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It's derby time

This Sunday the biggest derby in Kenya will take place at the Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi and the match will be live on Supersport 9. Kenya’s two most successful clubs, Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards, will battle it out for bragging rights but first; a brief history lesson.

AFC Leopards was founded in 1964 after several small clubs in Western Kenya combined to form Abaluhya United Football Club. Over the years the name changed to Abaluhya FC and when tribal names were banned, the club settled for All Footballers Confederation – Leopards, still maintaining the AFC and adding Leopards, which has given the club its nickname; Ingwe; which means Leopards in Luhya.

AFC has won the Kenyan Premier League 12 times; although a few fans will argue it’s 13. I have double checked this on the clubs official website and they are happy with 12. In 1970 and in 1986, they won the seasons unbeaten.

AFC has other accolades to their name, including winning the President’s Cup; now the FKL Cup; seven times. They have also won the Cecafa club championship five times.

Gor Mahia too has had a very impressive run over the years. Gor was founded in 1968 as a merger of Luo United and Luo Sports Club. Politician Tom Mboya was one of the original founders of the club. Gor Mahia himself was a Luo hero who was known to possess mystical powers.

Mahia is a Luo word that describes wonder and mystery and when Gor was formed it was supposed to naturally possess these mystical characteristics of the legend it was named after. Gor lived up to that expectation and even exceeded what many had expected.

Twelve league titles, three Cecafa championship titles, eight Presidents Cups (KFF/FKL Cup), one Kenyan Super Cup and a very prestigious African Cup Winners’ Cup later, here we are. Gor Mahia have had just one season unbeaten; way back in 1976.

The two clubs boast the highest number of fans in the country, with AFC Leopard claiming; much to my chagrin; that they have six million odd fans. I must admit though that AFC have very loyal fans who stick by the team whether or not the team is doing well and it hasn’t been doing well for some time.

Which brings me to my next segment on where these teams are today. You see the accolades mentioned above mostly happened more than a decade ago. The ‘70s, ‘80s and the ‘90s were when both clubs dominated local and regional football. AFC Leopards haven’t won the league since 1998, while Gor Mahia’s last victory there was in 1995. In the past ten years, AFC has just managed the President’s cup twice; while Gor Mahia has won the same tournament (under a different name) and the Super Cup; both in 2008.

Gor has fared a lot better than AFC lately though, coming close to a league title last year, coming second, just three points behind champions Ulinzi. The performance has seen hoards of fans return to the stadium in support of Gor; and has seen the club earn good money from match entry fees; and attracting a good sponsorship deal from milk brand, Tuzo.

AFC haven’t been so fortunate in recent years. The club found themselves being relegated at the end of the 2006 season and didn’t play any football in 2007. In 2008 they picked themselves up and participated in the Nationwide league, winning it and advancing to the KPL. They almost found themselves being relegated in 2009, but survived by just five points. They weren’t that much better last year ending the season in 12th position, just three points above the relegation zone.

Over the past two years, Gor Mahia has been relatively stable in terms of coaching staff and players, with little changes taking place. In fact I would attribute their vastly improved performance to the stability in the team, a decent combination of players, coaching staff and management; which has in turn attracted fans who had long since abandoned stadium duty. I know the club has some internal management issues, but they have been kept well away from the public eye, which is the way issues should be handled.

On the contrary, AFC Leopards has been run like a kiosk. From the top to the very bottom, we have seen problems. The national elections over the past three years have been dogged by public squabbles, factions physically fighting each other on Election Day, with the same election being held on three different occasions this year alone before settling on a management board. They have sponsors whose management board I believe have political ambitions.

So it is no surprise that this confusion has found its way into the team. AFC started their campaign back in the KPL in 2009 with Gilbert Selebwa as the coach; and ended it with Nick Yakama in charge. They began 2010 with Yakama in charge, went through Chris Makokha, Robert Matano and Dino Kitavi before the year ended. They began 2011 with Robert Bollen in charge, went back to Matano before sacking him and returning Yakama to the realm. Yakama was last week demoted to assistant coach with 70-year-old Dutchman Jans Koops now in charge. (Something tells me I’ve missed a few coaches in between but I’m sure you get the picture)

In June 2008, AFC sacked 12 players and replaced them during the mid-term transfer window, they played a similar stunt same time last year; and this year 10 or so players were shown the door.

So it’s no wonder the team hasn’t been doing well although they finally have a decent team and a coach who appears to know what he is doing. They go into this weekend’s match with a 2 – 1 win over Thika and sitting 12th in the standings; eight points behind Gor, although Gor have a game in hand.

In recent years Gor has been the finer team but historically these teams are equals. They have met in the Cecafa final twice, with Gor winning it in 1980 and AFC taking the title in 1984. In fact 1984 was a year in which Gor won the league title; but lost three times to AFC. I’m sure that put a damper on their title celebrations.

This derby has seen reports of witchcraft being used, with one club once accused of spraying white powder on the pitch. Last year we saw Gor fans insisting on entering the stadium through a particular gate – gate two – in order not to jinx their team; and the list of oddities goes.

One thing is for sure, this is bound to be a thrilling match to watch. General form doesn’t matter; statistics are rubbish and it’s all about who you are playing today. So may the best team win!

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