Mugambi with ponytail dreadlocks and a national coloured jacket thinking deeply.
Thinking back: The football story appears in every chapter of my life.

I was recently rummaging through old books when I came across three interesting notes from 2006. One was about girls and two were about football. Interestingly, that one about girls mentioned how I wasn’t going to chase a girl I liked because I wanted to focus on football instead. Either I really loved football or accepted quite early that I suck at this relationship thing. I’ll pick the former. 

I lie.

On the back side of that note, it appears I had just suffered rejection by another girl I liked. With my fragile teenage ego, I decided that I was safer with football than with girls. And boy was I passionate!

It leads me to a long pleasant look at my many days in this beautiful game.

Genes That Refused to Align

I come from a family with no sporting history whatsoever that is known to me. I have never seen anyone older than me in my immediate or extended family in any sport. They even lack any passion to watch games on TV. This makes me wonder where exactly my love for football came from.

Because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been in it. As a class one child, I was always playing barefoot with other village kids deep inside Runyenjes constituency. Our village roads were our playing grounds, those deep gullies in some sections notwithstanding. 

My father, a strict disciplinarian, took that ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ proverb a bit too seriously. He only tolerated academics and working at home. Never did leisure feature in his principles. 

Because of this, we always had run-ins stemming from my football habits. Either I played too much and forgot to lock up his sheep or I overstayed at a neighbour’s home listening to match commentary on the radio. Other times, I transgressed and went to watch a match on one of our neighbouring village football fields. 

A Persistent ‘Sin’ is Tolerated

I rarely received a beating for the same ‘sin’ twice. But for football, I always forgot these rules and ended up on the wrong side of Man Beater’s books. Eventually, he also seemed to realize it was an addiction and stopped punishing me for it. 

Unfortunately, I attended a primary school that had no use for football, sports, or any other extracurricular activity. You know, those private ‘academies’ that were all about books, books, then some more books. Their greatest pleasure came from going up the academic rankings at the end of each term. It was an important metric to attract more business…sorry, more learners. 

We played a lot of football at any slight opportunity. Five-minute breaks. That occasional free PE lesson. We even perfected the speed of doing our cleaning so we could spare a few minutes to play before the school closed for the day. When a teacher was late to class, we held juggling competitions. Much to the disgust of most girls in our class. Sorry, ladies.

How About The Path Less Travelled?

As my agemates learned to gamble and enjoy movies in poorly ventilated halls, football chose me. I never played pool, or cards (can’t play to this day), or watched what we called fae-fae movies (five shillings for one movie). As my friends spent any little pocket money they saved on these pleasures, I was always that small boy who was making contributions towards the repair of my local football club’s footballs. Adults, in a mock fundraiser, would be contributing as little as five shillings, then, in a small voice, I’d shyly burst ‘ten shillings.’ People always gave me a bemused look, because it was unheard of for a kid to make a contribution, leave alone such a huge one! But I didn’t have much else to spend it on. 

Newspaper snip of a dreadlocked football player.
I covered my exam report book with this knowing my dad would disapprove. But I was football!

My Sundays were largely spent in church and on the field. I didn’t have a huge liking for things like sweets and stuff. Giving ten shillings that I had saved from my weekly fare to school, even when it was the only amount I had, felt noble. 

A Run In The Dark Wild

I really never had a coach in my formative years in this game. By the time I graduated from playing on those dusty roads to coming on a real pitch, Mr. Ngari, a renowned trainer in my homeplace, was aging and had left coaching. In the second spell of poor fortune, I joined Nguviu Boys, which did not care so much about sports either. Another episode of books, books, and more books. I guess our administration took pride in us getting eliminated at the zonal level so we could focus on appearing in the papers whenever KCSE results were announced. 

Whereas some schools brought in professional coaches to handle their teams, ours left it to the games teacher to handle its team. He had a passion for football, Mr. Mugo. But he taught more discipline than he did football. That school had a high academic cut-off point that you had to meet for you to participate in extracurricular activities. Not factoring talent during enrolment, then going ahead to filter out any talent that did not achieve minimum grades meant we ended up with a rather weak team. 

A Little Light, At Last

The first signs of brightness and structure in my football days came when I shifted to Kegonge Boys. My new school had made strides and carved its place among football heavyweights in Embu district. They even had a culture of enrolling football talent and, reportedly, offering scholarships. They even involved external coaches at some point. 

But it didn’t get rosy for me. I joined at a time when this culture was dying. There had been hasty changes in management over a very short time. The principal who brought Kegonge’s football standard to where it was, Mr. David Kariuki, was pinched and taken to head the prestigious Meru School. A promotion, really. 

Shortly after, Kegonge saw almost its entire KCSE result cancelled for alleged cheating. Students from that year to forget returned but were not eligible to play. I am not sure but I think Box 1, as Kegonge is popularly known, suffered a ban from sports competitions as a result of fielding these players. The principal who succeeded Mr. Kariuki, Mr. Muriithi, was hastily whisked away from that position. 

Recovery at Last…Or Probably Not.

I joined at a time when Kegonge was pulling out of this mess. Despite being a lover of football, then principal Mr. Ben Njue had bigger fish to fry at the time. The game suffered. It did not help that I went to school at a time when students joining from other schools were not treated equally in new schools. Some players on that team were not ready to welcome me. They even tried to use a common Kegonge name for jokers on me – Musakuthe. But I got in nonetheless.

The silver lining was the strong culture of football in that school. Even without a coach, we trained hard. And smart too. We were allowed to go outside the school compound for roadwork sessions, something almost unheard of in Nguviu. It looked unreal to me that we could skip Saturday morning preps and go out running. As others moaned about these tough sessions, I enjoyed every moment. 

Another good thing about Kegonge was that it was close to home. That meant I could find ways to go and play with my local teams on random Sundays. Sometimes a teacher on duty was kind enough to let me and a few others out for two hours on Sunday evenings. Other times we faked sickness and got leave-outs. When all these failed, we usually took time to remind our administration that their school fence was not that restraining. Don’t say I said that. On some days, we invited community teams from our neighbouring community to play with us. Heavenly days, those! 

Barging In

My entry into that first team was dramatic. It was occasioned by our team attending the Don Bosco Tournament hosted by a school going by that same name. It happened that the Saturday tournament coincided with an annual trip meant for school prefects. Given the prevailing conditions, prefects got a nod to use the school bus ahead of us. 

That meant we had to request a lift from Nguviu Boys to Don Bosco. Nguviu’s bus had to drop its own teams first. Hence, we were picked up very late. There were already complaints in camp; morale was low. In the absence of prefects who were part of that team, we had a huge deficit both in talent and leadership.

The people who took charge of the team were absolutely ruthless and absolutely discriminatory. They picked that day’s starting eleven based on, I think, friendship only. We were beaten earlier than your favourite socialite politician. 

Having been eliminated by 3 pm, it was decided that the bus that picked us up last would drop us at school first. We did not mingle with girls or engage in other shenanigans that made school trips memorable. Words were traded on that bus on our way back to school. Accusations and insults flew. A few punches perhaps. 

The ‘leaders’ of the day, total snakes in my eyes at that point, declared that they would never play for that school team again. They committed to its downfall going forward. And they kept their word the next day, Sunday, when we had a scheduled friendly match against a select community team. 

Can a Traitor Have a Cause?

I did not feel committed to that course. For one, they were openly sidelining me from team activities. Secondly, that visiting team was an all-star team comprising the best players from my home area. I relished playing with and against them. As those mutineers skipped our warm-up session, I joined in happily and shamelessly. 

We were a pretty lean squad, comprising prefects who had by then returned and a few others who hardly got opportunities in the first team. 

People in red tshirts sitting in a roundtable group discussion
Learn keenly to teach well. The group assignments at CAF C training were hard tackles!

That Sunday proved to be one of my most enjoyable matches. I got to play an entire match in my preferred number six position and felt charged like never before. We ended up beating the all-star side 6-0. I was singled out for praise despite looking like a makeshift team. One of our scorers was a form one, or two, kid, Geoffrey. It was quite unusual for a junior student to get such an opportunity.

Vindicated, Accepted!

The balance tipped that day. Mr. Njue J.M., alias Mustafa, found his first team. Everyone cheered wildly. Except for the boycotting lot, of course. I wrote a flowery article for that following Monday’s news bulletin which usually ran during the morning assembly. I was squarely on that team now. 

Our mutineers were not happy. But there wasn’t much they could do. Gradually, they licked their wounds and came back to our fold, some having to settle for places on the bench. The likes of Joseph Muriithi ‘Josanto,’ Francis Muchangi ‘Kurry,’ and I had pinned down places. Geoffrey, that weekend’s top scorer, too. Our relationship improved and we had many good playing days for the rest of our days in that lovely institution.

We never quite managed to reach the provincial level in my two years there, but we were not mere participants either. And we enjoyed this game a lot and created awesome memories. 

Out There

Group photo of youth footballers
There’s a joy that comes with doing football with kids. The raw excitement is unmatched.

During the last days of our high school stay, everyone told us how life was going to be tough ‘out there.’ So much that it became a cliche. Except I didn’t know that I was going to face another tough ‘football out there.’ 

By the time I cleared high school, I was already part of our mainstream local team. But none of my friends or my agemates were. It mainly comprised hardened ageing players from the generation before us. They were extremely rough in training and scared many of my agemates from coming on board. Again, seniority in age determined who got a starting berth. A junior player would show up for practice every week then, come Sunday, senior players without a single day’s practice would get starting berths. Gradually, my agemates stopped showing up. The seniors did not show up either, so our team fell into its deathbed. In a tough ‘out there,’ I suddenly didn’t have anywhere to play. 

At the same time, my friends a few kilometres away were doing great things. Four brothers (Peter ‘Kairacy’ Munene, Steve ‘Sti’ Mbogo, Paul ‘Nyash’ Nyaga (RIP) and Mugo) combined with two other brothers (Martin Gatavi and Eric Njiru) and got to serious ball playing. Two families already producing half a team when I didn’t have anyone to train with. 

But I kept training alone anyway. 

Coming in From the Cold…

My father had by now fully accepted that football and I were inseparable. He linked me with his fellow teacher, Mr. Kavungura, rest his soul. Kavungura was involved in a campaign against drug abuse through Peacemakers Kenya. Mr. Kavungura gifted me two balls to start a team with. That is one of the best gifts I have received to this day. 

It is at that point that I formed a breakaway team in my hometown. The response was overwhelming. Young players showed up and we trained on a small separate segment of the field when the senior team was also training. But they rarely trained, so we had a whole pitch to ourselves most of the time. Soon after, the older generation team died a natural death. Some of the younger ones from that old team joined us. They didn’t even let us inherit their team uniforms. I do not complain, however. Those were just ordinary t-shirts, just similar in colour. 

A few months in, we decided to purchase a set of playing kits. Jerseys to be specific. We had a weekly contribution of Sh. 20 each. Most of the young players did their best, but those older ones who joined did not take us seriously. My neighbour Micheni was especially troublesome. I understand; I think he did not really fancy the idea of a boy so much younger than him being in charge. 

Ronaldinho is Here, Pato is Here!

Eventually, we were able to purchase a full set of uniforms. Ten AC Milan knock-off jerseys. Albert Njiru, a friend to date, helped us pick them out. The only problem is that he picked seven Ronaldinho shirts and three Pato ones. I bought a retro jersey from a mitumba stall; that became our goalkeeper jersey. So, in my team, you either wore jersey number 80 or number 7. Not that we cared; we had kits and we played many good games all the time.

A lot happened in that space – between completing form four and joining college. I became the team captain. At that time, a captain’s roles included conducting training, raising and keeping team monies, attending meetings, organizing match logistics and managing kits among other things. My friendship with one Jamleck Nyaga almost died when I strictly outed him for trying to make our goalkeeper’s jersey his personal property.

The Best Football Days Lie Ahead

Coach trainees sitting on stadium terraces
Any learning, even football learning, is work; every break is worth a laugh

When I joined Moi University Moi Campus, I walked into my best days of football. I took with me a football gifted to the team by a well-wisher. No, I was not the type to take away team property for my personal benefit. Our benefactor wasn’t very well informed about the correct football equipment. The ball was a tubeless fake that could not stand a single puncture. But it could stand a simple kick about. So I bought my team a first aid kit using my pocket money in exchange for that ball.

On the second day at Kesses, I went for a kickabout on the lawns outside the spaced hostels. Within two days, we already had a team that was too packed to play in those spaces. The likes of Kaptain Sir Kollo and others from various residence halls. We switched to playing in rounds. You know that format where you have teams of five, six seven, right? Any team that concedes leaves the pitch and another one joins.

Go Hard or Go Home!

In the second week we, the freshers, played Moi University’s senior team. I suffered a bad handoff from one Thomas Kaudo. In hindsight, that might be the exact point when I got into that University Team. When I looked at him in contempt for that tackle, TK retorted, “Welcome to The Field Marshals. Here, you go hard or go home.”

In Moi, I underwent two major transformations. For the first time, I was exposed to actual coaching. Seeing that coaching act and being coached impressed me massively. As a result, I started slowly but unknowingly whenever I got to go back home. Also, I got used to playing in different positions with an expectation to perform fully.

You see, a 20-year-old without any substantial coaching is not always going to be a first pick in a senior team of a university team pooling players from around the country. In all honesty, I was on that team more because of my passion than owing it to my talent. So I played wherever I was asked. Whenever I was asked. And I jolly liked it.

Can Football Stars Truly Align?

My luck came in the form of a left-back shortage. When we reported for our first senior-team session, its coach grouped us into our favourite positions. We were too many number sixes but there was only one number three. So the coach said, “Master, just play there for practice, you’ll get your six some other time.” After practice, he said, “Dogo, forget any other position. That is your number right now.”

I am not ambidextrous. Actually, at that point, I was heavily right-footed. But the coach was short of options. His present left full-back was a fifth-year engineering student, Roy. That made the natural left-footer gravitate more towards classwork and further away from the team. I thrived! I pinned down that same position in my Information Sciences faculty. Samuel Kariuki and Omar Kibulanga were often on the converting end of my crosses on our way to winning inter-school tournaments. Don’t listen when they tell you that the giant Orina from The School of Engineering, Orina, or that on-pitch annoying Jose from The School of Education always scared me. In my defence, Jose’s nickname was Di Maria; he was on that senior team too -awesome to play with; a nightmare to play against. And Orina was, well, a giant!

Except for Annoying Samuel…

The only downside in our senior team-something that annoyed me a lot – was that my friend Samuel Kariuki, a lethal talented striker, was more attracted to hockey than football. He had rotten knees, yes, but it still annoyed me.

That phase also made me enjoy football much more when I went back home. I became more of an authority figure with those training drills I brought back from Uasin Gishu. Alongside the likes of John Ndwiga, we organized a local league. When John’s Kisimani FC joined the provincial league, he tapped me. It is around then that serious injuries started visiting me. Probably because of demands at that higher level. We collected more experience than points that season.

The Football Hereafter

I am largely dead football-wise, but I’m not an ancestor yet. I’m in the hereafter. A lot lies in seven years that follow what I tell in this article. I’d require another separate article to tell you about it. How I took part on a radio sports desk. Did live broadcasts for the AFCON and World Cup. Played in a media team but ended up shining in rugby more than football. That was a shame, no? Benafa Ndoch took me to play for Dynamic Kibra. I took CAF coaching courses. Took part in a major improvement of my home team. Worked with seniors like Kiarie Mbugua, Dickson Njiru and Eric Justus on a lot. Started this blog, which shined a lot of light on football in Embu a while ago. Headed FKF’s Embu East chapter. The great team at FC Inter Dunga Dunga, now Inter Dunga FC.

Then dropped all that in a wink. Let go of this game like it was a complete and unfriendly stranger.

But football has refused to let me go.

It keeps calling. Maybe my many days in this game are not over yet.

Que, sera sera.

Apology

Sorry for coming back with a very long article. It is to clarify my idea as much as it is to document my story. We are looking to create a platform where sports stakeholders can tell their stories in this game and every sport. These stories will inspire other sports lovers who may be finding this journey difficult. It will also make you immortal; you can now tell anyone who doubts stories of your youth, “Go read for yourself on One-9.”

We know not everyone is a writer and/or storyteller. Therefore, we take two approaches to telling your story. You can write to/for us or we can sit over a cup of something liquid, listen to your story, and tell it for you – so well that even you will be marvelled by it. Either way, we want it to be YOUR story. Have a look at Romelu Lukaku’s story on Players’ Tribune for further insight into our idea.

We are not limiting the level of professionalism publish. So feel free to request space or direct us to someone whose story you think needs to be told. But hey, people love telling stories! If I were you, I’d get in while there are still some seats available!

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