•Local football fraternity beamed with pride and joy as news trickled in that four women footballers had hit jackpot deals with foreign teams
•Kenya basked in yet another international glory when Harambee Starlets midfielder Vivian Corazon Odhiambo signed up for Portuguese second division side Atletico Ouriense on a one-year deal.
Football Kenya Federation (FKF) President Nick Mwendwa recently wore a smug smile on his face as he waxed lyrical about the milestones the country has attained so far in women’s football.
While fielding questions from a prodding journalist during an interview at a local TV station, Mwendwa’s eyes dilated and glowed with excitement and his voice rose to a crescendo as he relived his windfall gain at the helm of the federation.
The outspoken FKF supremo who has already made it clear that he will be seeking an extension of his tenure at Kandanda House, whipped out the details of deals recently bagged by local players seeking to ply trade in foreign leagues.
Said he in part: “Harambee Starlets have registered stellar performances and as a result, our players are being scouted internationally.”
He had every reason to pat himself on the back; every other reason to strut and sway across the streets; every reason to cock-a-doodle-doo. For women’s football, this was the best news since sliced bread.
Like him, the local football fraternity beamed with pride and joy as news trickled in that four women footballers had hit jackpot deals with foreign teams—two of them in the European leagues.
This landmark achievement provides a facelift to a country that appears to have been crippled and was struggling to keep the women’s football leagues afloat. Indeed, players in those leagues have in the past hit the sack for too long and missed the boat in the process.
Harambee Starlets midfielder Cynthia Shilwatso is the latest inclusion in the growing list of Kenyan footballers finding new abodes in foreign leagues. Shilwatso made a giant leap to Spanish Division One side EDF Logroño on a three-year deal.
The 23-year-old, who jetted out of the country on Tuesday, was all over the moon, promising to justify her presence in the squad with a splendid performance when the new season rolls out after several months of inactivity.
Shilwatso said she was engulfed in mental torture and wrapped up in deep thoughts when Covid-19 threw her plans into total disarray.
“I have patiently waited for this moment since January. I became anxious when the coronavirus pandemic brought all activities to a halt. At least, I’m happy now and my main focus at the moment is to make a good impression on the international stage,” said Shilwatso.
She joins an outfit that closed the season in seventh position on 24 points after registering seven wins, three draws and six losses.
A fortnight ago, Harambee Starlets striker Lilly Awuor, also 23, inked a two-year deal with German second-tier side Borussia Pankow.
Prior to the move, she was plying her trade for Kigoma Sisterz in the Tanzanian Women Premier League. Awuor cut her teeth in football locally, toiling for lakeside teams Spedag, Kisumu Youth Olympic and Palos Ladies.
Both Shilwatso and Awuor had initially traveled overseas to try out for Swedish top-flight side Hammarby back in 2018, but returned home three months later empty-handed after their dreams to change status failed to materialise.
Earlier in the year, Harambee Starlets forward Esse Akida hogged the local headlines after sealing a mouthwatering deal with Turkish champions Besiktas JK. This followed hot on the heels of her successful stint with FC Ramat HaSharon of Israel where she had pitched tent since October 2018.
Having previously turned out for Spedag and Thika Queens in the Kenyan Women Premier League (KWPL), Akida wrote history with Harambee Starlets when they wrestled down stiff competition to qualify for the 2016 Women’s African Cup of Nations (AWCON).
Her humble beginnings kicked off at Kilifi where she played for Moving The Goalposts (MTG) before later turning out for National Youth Talent Academy (NYTA), Kenya Methodist (KEMU) Queens as well as Spedag FC.
In August 2018, she decamped to Thika Queens, some six weeks prior to her trials at HaSharon. Her bold move bore fruits after the Israelites offered her a two-year deal. Akida has 15 international goals credited to her name in all her 33 appearances.
At Besiktas, she holds high the dreams of a side that is gradually rising from the ashes of their 2014 debacle, when they were relegated to the Turkish women’s third football tier.
They, however, put behind them the agonising and hugely devastating experience to finish at the summit of the third division and secured promotion to the second tier league.
Kenya basked in yet another international glory when Harambee Starlets midfielder Vivian Corazon Odhiambo signed up for Portuguese second division side Atletico Ouriense on a one-year deal.
Prior to her departure, the 21-year-old, had featured for Gaspo FC, which finished second in the 2018/2019 Women’s Premier League season.
She grabbed the attention of keen-eyed scouts during Kenya’s Olympic qualifier match against Ghana. Kenya edged out the West African nation 1-0 on aggregate to advance to the fourth round of the competition where they eventually fell 2-1 to Zambia to bow out of the race.
Odhiambo was instrumental in Starlets’ historic win over hosts Tanzania whom they saw off 2-0 to clinch the Council of East and Central Africa Football Association (Cecafa) Women’s Senior Challenge Cup in an entertaining finale played at the Chamazi Stadium in Dar-es-Salaam.
Aquino, as she is fondly known by her dotting fans, boasts of a wealth of experience, having also featured in the 2016 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations in Cameroon and the 2017 Council of Southern Africa Football Association (Cosafa) Cup, where Kenya lost in the playoffs.
Mid-January this year, the Starlets’ duo of goalkeeper Annet Kundu and defender Ruth Ingosi signed three year deals with Nicosia-based club Lakatamia in the Cyprus women’s Division One League.
They too were part of the Harambee Starlets success chapter at Chamazi in 2019. Kundu was in her best element, bagging the Golden glove award after completing the tourney without conceding a single goal.
The fate of Harambee Starlets forward Mwanahalima Adam still hangs in the balance after her dreams to try out for Swedish top-tier side Djugardens IF, was jolted by a visa hiccup.
The narrative is not tied to the European leagues alone. Quite a number of players have curved a niche in the regional leagues.
Harambee Starlets captain Dorcas Shikobe and her teammate Janet Bundi are rumoured to be on their way to Tanzanian premiership side Yanga Princess and are only being held back by the procession of their International Transfer Certificates (ITC).
If they succeed, they will link up with Harambee Starlets full-back Wincate Kaari whose contract has already been confirmed by the Tanzanian Women Premier League side.
Kaari has previously turned out for Gaspo Women FC and Thika Queens in the KWPL and she too wrote history at Chamazi. Shikobe and Bundi feature for Oserian Ladies and Eldoret Falcons respectively in the KWPL.
Kisumu Starlets’ midfielder Bertha Omita has also been linked with a move to Tanzania’s reigning champions Simba Queens although reports indicate that Starlets are unwilling to unleash her.
This being the situation at the moment, FKF President Nick Mwendwa remains optimistic about the future of women’s football in Kenya. “Our target is to qualify for the 2021 African Women Nations Cup (AWCON) and 2023 Women World Cup,” said Mwendwa.”
This might, however, be a case of putting the cart before the horse or perhaps even counting eggs before they hatch. The current situation in the country does not augur well for the growth of women’s football and the existing stage merely offers little room for progress.
Already, the cash strapped KWPL needs to be revamped. The federation had to revert it to its old zonal format where the 16 clubs will compete with teams within their regions in leagues divided into Zones A and B.
The structure aims at cutting down on expenses incurred by the clubs while traveling for matches. The idea might not entirely serve the intended purpose given that some teams in Zone B are still located several kilometres away from each other.
In 2018, the zones were dissolved and all teams brought together to play in a unified league. This was after FKF reached a decision to set aside an annual grant of Sh750,000 for each of the 16 teams in order to cater for their expenses.
But the sponsorship deal was short-lived and following its withdrawal, teams waded through the remainder of the season and experienced difficulties honouring their away matches. This compelled clubs like Nyuki starlets and Vihiga Leeds to sink into relegation.
Some coaches we spoke to on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, lashed out at the federation for allegedly mismanaging funds meant for women’s football. However, while addressing journalists earlier in the year, FKF deputy chairperson Doris Petra sought to clear the air.
“We are yet to succeed in securing sponsorship for the league and re-organising the league into a zonal format was necessary to reduce expenses for the clubs.”
“The Sh750,000 grant by Fifa was stopped as the body wanted the money to be used in development projects not to be given to individual clubs,” said Petra.
Such a decision is, however, a pyrrhic victory that could only serve to alleviate the inconveniences suffered by teams in Zone A alone. Zone B teams will still feel the heat considering that some of them are several kilometres away from one another.
Taking a sneak peek at the groups paints the real picture. Zone A has Gaspo Youth, newcomers Ulinzi Starlets, Zetech Sparks, Thika Queens, Kayole Starlets, Mathare United and Makolanders F.C.
Zone B has Nakuru West Queens, SEP Oyugis, Vihiga Queens, Wadadia F.C, Kisumu All Starlets, Eldoret Falcons, Trans Nzoia Falcons and Naivasha based Oserian Ladies. The top three winners in each zone will face off in a mini-league to determine the Kenya Women Premier League champion.
The arrival of BetKing as the official FKF partners in funding local football may, however, ameliorate the situation. While unveiling Sh1.2 billion sponsorship deal between the federation and the firm, Mwendwa said a portion of the money would be channeled towards supporting women’s football.
“We will also commit Sh10 million of the license fees paid by our partners to the Kenya Women Premier League,” he said.
It is disheartening to see that the women’s league turned out to be a mere side issue in the mega sponsorship deal between FKF and BetKing. This speaks volumes about the country’s pathetic attitude towards the sport.
For the country to scale greater heights in women’s football, relevant authorities must invest more resources and the federation must exhibit more commitment.
The success of the Tanzanian league should serve as a benchmark against which we can judge our own performance. Why would our players think of ditching local clubs to play across the boarder?
Structures should also be established to provide a viable platform for moulding quality players now and in the future.