Shama Shama! Music to AFC fans’ ears

The Nakuru Olympic Youth Centre team on a tour of Germany in 1974.The trip was organized by Bernhard Zgoll,(centre,pointing)the German couch who had been seconded to Kenya.

One relaxed mid-morning at the office, my secretary asked me a question completely unrelated to the task at hand: “Did you at one time write about Shama Shama, the former footballer?” It had been years since I left the Sports Desk. I was not even writing the regular column in the Saturday Nation that I would pen in years to come. I was immersed in the routine tasks of running a journalism training college. Shama Shama lived and played in my distant past.

Yes, I replied, as I wondered where this was going. She said: “I am told he was a very great footballer.” Yes he was, I told her. But why was she asking? She shook her head pitifully and then said: “He drinks to a point of not knowing who he is… the cheap, cheap drinks.”

I pondered that for a few seconds and didn’t know which of the many questions going through my mind I would ask. In my mind’s eye, the only place I could see Shama Shama was on the Nairobi City Stadium pitch, tirelessly orchestrating the rhythms of the AFC Leopards mid-field.

So I found myself asking my secretary where in the world Shama Shama drinks, if indeed that is what he was doing with himself these days. It is as if I planned to go there and see the sorry spectacle for myself. “Anywhere he can find a drink. I mean anywhere,” she said.

“How did you know?”

“Through a relative. She is his neighbor. When she told me he was a great footballer, I thought you would know him. That’s why I asked.”

When she stepped out, I took time to reflect on that tragedy. But that’s all I did: think about him. When next I heard about him, he was dead. I didn’t even get to know the cause. I felt immensely sad about this. His tragedy was emblematic of so much of fallen Kenyan stardom.

Haggai Mirikau, for that was his real name, was a midfielder par excellence. In his day, the richness of Kenyan football made it a centerpiece of our cultural life. And every city and town had its own shrine – City Stadium in Nairobi, Bukhungu in Kakamega, Afraha in Nakuru, Mombasa Municipal, Kisumu Municipal, Thika Municipal, Gusii in Kisii.

There was football in Meru, in Eldoret, in Limuru and in Malindi. Every weekend, we flocked to these places, sometimes covering enormous distances to do so, unable to wait for the results in the following day’s newspapers.

Our football’s cultural twin was music. It is no wonder that the nickname they gave to this great midfielder was Shama Shama. Shama Shama was a hit song by a Congolese band of the same name.

Vicky eh shama shama!

Vicky eh shama shama,

Banyokolaka moniga boyete shama,

Banyokolaka moninga boyete shama,

Vicky eh shama eh shama.

The delivery of the vocalist’s lyrics had the feel of a smooth cruise, which is not very different from the way Haggai played his football in his day of days. And Shama Shama were not the only ones; they competed for our hearts with Lipua Lipua, Kamale, Kiam and the timeless OK Jazz and Afrisa Internationale.

Nairobi became a cultural destination for many of these groups. So enchanted did they become with us – and we with them – that some pitched tent here. Virunga, Mangelepa and Vundumuna all produced a successive string of hits that inexorably found their way into our football lexicon.

The great giants, Haggai’s AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia were rivals to the death but their supporters found common ground in music – and possibly their loathing for Kenya Breweries and Volcano United football clubs, which threatened their hegemony.

Haggai is one of those unforgettable footballers that I was fortunate to cover in my sports writing career. I remembered him as a player of great industry, a man with a high work rate. He was spare of height but had a well-built athletic frame.

He had plenty of stamina and used it to cover great lengths of the pitch. He would collect balls from his defenders and thrust forward past bemused opponents, displaying great ball control with both feet. He played midfield and always did what midfielders are expected to do: supply balls to the forwards and relieve pressure from the defenders. He played this role selflessly, scarcely featuring in the score sheet but nearly always being the source of the moves that yielded the goals. And he played clean, rarely getting the attention of the referee.

When I remembered Haggai, two games especially came to mind. One was a national league match against Kenya Breweries at the City Stadium. As with all encounters between these sides, it was fiercely contested. But, for some reason, Leopards, the reigning champions who were all but certain to keep their title, were having trouble finding their footing. It was Breweries who were attacking fluently and defending resolutely while Leopards looked awkward.

All, that is, except Haggai. He was on top of his form and he was all over the pitch, collecting balls from deep in his half and pushing them forward in pin-point passes to his team mates. But, inexplicably, these passes seemed to get lost to Breweries the next instant. Still, he didn’t tire. When Leopards lost the ball, Haggai scurried back, got it and dispatched somebody. He did this over and over and I found myself following his every move. Late in the game, with Breweries leading 1-0, he momentarily held his face and looked wearily at the Breweries goal.

But never one to give up easily, he resumed work furiously. Minutes ticked by. The multitudes of Leopards fans fell silent, sensing a bad ending. This is what came to pass; Breweries won by that slight margin. On the way out of the stadium, I asked my photographer, Hos Maina:

“Did you see how Haggai reacted towards the end?” Yes, Hos replied, nodding knowingly and somewhat pitifully. “It’s as if he said: ‘we’re losing.’” I remembered that game because long after it was over, I couldn’t get over feeling sorry for Haggai for working so hard and yet ending up in the losing team. I felt he deserved a better result. The next game I remembered was much happier for him. It was the 1982 East and Central Africa Club Cup final against Zimbabwe’s Rio Tinto. It was also staged at the City Stadium. Right from the beginning, AFC Leopards had demonstrated an enormous appetite to win this tournament.

In 1981,the Harambee Stars won the Cecafa East and Central African Senior Challenge Cup for the first of a three-year run. Above,the team meets President Daniel Arap Moi at State House, Nairobi .It was led by coach Marshall Mulwa (seated extreme left )and captain Mahmoud Abbas (seated to the immediate left of the President).

And you could understand them. Their arch-rivals, Gor Mahia, had won the trophy twice. Earlier on, another compatriot team, Luo Union, had also won it the same number of times back to back. It was true that the first time Leopards had won it, in Mogadishu in 1979, they had done so in truly heroic fashion. They had been given a 48-hour notice to go there after the country’s representatives, Kenya Breweries, withdrew at the last minute. Leopards had packed their bags, flew to Somalia – which, at that time, was a stable country – and came back with the trophy. Haggai was a rookie then and acquitted himself so well that his place in Leopards was henceforth assured.

But in 1982, the Somalia win was a distant memory.

What lingered was the painful abdication of the Cup to Gor Mahia in Malawi the following year. And for good measure, Gor had retained it in 1981, defeating Simba of Tanzania after Leopards had crashed out of the tournament in the preliminaries. Leopards were therefore itching to show their claws, the priority being to even the scores with Luo Union and Gor Mahia.

Psychologically, Leopards were one up against Rio Tinto; they had defeated them 2-0 in the very first match of the preliminaries. However, that was then. Rio had recovered and grown in stature with every game after that.

Their ambition was abundantly confirmed when they dispatched the heavily favored Yanga of Tanzania 2-1 in a masterful semi-final display. But Leopards were on a roll too. After Rio, they swept all before them, including their arch-rivals and compatriots, Gor Mahia, in their semi-final.

By the time they walked into the Nairobi City Stadium on the sub-bathed Saturday afternoon of February 28, few could put a bet against them. Rio was by every measure a championship team. But Leopards had gathered such momentum that an upset seemed quite an unlikely possibility.

The Leopards line-up was impressive: Mahmoud Abbas, Pius Masinza, Patrick Shilasi, Shadrack Oyando, Josephat Murila, Abdul Baraza, Francis Kadenge, Haggai Mirikau, Joe Masiga, Wellington Lidonde and Wilberforce Mulamba.

There had been a time when Baraza was famed for direct free kicks that never missed their target. He was losing the touch by this time but he was still a very important player in midfield for Leopards. Francis Kadenge, son of Kenya’s legendary right winger Joe Kadenge, played in his father’s old position.

Try as they might, they couldn’t crack the Leopards defence. And when the ball went out for a goalkick, Mahmoud Abbas exhibited his famously frustrating talents of wasting time and clapping for his frantic opponents. 1-0 and Leopards were two-time East and Central Africa club champions — just like their compatriots, Gor Mahia and Luo Union. Wellington Lidonde instantly acquired a new nickname — Mkombozi (Saviour) — and a bar in Eastlands changed its name to Rio Tinto.

His combination with Masiga was harrowing for many defenders because both had great speed and very powerful right feet. The man who teamed up with Josephat Murila at central defence, Shadrack Oyando, was one of those accomplished players whose only misfortune was playing at the same time as the great Bobby Ogolla. He otherwise was material for Harambee Stars.

So was Patrick Shilasi, the stocky, 5-ft left back who won many heading duels against much taller forwards. Then there was midfielder Haggai, now a veteran of the Leopards, fully mature from the youngster who had shone so bright in the Somalia campaign.

This game was a cracker from the first whistle. The speed was blistering with moves originating from defence being scrambled desperately in penalty areas and swinging the other way the very next instant. Mahmoud Abbas came into this game without conceding any goal. Now he was all over his line, punching out and grabbing the efforts of Ephert Lungu, David Mwanza and Joseph Zulu.

Somehow, he managed to hang on to his plain score sheet. On the other end, every move conjured up by Mulamba, Haggai, Kadenge and Masiga couldn’t crack the Rio defence and when it did, Rapahel Phiri in goal was equal to it. The first half, the second and the first session of extra time ended with a blank score sheet.

Worry was creeping among the Leopards supporters as the game furiously bore on to the last seven minutes of extra time and penalties started looming. It was little comfort that Abbas was a specialist in grabbing them; nobody wanted to take their chances with that. Then, from the right flank where he had gone in his desperate search for the elusive net, Joe Masiga hit a long cross that found Wellington Lidonde unmarked on the edge of the penalty area. The big man met the ball with a full-bloodied header that slammed into Phiri’s left hand corner of the net. The cheers from the Leopards fans shook the earth. Rio Tinto mounted a relentless push for an equalizer with the few minutes remaining.

But try as they might, they couldn’t crack the Leopards defence. And when the ball went out for a goal-kick, Mahmoud Abbas exhibited his famously frustrating talents of wasting time and clapping for his frantic opponents. 1-0 and Leopards were two-time East and Central Africa club champions – just like their compatriots, Gor Mahia and Luo Union. Wellington Lidonde instantly acquired a new nickname – “Mkombozi” (Saviour) – and a bar in Eastlands changed its name to Rio Tinto. Delirious Leopards fans patronized it 24 hours.

The joy of being Harambee Stars fans when the going is good.

Nairobi City Stadium, the old football shrine where Haggai burst into the national scene, rapidly sank into disrepair. A teeming slum sprung up on its eastern side, choking its entrance. The low, grey walls and the floodlight pylons described a structure frozen in time. The laying of an artificial surface, so lush against the faded walls and ancient pylons, gave it the look of a new patch on the bottom of an old, threadbare trouser.

And yet this is the place that beckoned to us every weekend. This is the place where we saw, starry-eyed and breathless, Thomas N’Kono, Godfrey Chitalu, Jack Chamangwana, Mahmoud el Khateeb and Stephen Keshi. Haggai died as Leopards were sinking into grassroots football, not the continental scene where they once featured as a matter of routine. And Harambee Stars resembled a looted treasure.

But you cannot help but remember Shama Shama with the greatest fondness. He and his colleagues symbolized an era. And my generation of sports reporters can only be grateful to him and the football stars of his time who made writing their stories such a great labor of love and inspiration.

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