There are no words fitting enough to describe what transpired last Sunday at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, where a single game of football brought an entire nation together.
The momentous friendly between domestic giants, Gor Mahia FC and visiting English side, Hull City FC, was reduced to a sideshow amid emotional scenes that for those lucky enough to witness the spectacle, will linger on for ages.
It was a tacit reminder, if anyone needed one, of the astonishing passion Kenyans have for football as an enthusiastic crowd of 60,000 fans from all walks of life filled the country’s sporting cathedral and put on a dazzling show of raw patriotism.
The last time Kasarani saw anything close to Sunday was on January 12, 1997 when Harambee Stars hosted the mighty Super Eagles in a 1998 Fifa World Cup qualifier.
However, that occasion where Kenya recorded a memorable 1-1 draw under the late German head coach, Reinhardt Fabisch, did not prompt the scenes that unfolded during the match dubbed #HullCityInKenya.
“It was special. My group of player and staff will remember this forever,” Hull head coach, Nijel Adkins, brilliantly summed later on Sunday when they were hosted to a dinner by leading bookmakers, SportPesa, who organised the match.
“The unifying power of sport was there for all to see. Everyone knows that Kenyans are good in athletics and they can run fast but we wanted to prove that we are good in football as well.
“When we set out to play our part in helping to showcase our talent we never expected we would witness anything like this and we can only do bigger things next time,” SportPesa CEO Ronald Karauri remarked.
Signs that something iconic was about to happen at Kasarani started in the morning of the game that Hull eventually won 4-3 on post-match penalties after a pulsating 0-0 draw when the sun came out following weeks of daily heavy rains.
That prompted fans to start arriving at the stadium from 9am, six hours ahead of kick-off.
Inside and outside the stadium, a carnival atmosphere greeted the supporters who made their way where the sight of Gor’s eternal enemies, AFC Leopards SC faithful dressed in their team’s colours were among those who thronged the venue to support K’Ogalo.
Domestic football, ethnic, religious and racial differences were put aside as Kenyan football lovers trooped to Kasarani to back the home side while according visiting English Football League Championship side Hull the respect that melted their hearts.
Massive queues formed along Thika Super Highway as the clock ticked towards kick-off, creating a traffic gridlock. What has seemed improbable, a sellout of Kasarani where many events have struggled to fill, had happened.
“It was unbelievable. My players were taking photos of these masses of people who were making their way to the game in the bus as we headed to the stadium. The cheering as we passed them was unreal,” the Hull boss Adkins later said.
Organisers had arranged a wide range of entertainment – it was not just the football – and this played a huge part in whipping up a mad atmosphere that served to add to what will go done the annals of Kenyan history as a watershed day for domestic football.
When Gor head coach, Dylan Kerr emerged for his pre-match media duties and a lap of honour, all four corners of the stadium rose to acclaim, performing the Nigerian Igwe (chief) bow of honour in acknowledging his work at the record 16-time league champions since he took over.
“I thought I was used to the great support we receive from our fans but I was wrong. When we came out, it was unbelievable. I will remember this day forever,” club record signing and Rwandese international striker, Jacques Tuyisenge confessed.
With the teams out at the middle of the pitch, the sight of former Prime Minister and chief guest, Rt. Hon. Raila Amolo Odinga and fellow dignitaries making their way to the ground was the cue for pandemonium in the stands.
Raila Odinga (centre) waves to the crowds during the international friendly match between Gor Mahia and Hull City on May 13, 2018 at the Kasarani Stadium. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP
When the game started, fans maintained the explosive atmosphere right through to the end of regulation time, acknowledging the good football that was played at the brand new Kasarani pitch.
Fittingly, neither side could fashion victory in the 90, huge reward for the industry and commitment they showed and the game had to be settled via post-match spot kicks which Hull City won.
“I hope that Football Kenya Federation, the Kenyan Premier League, the Ministry of Sport and Government can use what we saw to develop football.
“I tell my players all the time that they can be the best and the showed that. I’m sorry gaffer (Adkins) but we pumped you! The talent here is unbelievable and all it needs is support,” Kerr stated in the aftermath of a landmark day in Kenya’s football.
“Dylan, you have a good team and it is my wish that the current Gor team that has done such wonderful things can go on to inspire the next generation of Kenyan players to realise the goals of playing at the highest international level,” the Hull head coach responded.
During the dinner held at a Nairobi hotel, both sets of players exchanged gifts and received medals as the sense of it all sunk in, knowing they had contributed to what could be a defining chapter in the future of Kenyan football.
“This is overwhelming. We simply marketed the game as a Kenyan versus English team and we knew we would have good turnout but no one expected something of such a scale,” SportPesa head of marketing, Kelvin Twissa remarked.
The Kasarani spectacle left no doubt there is huge appetite for football and sports can stoke patriotism and unity under the national flag.
Inspired by the record turn out, SportPesa will no doubt be motivated to organise ‘bigger’ events as Karauri pledged but at the end of it all, the buck stops at the Government.
First Published by The Nation