When I read the paper 3 weeks ago and saw that Uganda would be playing Kenya in the African Cup of Nations qualifier, I was really excited. I have never had the opportunity to see Uganda play nor the opportunity to watch a football match in Africa. So this seemed to be the perfect opportunity. When we went to buy our tickets from a van behind a pub in downtown Nairobi, I was even happier to find out that the tickets would only cost the equivalent of €3. I conveniently ignored the daily newspaper stories a week before the game, which stated that no TV channel wanted to buy the rights for the game. I now know why. Here are a couple of anecdotes from what was hands-down the worst game of football I have ever been to (and the bar was set low as I have been to Austria matches):
It all started at the gate. The game was going to be at 4pm. We were planning on getting there close to 4pm, because given timing in the rest of this country, it was difficult to imagine kick-off would be on time. However, around lunchtime, when one of my friends was buying a Kenya shirt, the vendor told him that gates had already opened at 8am and were going to close at 3pm. The papers had also widely covered that there would be increased security at the stadium, following the bombings in Uganda on July 11. So although opening gates at 8am did seem a little excessive, closing them an hour before kick-off did not seem so strange.
We arrived at Nyayo Stadium at 2:30pm and the queues were huge. We picked one and started queuing. I was happy to see a great showing by the Ugandan fans, they seemed to be really upbeat, given that they were coming having beaten Angola in their last game (Angola having played at the 2006 World Cup). Kenyans did not seem to have very high expectations of their team. They had lost 1:0 to Guinea-Bissau in their last match – pretty much a national tragedy. I had been told numerous times before the game that I should keep my affiliations hidden, given we were sitting in the Kenya section (the nice version) and others said that if I wore any obvious Uganda memorabilia I would be stoned (probably the more realistic version). However, I could not resist, given it was my first Uganda game and it was Ugandan Independence Day as well. So I wore a yellow shirt and my Uganda flag earrings, which my friends approved as discreet enough such that they could be seen sitting next to me in the stadium. In the queue a fairly intoxicated man came up to us and proceeded to explain to us that the reason Kenya was going to win is that they had very pretty ladies. He used me as an example. I really wanted to call him out on his fallacy, but then I remembered I had promised to be discreet.
At some point half an hour later when we were getting close to the gate, they decided to close the gate. So we had to find another one. Unfortunately the queues for those lines were huge and we were still working on our 3pm deadline. We also saw someone attempting to cut the queue being severely beaten up by a Kenyan policeman (the standard for the Kenyan police force: act first, ask questions later), so I was not willing to go down that route. Plus the crowd itself seemed to be getting edgy as they began realising they may not get in the stadium – this may have actually been the bigger threat. What I didn’t realise/was too naïve to notice, was that we were a group with Mzungus (i.e. foreigners) and therefore got special treatment and were able to cut the queue without a problem. Normally, I would have a principle issue with it – but I was too excited about the game and decided there was a time and a place in life to be righteous and this was not it.
We got into the stadium (clearly without any hint of a security check) and picked our seats. Now, Nairobi has two stadiums: the newer Kasarani Stadium a little outside the city and the older Nyayo Stadium in the city. Since Kasarani was being renovated, the game was being played at Nyayo. One of my colleagues at work described in detail to me how this well-timed renovation was a ploy by the Kenyan team to get an advantage over the Ugandan team because the pitch at Nyayo is so bad that only Kenyan players know their way around the potholes. He was not kidding. The pitch was awful. But still, I expected a good game, and even hoped to see a Ugandan win.
After we had taken our seats (on incredibly uncomfortable stone benches), there was, what can only be termed a pre-match build up. It involved a man dressed in a Spiderman suit doing flips on the track that goes around the football pitch, several rounds of the Mexican wave (where the Kenyans demonstratively left out the Ugandan section), a Kenyan spiritual figure who blessed all the footballs and the arrival of Prime Minister Odinga. Shortly after he arrived there was a sudden rush of people all carrying bottles. It was evident the gate had been stormed. Prior to the game, they had announced that they were only going to sell 26,000 tickets, such that the stadium would only be at 87% capacity. In my (still naïve) thinking this had to do with the fact that FIFA had berated Kenya that Nyayo Stadium did not have adequate exits for their capacity. However, I now know it is because they just assume at some point, the gate will be stormed such that the stadium will be over capacity whatever the case.
We had the national anthems and kick off (which everyone seemed to miss) and the game started. Another very notable aspect about this game was the fact that there were 13 ball boys. In fact, I counted more ball boys than police in the stadium (so much for crowd safety). I had wondered about this too, as usually there are not so many in a game. I soon found out why. The ball literally spent more time off the pitch than it did on. It was extremely frustrating. I caught myself actually watching the ball boys rather than the actual game. At one point, there were two balls on the pitch. Rather than stopping the game, however, they had the ball boy run onto the pitch to pick it up – IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GAME. So there were 23 players on the pitch at one point (I was smelling Kenyan conspiracy again, but thankfully the ball boy did not score a goal).
During the game, the Kenyan crowd started their chants, which went something like this: “Obama, Osama, Oliech, Ocampo, Odinga” (Oliech being one of the few kind of famous Kenyan footballers). I began to wonder how the order was chosen – on the one hand, having Obama so far up the list, definitely indicated order of preference. But the placement of Osama makes me think that is not quite the case (unless they were just going for the rhyme). And I don’t know how Odinga would feel being placed behind Ocampo (the chief prosecutor of the ICC who is currently making a daily appearance in Kenya’s newspapers). Another chant towards the end of the game was “Blackberry, Blackberry, Blackberry.” In response my friend and I decided to chant “IPhone, IPhone, IPhone” as we did not know what the chant was getting at and so “IPhone” seemed to be the appropriate response. We subsequently found out that Blackberry was the nickname for one of the Kenyan players they wanted subbed on. We also found out that he had acquired his name from being the first person, in his home, province to own a Blackberry. I definitely see some potential for product placement here.
At some point near the end of the game, more people came flooding in and they were selling drinks in bottles (yes, those bottles that had been banned from stadiums). I was really happy as I was very thirsty. But my friend, who had been to the game Kenya vs. Nigeria a couple of months before was really worried about people throwing the bottles. I told him not to worry as I thought that everyone must be very thirsty after having spent at least 3 hours sitting in the sun and so they would probably finish their drinks before they threw the bottles. He said that he was not worried about them finishing the drinks, but more worried about what they would fill them up with afterwards. Now this got me concerned given events of the previous week (see last blog entry).
The game ended 0:0 in what could hardly even been termed amateur football. In fact, one of my friends said that the game had made her decide to stay in Kenya longer so she could naturalise, become a Kenyan citizen and try out for the team. I think she would have a really good chance. At half-time I tried to tell myself it did not matter as I had only paid €3 for the ticket. By the end of the game, I was furious that I had paid €3 and spent 3 hours of my day on the game. However, after now having written this blog entry, I see that it was definitely an experience with stories to write home about – so not a complete waste of time.