Weaving through downtown Nairobi on a recent Saturday afternoon, I entered Lazaru’s Inn, a small bar in the heart of the city centre, to join the Kenya Arsenal Fan Club for the Arsenal v. Everton FA Cup quarterfinal match. By kickoff, there are over 100 Arsenal supporters sitting shoulder to shoulder; the rowdiest contingent is gathered around a screen in the back. Fans wearing red and yellow Arsenal jerseys with names and customized messages such as “The Unbeatable” and “Verminator,” for Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen, emblazoned across the back, are already shushing people. Enthusiasm turns to dismay when the SuperSport channel is changed to the West Brom vs. Manchester United match. The crowd in the back heaves, and people begin hurling insults towards the bar; one fan mutters that the video jockey is an ignorant Manchester United fan. The channel is changed back in enough time for the crowd to roar at Arsenal’s goal in the sixth minute.
Mania for the English Premier League is a nationwide phenomenon that isn’t hindered by ethnic or class divisions; both the country’s poorest and its elite can be found watching a match or arguing its merits. Kenyan football fans primarily rally around Arsenal and Manchester United, though there are a substantial number of Liverpool, Chelsea and, increasingly, Manchester City fans.
The fanaticism has reached, in several high-profile cases, a deadly level. A couple of weeks before Christmas John Macharia, 28, leapt off his seventh-floor apartment balcony in Nairobi and plummeted to his death. Macharia had been a devoted follower of Manchester United, and he killed himself shortly after its shock 1-0 defeat against Newcastle at Old Trafford. Suleiman Omondi, a 29-year-old Arsenal fan, hung himself after his team suffered a defeat against Manchester United, in 2009. After Macharia’s death, Nairobi’s county police commander Benson Kibue urged Kenyan soccer fans to support local teams rather than glamorous European sides such as Manchester United. “They should enjoy the matches,” he said “but they should not commit suicide since life is very precious.”
“Kenyans understand the language of football, we just respect foreign football more than we respect our own.”
The Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry dominates social media. Arsenal fans call out “Manure” fans on their performance this season, and Manchester United fans respond with taunts about how Kenyan starlet “Lupita Nyong’o has won more trophies than Arsenal in the last nine years.”
That the vast majority are Arsenal and Manchester United fans is no coincidence. As the local league disintegrated throughout the 90s, people sought their sports entertainment in the English Premier League and Bundesliga highlights shown on local TV. By the end of the 90s, the broadcast of full Premier League matches on Kenya’s SuperSport channel tipped the balance, and as people grew increasingly disenchanted with the local football scene, the fervor for the English league grew.
“During that entire period, Kenyan football was dead, and English football became religion,” says Carol Radull, a leading sports reporter. “I think it was Samuel Eto’o who said ‘you can go to any village, in any part of Africa, kick a ball and make an instant friend.’ Kenyans understand the language of football, we just respect foreign football more than we respect our own.”
Kenyan football has a tainted history of wrangling, scandal and corruption; it was banned by FIFA in 2004 and 2006 because of political meddling. Steve Bloomfield, journalist and author of Africa United: How Football Explains Africa summarizes the systemic breakdown in his chapter on the Kenyan national team, the Harambee Stars:
“It was a story of stolen gate receipts, missing FIFA funds and institutional match-rigging. Senior figures in the football administration had been charged with corruption but Kenya’s notoriously creaking justice system had failed to prosecute anyone… The mix of money and power led to a succession of rows over who should control football, arguments which have had a terrible effect on the game itself.”
Just follow the acronyms: The Kenya Football Federation (KFF) became synonymous with corruption and mismanagement, and was rebranded into Football Kenya Limited (FKL,) it is here that the structure becomes increasingly entangled with the KFF and the FKL running parallel for a period of time, before the governing body was once again reimagined as the Football Kenya Federation (FKF)— its current manifestation. The underlying issues however, have remained.