‘Any way possible’

A Kenyan football fan reflects on a lifetime of World Cup finals.

Image credit Laurence Griffiths via Getty Images.

1986 World Cup Finals

I was only 4 years old during the 1986 World Cup finals. I don’t have many memories of this particular World Cup except my dad and my uncle’s animated conversations about Maradona’s infamous “hand of god.”

My father, a young, very idealistic university graduate, had moved with my mother to a rural high school in western Kenya, where he taught history to high school students. My mother taught English. They brought a 14-inch black and white television that would turn our house into a major community sports center during the World Cup finals. I would later learn from my father that our’s was the only television set in the whole of this rural region. With no electricity, television sets were a rather annoying luxury. As a back-up, one had to work out elaborate plans to get a hold of lead acid batteries. These did not come cheap in Kenya in the early 80s and 90s. The lead acid batteries needed regular charging, as well as a stock of concentrated hydrochloric acid for topping up.

My uncle Ben, a university student at the time, ensured that the battery would always be ready for important matches. He would board a matatu as early as 5:00 in the morning to get to the nearest urban center, about 40 miles away. He would only come back late in the evening when he was assured that the battery was fully charged. In the event that there would be a power outage at this urban center, Uncle Ben would take a similar trip the following day. The World Cup was important and there was a whole community waiting to watch.

1990 World Cup Finals

I was old enough to know that my mother hated the World Cup. She liked the game of football itself but was suspicious of the people it attracted to our house. She also disliked having to take all of our family’s valuables and lock them in one room in our house. Her other nightmare was having to prepare food early, and having to serve it to us before the villagers started trooping into our “stadium.” This was an opening in front of our veranda, under a big Nandi flame tree. Football fanatics arrived early and organized themselves on the soft grass in front of our house in some sort of hierarchy based on how familiar they were with my dad and Uncle Ben. The front row was reserved for our family and my dad’s colleagues. The front row was a mattress in front of the television perched on a stool, the stool was delicately balanced on a table. Selected students, mostly from the high school soccer team filled the second row. In the third row, mostly standing, were random villagers.

The 1990 World Cup changed the way I watched soccer. While my young mind had thought that Africans invented soccer, I was introduced to another reality. African teams had not proceeded beyond the last 16.

Now, the entire continent was rapt by Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions. Roger Milla, implored by Paul Biya to come out of retirement to rejoin the national team, danced around the Colombian box. He hurdled the Colombian defender’s scything lunge before cajoling a finish past their goalkeeper with his left foot. He quickly dispatched himself to the corner flag and unleashed the ecstatic spirit of African dance on the world. Cameroon was in the quarter-finals, the preserve of a few special teams. Africa was in dreamland. It was past 1am in the morning, but the dancing and ululations continued into the following day. Pépé Kallé was somewhere in the Congo composing the massive hit “Roger Milla,” to forever enshrine this moment in song.

1994 World Cup Finals

I was in a boy’s boarding school with very limited contact to the outside world. We followed the World Cup through our teachers, the hip ones. They would come in and update us on a few games if they were in a good mood. On a few Sundays, we would chance upon a copy of the Daily Nation with photos of the Super Eagles splashed across its pages. Rashidi Yekini was on everyone’s lips. Nigeria would later be eliminated in the Round of 16 by Italy. My dad would blame this on a myriad of issues, including conspiracies to keep Africa down, and lament the lackluster way the Super Eagles played despite the huge amount of talent at their disposal.

1998 World Cup Finals

Watching the World Cup was banned in my boy’s high school. Being a library captain, I had unlimited access to daily newspapers. And just like in the 1994 World Cup finals, the Super Eagles carried the hope of the continent to proceed to quarterfinals and beyond. Nigeria had one of the best African squads at the 1994 World Cup. They were knocking on the door. They had just won the 1996 Olympics, beating Brazil and Argentina with all those stars. Oliseh’s thunderous goal against Spain was a great moment of brilliance, a show of the explosive potential of African teams. When it was all done, we were left with newspaper cuttings of the ever smiling Sunday Oliseh on our school locker doors.

2002 World Cup Finals

I was a first year university student in Nairobi.  DSTV, a satellite subscription service from South Africa was already revolutionizing how sports were watched across the continent. A week before the World Cup, our vice chancellor, Prof. Eshiwani, visited common rooms across campus to ensure that all the television sets and satellite subscriptions were working properly.

The World Cup started with a huge upset. Senegal beating France, their former colonizer, was a reminder of the possibilities before African teams. My mother was visiting, and together we got to watch Henri Camara send The Lions of Teranga to the quarter finals. They were only the second team from Africa to achieve this seemingly impossible feat.

Al Hadji Diouf with his eccentricities remains one of most memorable characters for me from any Cup.

2010 World Cup Finals

Communal gatherings to watch the World Cup on channels provided by satellite televisions were in full force in Kenya and across many African nations. The government of Kenya had also done a reasonable job connecting most urban and semi-urban areas across Kenya to the national electricity grid. Every bar worth mentioning and every little shack in the village center had satellite TV. We were all trapped in the spirit of Vuvuzelas and the glory of the first world cup in Africa. This was our chance. Siphiwe Tshabalala’s unforgettable wonder goal against Mexico started us on a great trajectory. Then, Asamoah Gyan, aka Baby Jet, roared on stage for the Black Stars. We were getting close to the dream. The much anticipated African magic moment, where Mandela would rise to award the World Cup to an African nation, seemed more and more a possibility. Then Uruguay broke our hearts. Suarez, the villain of international soccer used his hands to block an inbound goal from Gyan at the dying minutes of the game. Gyan would later miss the penalty. This is the closest Africa has come to sending a team to the semis.

My phone conversation with my father about this particular game was very intense. “The problem with us Africans,” my dad started almost in pain, “is that we want to win with raw talent alone.” He paused. “You know most these countries are helped by African immigrants, and sometimes unfair referees and now using their hands… while us Africans, are on our own.” I listened intently. “Maybe we should try and win it in any way possible.” He sighed. “Maybe we should, Baba.” I replied and hang up the phone.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.