properties and later moving back to Kenya 2018 as a sports promoter. He is also the director of Jaza Stadi, a football supporter group whose primary objective is to bring back soccer fans into the stadium by making it an experience of entertainment through engaging local artists.
In the first edition of the Karamoja Super Cup in 2019, the tournament had betting firm Betika, soft drink manufacturer Coca Cola, Pan African Logistics, 1824, Club Da Place and Kakamega County as sponsors. These companies give financial support while others offer support in kind like jerseys, ball, trophies and booking of grounds in exchange for marketing.
In both the first and second edition of the tournament, Betika have been the main sponsors. They have financed the tournament and helped the organizers offset tournament costs, award cash prizes to winners and aid in logistics.

In the 2020 edition won by Mugai FC who beat holders Samitsi FC, the prize money was as follows; winners took home Sh200, 000, 1st runners up Sh100, 000, 2nd runners up Sh50, 000, 4th Place -Sh40, 000, golden boot Sh30, 000, and best goalkeeper Sh20, 000. For the women category in football, winners took home Sh30, 000 while winners in the volleyball tournament bagged Sh30, 000.

Economic reward

Behind the curtains of kicking the balls and massive crowds are a number of locals who get an income. Mr Karamoja also markets Samitsi as a sports tourism destination. Event organizers are engaged and they provide the dais, tents and seats for guests. There are numerous cameramen who are officially engaged and paid handsomely to cover the event. The locals too want to savor the moment and take pictures of not just the game but also tour Samitisi and its environs, making the local area talk of the town.

There are invited guests from as far as Nairobi, Mombasa and even the diaspora (USA, Dubai, UK and Europe) who grace this occasion since it is held during the December holidays. It becomes a place to network and socialize. The local hotels get a boom during the event as they get an influx of customers.

If you envision the multiplier effect such tournaments, if well organized, can have across the country then it is impressive. Yes, some politicians will hold them for their selfish gains but in the long run, everyone gets apiece of this big cake. It is only fair that we keep interrogating and demanding better from the tournaments rather than casting stones at them from far without thoroughly interrogating their merits.

The Cleo Malala Cup also boasts of a partnership with Zetech University where talented players spotted during the tournament win financial scholarships at the instiution. The Senator also donated 30 soccer balls, soccer nets, two sets of branded soccer kits, Sh2000 to the many ball boys and girls who helped in the tournament.

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