The people of Kisumu love football, that you are always told. The people of Kisumu love a good display of football, they rarely tell you that. If you are an underdog playing away from home here in Kisumu, the only way out- I have come to realize, is enchant the fans. They love it, like an unsuspecting prey, they soon find themselves cheering at your deft passage of the ball, your marauding runs on the flanks and most importantly- just how good you are over the opponents- in most cases, the home side.
You can forgive the people of Kisumu for that, they have been starved of a serious football club for which to own.
News that the 2017 CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup would be hosted in Kisumu and Kakamega were met with excitement. For the first time- in a very long time, the national team Harambee Stars would play right in front of the fans to whom football was once a religion. There was however one little problem, Kisumu had nowhere to host their own national team. The neighbours Kakamega had done themselves a great deal of good in the previous two years by renovating the Bukhungu Stadium. Kisumu was stripped off the rights, matches taken all the way to Machakos. Shame is the word you are looking for.
Protestations would arise as expected, why not us, we also want football here, and the Football Kenya Federation (FKF) yielded- we’ll give you two matches, the semi-finals. Celebrations again.
The Harambee Stars had done themselves justice by sailing unscathed of Group A, they would play the Swallows of Burundi in Kisumu- runners-up in Group B. The other semi, and for which this piece is dedicated, would see 14 time champions Uganda face-off with tournament minnows Zanzibar, the Heroes from the Rock City. A barren draw against Kenya in the group stages, a rampant 3-1 win over Rwanda and another 2-1 win over their elder brothers Kilimanjaro Stars of mainland Tanzania had seen Zanzibar qualify for the semi’s. A team that have over time fashioned themselves into a bagful of surprise, they had yet another chance to upset the odds.
Now teams had flown into the country for the showpiece- Rwanda, Tanzania, Libya et al, Zanzibar on the other hand, had been on the road for 982 kilometres to Nairobi. They would be forced to add another 360 to Kisumu when they made the semi-final slot. Now the date had been set, the 15th of December 2017, and Zanzibar could enter the CECAFA final for the first time in over two decades is only they could beat the 14 time champions.
Uganda may have had a tough time coming out top of Group B- a group that had Burundi, Ethiopia and South Sudan, but the Cranes- handles by Coach Moses Basena- had enough artillery to go through and defend the title they had won two years earlier. In fact, the two red cards in their final group game against Ethiopia didn’t mean much. Defenders Timothy Awany and Isaac Muleme had each been walked to the dressing room in that must win tie, which they did get away win a 1-1 draw. Whether or not the duo’s replacements would match the Zanzibari’s would only be seen in the match.
When Coach Basena released his line-up on the day- Aggrey Madoi was to fill in for Muleme while Shafik Bakaki slotted in for Awany. Zanzibar on the other hand would only miss the services of Hajji Mwinyi on the left-back. Adeyum Ahmed was a worthy enough replacement.
The clash kicked off at 3 pm, the blazing astro turf at its worst. The rubber heated so fiercely it smelled like death. Football however, had to be played- and the Zanzibari’s strode off the tunnel at the Moi Stadium in their sky-blue silky jerseys. The Cranes maintained their red and black.
Ismail Watenga- one of Basena’s three goalkeepers at the tournament, had been given the nod on this one, and was therefore tasked with keeping the Zanzibaris at bay. He would however show the Cranes’ first sign of weakness after going an extra inch from the 18-yard box after collecting an easy ball. Luckily for him, Adeyum Ahmed’s left footed drive could only find the side-netting. Two minutes had been played.
The Cranes went forward as expected, and could have taken the lead had Kalisa Milton wrapped his laces perfectly on this third minute chance created by Muzamir Mutyaba and himself. Coach Basena, outspoken in nature- could be seen already up and shouting at why his side could miss such a chance. He was right, Zanzibar Heroes found a second chance and took it.
Bar shoddy defending- Abdul Azizi-Makame’s 22nd minute goal for the Heroes was a result of timely positioning. A Corner kick lobbed in by Adeyum had not been dealt with by three Ugandan shirts- Bakaki, Madoi the new faces in the starting XI and Hood Kaweesa- a center-forward who had seen the need to fall back and held defend the corner kick. Damage had been done by the young midfielder Makame, and the Cranes needed a response. It would only take six minutes.
Allan Kyambadde’s right wing run had been spotted by Mutyaba who released him out wide. The midfielder’s resultant cut-back cross was intentionally missed by Kawesa for Derrick Nsibambi at the far left, the KCCA FC striker making no mistake from such perfect play. Nsibambi, firing in the 28th minute- also took his goal tally at the tournament to 4.
Maybe this was never to be Uganda’s year- a side that had been accustomed to playing in the final for so long they even double Kenya’s number of trophies at the showpiece. Coach Basena withdrew a colorless Bakaki at half time and in came Joseph Nsumbuga. Huge mistake.
Mohammed Issa Banka, the beneficiary of a loose second ball from a high-pressing Uganda Cranes at the center of the park, stormed into the almost empty Ugandan half and released Ibrahim Ahmada with a pass right beside a back-pedalling Nsumbuga and the Ugandan last man at the back had two options at this point- 1) Watch Ahmada and hope that Watenga in goal would conjure up some magic save or ii) Blatantly foul Ahmada from behind. He went for the latter. A red card followed for Nsumbuga and a penalty awarded. He had only lasted ten minutes in the pitch.
Banka stepped up for the spot kick and his top right corner option was the last thing Watenga could have thought of. The lanky Ugandan keeper went opposite the ball as Zanzibar regained control of the match. Basena’s house was on fire, and throwing Allan Kateregga and Nelson Senkatuuka later on did little bring his side back in the game. The Cranes may have had a late penalty shout when substitute Mohammed Othman Mmanga brought Nsibambi down in the box in one of their frantic defensive efforts but referee Abdoul Karim waved play on. A massive call in the 93rd minute.
Mr Abduoul would blow his final whistle of the day a minute later and Hemed Suleiman went down on his knees. His traditional white shirt soaked in sweat- the Zanzibar head coach had steered his side to a CECAFA final for the first time in over two decades, the joy was overwhelming. Tears rolled freely among the Zanzibari’s. A team so young, everyone had been stunned by what they had seen. Kisumu had yearned for good football and the Zanzibari’s had brought them good football.
Youngster Abdul Azizi Makame’s comments after the match, perhaps the perfect tribute to what they had had to endure in order to participate, said that at that point- they feared no one.
Adeyum, a first time starter since the tournament begun, cried his lungs out while Ahmada went bonkers in celebrations, repeatedly thumping in the air as his teammates huddled together for a prayer. Captain Suleiman Kassim Selembe, could not even make it to the prayers- crouched a meter or two from where his teammates said their thanks to God.
Zanzibar would all to the hosts Kenya in the final match. An entertaining 2-2 draw in regular plus extra time had seen the match go all the way to penalty shoot-outs. Khamis Musa- in a perfect show of the super-substitute, scored twice to cancel out Ovella Ochieng and Masud Juma’s goals for Kenya. Harambee Stars would prevail 3-2 in the penalty shoot-outs.
It may take a while before Kisumu witnesses matches of high interest as the CECAFA given the state of our Stadia but the passion amongst the fans is something that can never be taken away from the fan by the Lakeside.