A week ago, Kenya was trending for the wrong reasons. It was not because of a 3-2 basement battle between Kenyan Police and Wazito. Neither was it because of the almost-completed Nairobi Expressway.
Zimbabweans also climbed out of their beds with a rude awakening. Comments about Zimbabwe were swirling around social media, and not at all in a positive way.
It was because of Kenya’s ban from world football from FIFA.
“We had to suspend two of our members; Kenya and Zimbabwe, both for government interference in the activities of football associations. The associations are suspended with immediate effect. They know what needs to be done for them to be readmitted or for their suspensions to be lifted,” Gianni Infantino announced.
As expected, Kenyan soccer fans were mad and a little bit sad. The Kenyan national women’s team was about to compete in the CECAFA Women’s Championship. The ban on international competition put their title dreams in jeopardy.
But while most of the concerns were, understandably, about the Zimbabwean and Kenyan national teams, each countries clubs were largely forgotten about. Although no clubs from Kenya or Zimbabwe qualified for the Confederations Cup or Champions League, it will affect football leagues in the countries.
And not at all in a good way.
A team dressed in red absorbed pressure from a side in yellow. Concentrated solely on the goal, the yellow team attacks. Penetrating with passes and incisive runs, Tusker FC looks to take three points from a relatively mediocre Ulinzi Stars side. They have the creativity, the possession, and the skill, but they cannot get their shots to land. Strike after strike ends up in the stands.
As the final whistle blew, you could see the frustration written on Tusker’s face. With the scoreless stalemate, they drop to sixth in the Kenyan Premier League, a blow to their title hopes. In a way, it was reflective of the drama happening thousands of kilometres away from the stadium: nine thousand kilometres towards the FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
FIFA was preparing for this. It would be tough to temporarily lose a cornerstone of East African football through this, but it had to be done. Around the time when Kenya earned third in the 2019 CECAFA Cup, a FIFA officer threatened to suspend Kenya, with another suspending the Kenyan football federation and installing a caretaker in its place.
But now, it all came to a head. In late February 2022, Kenya was kicked out of FIFA, left to its own devices within its own borders. “Pain, strain, and hopelessness as FIFA gives Kenya red card,” the Standard sulked. It was coming, but for Kenyans, it was still a shock.
When the Kenyan Premier League begins to play a few days from now, the effects of FIFA’s ban will not be visible. Mold will not be on the stadium, and the grass will still be mostly clean and neat. Kenya should be most worried about the lower levels of club football, youth football, and women’s football.
Take the Kenyan women’s U17 football team. They are squared up to face the South African team in the first round of the U17 World Cup qualification. After a brutal set of walkovers that left Kenya with a technical victory over Equatorial Guinea, Kenya will be ready to prove they deserve to be there. Or…was. The youth squad is left between a rock and a hard place as the deadline comes closer and closer, as their chances of traveling to India dim with every hour passed.
There is also an odd sense of hopelessness in the Kenyan Premier League. Previously in Kenyan circles, optimism filled the air when the topic turned to club competitions. Gor Mahia built upon its 1987 African Cup Winner’s Cup title with a quarter-finals appearance in the Confederations Cup. Tusker FC nearly made an appearance in this edition of the Confederations Cup, forcing a defensive masterclass from Tunisian giants CS Sfaxien. Could the duo usher in a new era of Kenyan football soon?
Without FIFA funding to guide it along, its future remains in the air. No one knows if the absence of funds will impact clubs’ competitiveness, but history points to things going south.
Further south, Zimbabwe is grappling with the problems Kenya currently faces. After a mediocre African Nations Cup, FIFA banned Zimbabwe from international competitions due to government interference. It interferes with the positive progress that the Zimbabwe Premier Soccer League is making. Its most recent champions, FC Platinum, fought a gruelling battle against Angolan team Sagrada Esperanca and were unlucky to not advance. The league received attention from mainstream Zimbabwean outlets.
“Our fans have been patient with us, looking at how we played in the recent games. I guess it’s time for us to repay them and bring happiness to the local community,” FC Platinum captain Petros Mhari reasoned ahead of a game against Harare City. Repay they did, earning eight points in their first five games. FC Platinum is the face of an evolving Zimbabwe soccer scene.
Yet, like how Kenya will need FIFA funds to foster a rapidly-growing Kenyan football scene, Zimbabwe needs FIFA funds to help its teams be competitive throughout Africa. Zimbabwe ranks around seventeenth in CAF’s five-year rankings. That position can easily be adjusted with the care that the Zimbabwe Premier Soccer League needs and money. With money, care cannot come. Thus, clubs like FC Platinum and CAPS United will be doomed to lose in the preliminary qualifiers, a mere footnote in the history book of African football.
The absence of FIFA funds will not hurt just club sides. It extends to the national teams, both youth and senior. “Zimbabwe has a great potential, with professionals with a passion for football who are not being utilized,” former Platinum and Zimbabwe national team manager Norman Mapeza told DW. That untapped potential may go down the drain if Zimbabwe cannot resolve its internal issues.
Before the FIFA ban started, the women’s national football team was also on the rise. They nearly surmounted Botswana to earn qualification to their first African Women’s Nations Cup since 2016, only foiled by the away goals rule. Impeded by their expulsion, the Mighty Warriors will lag behind their contemporaries.
The usually inactive players in Zimbabwe’s youth levels will see their futures dimmed and their chances at youth tournament titles hurt.
Kenya and Zimbabwe need to do what is right
The hurt that came out of Kenya and Zimbabwe’s decision to illegally sponsor teams is not worth what has already come out (and what will come out) of FIFA’s banning of Kenya and Zimbabwe. The two will decide whether to continue suffering through the hurt and pain that the indefinite suspension caused.
The ban sheds some light and will guide the two troubled countries on the right path. “The suspension was a blessing in disguise. It just offered us ample time to fix the mess in football,” Cabinet Secretary of Sports Amina Mohamed said after FIFA made the announcement. It also gives them an ultimatum. Is it worth it to keep injecting money from the government into teams, or should the two keep the game fair and just for everyone?
Kenyans, Zimbabweans, CAF, FIFA, and everyone in between will hope that the duo chooses the latter.