Saturday, Dec 20th 2014

The sad state of player development in Kenyan football

Saturday, March 2, 2013 - 00:00 -- BY TAHAR RAJAB

Despite the recent appointment of Adel Amrouche as Harambee Stars coach, anything other than pessimism is near impossible when pondering the future of Kenyan football.

History teaches, and an embarrassing past for Stars, along with the country’s poor youth set up, is enough to convince even the most romantic Kenyan that the future is bleak.

However, history also offers cause for optimism. A look at soccer’s most successful teams will tell you that countries which take youth development seriously tend to see success sometime in the future.

All Kenya has to do then, is to focus on long-term success and rebuild from the grassroots level. Whether we can buy into such optimism, depends on how committed the powers within Kenyan soccer are.

When it comes to football, Kenya sleeps in the Dark Ages; lost in an ancient world where we neglect almost everything needed to develop a footballer capable of competing at international level.

It is no news that— rare exceptions aside—Kenya consistently fail to produce players with the same level of physicality as other more successful African countries such as Nigeria, who they intriguingly face this March.

This is generally acknowledged within Kenyan soccer and put best by former Stars international Sammy Sholei who says: “If you look at the physicality of our footballers and those of Nigeria, you’ll see a total difference. We look smaller.”

It clearly then came as a major surprise to hear from former international Dan Shikanda that the Stars and KPL clubs ignore the simple solution of gym exercising.

“I have played for the top two clubs in this country (Leopards and Gor) and for the national team and no one went to the gym. It was just running, running, running,” says Shikanda.

“Most of the teams in this country do not provide their players with any facilities for gym. Even the national team only goes to the gym maybe when they’re about to play a big game and it’s once or twice, just to motivate them. It is not for training.”

The idea that any professional football team will fail to make gym exercise an obligatory and frequent practice is beyond bizarre and indicative to Kenyan soccer’s backwardness.

Weight exercise isn’t the only method used in football to improve and maintain physicality. Adhering to strict nutrition guidelines is also immensely important.

However, little solace can be found here. Dieting isn’t imposed on Kenya’s soccer players, from national team to club level, and the need to introduce nutritionists in Kenyan soccer is widely ignored.

“It is very critical, it is actually more important than technical training,” says sports nutrition expert Wanjiku Wairia. “In soccer you’re required to have high energy levels. Part of the reason why we don’t do very well is because we don’t spend as much time in the gym in terms of building strength. For you to be able to grow enough to actively endure a sport like soccer, you need to nourish well.”

FKF Chairman Sam Nyamweya certainly agrees with the importance of dieting and gym, asserting that the federation is working on changing attitudes in both fields. It is, however, a task that is more the responsibility of KPL clubs.

Any notion that money is a stumbling block towards players following the correct nutritional diets and exercise regimes is utter nonsense.

An aspiring youngster or professional can achieve a balanced sports diet inexpensively, while the cost of effective exercising equipment is not beyond the means of any Kenya Premier League club.

The problem lies within our priorities, and many clubs sadly do not value the work needed for correct physical development in soccer. “A lot of people believe eating well in sports is expensive, but that is a myth. Everything we need is around us,” says Wairia. “It is affordable, but it just doesn’t rank very highly with the coaches and technical teams.”

The bigger problem is that physicality is only part of a bigger problem. Youth soccer in Kenya is a mess, with the country relying on an inefficient and regressive school football system, instead of academies and county football.

The few academies running are distrusted by teams and viewed more as money-making businesses than pools of talent. Indeed, most academies worldwide are profitable organisations which sell their players to clubs.

There is nothing wrong with this as it is the means by which they run. However, Kenyan soccer seriously lacks money. This means that there will always be some reluctance for clubs to use academies, rendering the system practically ineffective.

It is for this reason that many within the Kenyan game such as Shikanda and Mahakama FC manager, Martin Aganda are more in favour of seeing county leagues introduced throughout the country.

They will find it slightly worrying that Nyamweya has opted to instead concentrate on better developing our academy systems. Still, you can’t please everyone; and for the moment Kenyan soccer can only afford to go down one route. What is most important is that we restructure our scouting methods behind whatever system we choose.

There is the belief—though held by a minority —that Kenya doesn’t actually lack the talent to compete internationally, but rather it lacks a consistent means of efficiently finding the talent. A large part of the blame would then go to the nature of youth soccer in Kenya.

The problem with player scouting in Kenya and our heavy reliance on school soccer is that scouts usually only attend the school championship finals games.

Considering the best players will not always play for the most successful teams and that children will generally go to the school most convenient to them in terms of distance and education; the chances of any potential superstar being spotted depend largely on whether his teammates are good enough to help him on his way to the school championship finals.

What you then have is many children having the required talent levels to succeed, but never being spotted. “If you go to the schools where there is no football culture, your talent dies”, says Gor Mahia chairman Ambrose Rachier.

The chances of being spotted are even slimmer for those living in remote areas, such as Kenya’s North-Eastern provinces. Scouts obviously cost money, and the more schools and regions one wishes to scour through, the more money the club will have to spend.

The issue of insufficient finances is one that constantly creeps up in every aspect of Kenyan soccer and player development. Change can, however, happen by clearly planning and implementing a youth development strategy, based on the meagre finances the country does have at its disposal.

The Spanish Revolution we are now witnessing today in football is the result of decades of hard work, beginning with a clearly defined philosophy from grassroots level.

From the infamous Clairefontaine centre of excellence in France, to Johan Cruyff’s development—and Van Gaal’s overhaul —of Barcelona’s La Masia, history gleams with examples of how a focusing on youth structures can reap enormous rewards.

Indeed most success stories are of clubs and countries with more resources than we have here for soccer in Kenya. However, a look back at our own past will tell you that our only decade of success—which saw the Harambee Stars win the Cecafa Cup for three consecutive years in the early 80s—was the result of German tactician Bernard Zgoll’s brief work in setting up national youth development centres all over the country.

It is perhaps best then to end with the late Zgoll’s words: “A coach by himself, even if he is the best expert, is not able to do anything if he does not get the right support from officials and a bit of time for building up the team.

Identifying talent and supporting it to maturity takes years of hard and patient work. But once you reach the top with these youngsters and you have a succession system on the ground, you stay at the top forever”. As we welcome Adel Amrouche, in search of long-awaited success, Zgoll’s words couldn’t be more relevant.