Our kind of football mirrors our social soul

Tribalism, fraud and herd-mentality are defensive traits

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In the build up to 2017 African Cup of Nations finals, Kenya played Zambia in a Group E qualifiers match on Sunday September 6 in Nairobi. Kenya’s coach Bobby Williamson sent out a cry well in advance. He lamented our lack of creative midfielders to launch attacks, which has reduced our chances of scoring goals in international matches.

The Scott is damn right even if some people may have looked at it as an excuse for lack of preparation. Lacklustre preparation for our national team is as common as the drama that emanates from the camp; it is not new. That does not water down the fact that we are more endowed in the defensive side of football than attack. The rule of the thumb in football is that attack is the first line of defence. Even if we put up a great defensive show, our lack of ammunition upfront will always expose us at the back.

To those who are not conversant with the football side of life, here is a crash course. When you hear of football formation like 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, first of all it means that the goal keeper is a constant so he is omitted from the equation hence the total of the figures is ten instead of eleven players in a team. Secondly, the three figures imply defence, midfield and attack. So 4-4-2 means four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers.

The midfield is always divided into four: defensive, central and attacking midfield; sometimes wingers are also classified as midfielders. Midfield players can oscillate between two of the mentioned roles, which gives us the term “box to box” midfielder; attacking midfielders are called creative midfielders.

Attacking or creative midfielders who have played for Kenya include Zangi Okello, Wilberforce Mulamba, Jamal Mohammed, John Mo’ Muiruri, Titus Mulama (who have since retired) while Humphrey Mieno is currently at Tusker FC. Across the seas we find Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha, Ronaldinho Gaucho, Kaka, Cesc Fabregas and Iniesta.

The bottom line of the midfield role is that it can never be taught; it is inbuilt in a player. A player either has it or he doesn’t as it is part of player’s character and personality. It can be spotted in a player’s first touch when he receives a pass. The secret is in incubation, once the talent is spotted, it must be kept in the game at all costs by football academies, which we lack in Kenya. We end up losing such talent to other industries that have enough manpower like car wash and hawking.

Our undoing
They control the game by linking the defence with the attack while keeping the opponent from the ball or the ball from the opponent. It is common in football to hear that whoever wins the midfield battle wins the match. Looking at Kenya, we are people who like the shortest route to winning a match, making money, starting and maintaining successful businesses, and to success. It does not work like that in raising creative minds; ask Bill Gates.

The central and defensive midfielders are combative and physical as their role is to win back balls and scatter the opponent’s moves. However, the attacking midfielders tend to be more of crispy and superb ball handlers and distributors. Kenya has more than enough defensive-minded midfielders but only a handful of creatives who cannot meet the threshold for being capped in international matches. This has been our undoing in football.

So where does football cross our social culture as a country?
To begin with, our football players are derived from our societies, so they are bound to represent who we are. The traits that we glorify as a society, will always prevail against those that the society does not appreciate. To this end, our social culture has flowed into our football.

The symbiotic relationship between tribalism and corruption and their effect on the Kenyan socio-political space can never be overstated. The two have permeated every level of our social space so much so that even a child cannot do a favour for you and fail to ask for a “kickback”. Tribalism is a defensive attitude where someone feels comfortable with “one of his own”. Corruption is also a defensive strain where someone is happy to keep other people away from what is rightfully theirs.

These two traits of Kenyan society are well displayed in our football. We are good at defending than attacking but our defensive minds are always exposed when we can’t keep our opponents on the back pedal upfront. Bobby Williamson highlighted the competition for defensive roles in the national team. It means that this is the trait that thrives in our society, so that the creative mindset is inhibited from developing for lack of appreciation.

Tribalism has also fragmented our country, which is why we only do well in individual sports like athletics. Football, being a team sport, requires a high level of unity and team work which we lack in our divided country. When the world admires javelin hero Julius Yego’s personal dedication to conquer the world, it in turn says a lot about our belief in the “unholy” trinity of “me, myself and I”.

Herd mentality
Now that we lack creative midfielders in our football, is it not a product of our herd mentality? This is a country where the moment we see signs of heavy clouds, everybody is out on his way home leading to heavy traffic, which eventually keeps people on the road past midnight if it rains. No sooner had someone put up the first small one-by-three (metre) shop for stalls than it became the norm. We are a typical “fools rush in” society.

To avoid opening up healing wounds, let me not go into the details of pyramid schemes and quail business. All these point to our lack of ingenuity as a society so our lack of creative minded midfielders is not a surprise. We bring up our children to pass exams by any means necessary, to stay on the known path even if that means cutting everyone off the way.

This means that aggressive traits are appreciated more than the subtle diplomatic types. Creative midfielders tend to be cut from the cloth many people will call “softies”. When no one wants to be near someone who uses “soft power” over hard power, we slowly transform creative minds into the usual brawn powered defensive types, where they end on the back stage and fade out of the social mainstream. One place this is evident is on our roads, driving around Nairobi has turned shy and restrained drivers, especially ladies into traffic ninjas.

We are safe in the pack. As long as I am in the crowd of same ethnic, social class or like-minded people then I am safe. This makes everyone to play safe so as to err on the side of caution. If you follow our football, you will notice that our coaches think alike. No one is enterprising enough to venture into the untested territory and try out formations like 3-5-2 that are more offensive-oriented.

A creative midfielder will get the ball and swim his way around a few opponents. In the process, several opponents will move out of position to cover his path. Meanwhile, his eyes are on his strikers. He will then release a sublime pass on the path of the striker for a superb goal. In short, he creates space by displacing the opponent’s defence lines, giving his teammates time to run into scoring position.

This position requires superb ball handling skills, exceptional dribbling and, above all, a third eye to read the game and see the chance for a defence-splitting pass and a strong mind to dictate the speed and direction of play. He will be involved in almost all the moves of the team, so it requires high levels of fitness. In short, he is the engine that drives the team; when you have such a player, you build the team around them. Because creative midfield requires high levels of physical and mental fitness, talented players will always underperform in the role as they expect to perform with little effort.

Next time you say we are better off ignoring football and concentrating in athletics, remember that our football is a manifestation of who we are. We have to change how we do things so that football and other sports players can follow. Our football is a mirror image of our society.

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