Thirty years ago, Gor Mahia won the Cecafa East and Central Africa Club Cup for the third and last time. They beat their compatriots, AFC Leopards 2-0 in an all-Kenya final in Khartoum. Two years later, they would scale even greater heights, reaching the pinnacle of African football with victory in the Nelson Mandela Africa Cup Winners Cup.
As a reporter during those momentous times – and even earlier than that – I was a witness to the promise of Kenyan football. I was the privileged bystander who saw the potential of Gor Mahia whose players bewitched us with a brand of “carpet football” the hallmark of which was short, intricate passes interspersed with Bobby Ogolla and Austin Oduor’s resolute defensive discipline, Peter Bassanga Otieno and Paul Cobra Oduwo’s overlapping runs on the wings, Nashon Oluoch’s feints on the touchlines and the seemingly effortless pumping of the midfield that was magic itself – that of Allan Thigo and Sammy Owino.
Because of what I saw, I have never come to terms with what Gor Mahia became after 1987. I thought the only way was up. Each time I see them fizzle out in the group stages of the Africa Champions League, I am overcome with nostalgia for those days when we believed we had equality of arms with the likes of Al Ahly and Zamalek and Esperance and Canon and everybody else.
But what cannot be cured, must be endured. If it is the club’s fate to forever hold out a begging bowl so as to attempt to win a title that we took for granted in the early 80s, so be it. But somewhere inside those of us who saw and believed, there is a refusal to accept. Once you have witnessed greatness, your mind gets stuck there with lots of longing and wishing.
1985 was the year that belonged to William Obwaka, then a medical student at the University of Nairobi. His two goals in the Khartoum final destroyed AFC Leopards, the team that had turned him down because they thought he was too skinny. He was quite happy to do that to them but nothing personal, he laughed, just business. They were still his friends, of course, and blood relatives eternally.
On the back of that memorable victory in Sudan, I cornered Obwaka at the Medical Students’ Hostels at the Kenyatta National Hospital for a profile during which we enjoyed lots of laughs at the expense of his shemejis. I inaccurately described him as “a one-man wrecking unit” taking quite a bit away from the great teamwork that Gor’s team had shown throughout the outing.
We remain friends to this day, and I am surprised about how true my description of the personality of the now veteran obstetrician gynaecologist remains 30 years later. In that February 1985 story, I wrote: “The aspiring medical doctor whose goals decided the fate of the 1985 East and Central African Club Cup has an engaging personality. He is free and happy. He is courteous. He is busy. He can talk at length while yet being a studious and attentive man.
“He seems to prefer going easy and light-heartedly about this business that is life. Often in conversation, he’ll poke fun at issues and people – including himself. Listen to why he opted for a science-based career: ‘Shakespeare and I could never get along. At ‘O’ Levels, I flopped nicely in literature.’”
Gor Mahia had waited badly to win that cup again. Their eternal rivals, AFC Leopards had taken it three times back-to-back, in 1982, 1983 and 1984. As Abaluhya, they had won it in 1967 and 1979. Gor Mahia’s other compatriots and bitter blood rivals, Luo Union, were champions in 1976 and 1977. It was Leopards who had taken it away from them in 1982.
Their delirious fans thronged Jomo Kenyatta Airport to welcome them home. “Put out that cigarette!” One fan shouted at another who was smoking as the players cleared customs. “Don’t you know that it could burn the Cup!” He was supported all round and the smoker obliged.
Obwaka may have performed heroics in Sudan but he was not even the mainstay of the 1985 team. He was only part of a well-functioning machine that gave Gor Mahia fans immense happiness.
I have an assignment for those fans as Gor Mahia continues its campaign in Cecafa Cup. The list of players below belongs to 1985. If Gor Mahia had a club house, this roster would occupy pride of place. Note the players’ ages (in brackets) and ask yourself who among them you know that is still active – in football or in any other way – today. Then utter a prayer that those gone rest in peace.
1. Hesbon Omollo (Captain of the Sudan winning team, 24). 2. William Obwaka (24). 3. James Goro Oronge (25). 4. John Bobby Ogolla (27). 5. Joseph Owiti (21). 6. George Odembo Nyangi (21). 7. Abbas Magongo “Zamalek” (22). 8. Peter Okello “Kolobot” (26). 9. Enock “Sergeant Doe” Obwaka (26). 10. Gideon Hamisi “Aziki” (24). 11. Jaffer Salim Mwidau (20). 12. Mathew Juma Okoth (22). 13. Peter Bassanga Otieno (Regular captain of the team, 25). 14. George “Solo” Otieno (30). 15. Abbey Nasur (31). 16. John “Zangi” Okello (22). 17. Tirus “Tairero” Omondi (Goalkeeper, 25). 18. David “Kamoga” Ochieng (Goalkeeper, 25). 19. Austin Oduor (26). 20. Abdullah Shebe (22). 21. Swaleh Ochieng (28). 22. Ben “Breakdance” Oloo (23).
No bearing News
The year 1985 predated the mobile phone, the internet and the liberalised media with its breaking news. There was only good old Voice of Kenya with its ubiquitous national service radio.
I wrote: “For 16 days between January 12 and 27, Kenya was a nation on the radio-side. Between intervals of two, three or four days, the national service of the Voice of Kenya linked up with the Sudanese cities of Khartoum and Medan for live commentaries of matches involving Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards.
“But not for one man. Noted as much for his football proficiency as for his volcanic temper, Gor Mahia coach Len Julians decided to have nothing to do with the radio for as long as it was announcing how battle was going on. ‘I just couldn’t stand it,’ a grinning and relaxed Julians told me at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport where he had gone to welcome his victorious boys. ‘The tension was just too much for me.’”
Julians, the architect of the great Gor Mahia team of the mid-80s that Jack Johnson used to win the Mandela Cup, was under suspension and couldn’t travel to Khartoum. Julians didn’t understand Swahili but he was sure the breathless commentaries emanating from the radio would give him a heart attack. So he told me that as soon as VoK studios in Nairobi linked up with Sudan, he went off to the theatre to get away from it all.
‘It was enough to know the result,’ he told me, ‘and I liked result after result.’
Worse for Julians, “strangers” were playing for him. He had gone back home in the UK when the transfer season was on and only returned to Kenya less than a week before the team’s departure for Sudan.
He told me: ‘I only briefly worked with Nyangi, Goro Oronge, Ben Oloo and Swaleh Ochieng. Of course, I had seen them play in the league – except Goro – and I had been impressed with them. Swaleh I needed because of his experience. The others were promising players. But even then, they had not played for long with Gor Mahia and the whole thing was frustrating for me.”
Julians told me of his plans to take Gor Mahia on a tour of Europe. He had made vital contacts, he said, and was now talking to the club’s management about making that happen. Of course, it didn’t, and I have written about that story before. In my conversations with him, Julians came across as father who could anything for his children in so far as his attitudes to his players were concerned.
He spoke about them in glowing terms. (“Charles Otieno, he’s the engine of the team.” And, “Maurice Ochieng, he’s good, isn’t he?” “Bobby, Oh! Absolutely solid.”). I was not surprised, years later, when Bassanga named his son for the coach.
I have been the lucky witness to Gor’s football at its best, locally, regionally and in the African continent. In the Cecafa club cup, their three wins (1980, 1981 and 1985) were everything to write home about. They defeated AFC Leopards in Malawi and Sudan and Simba of Tanzania in Nairobi. None of those wins was bigger than the other; the team was what their fans said: “In the first half, you watch Gor. In the second, you watch Mahia.” It was magical.
Despite the sharp downturn in their fortunes, I still hope that this team will reclaim its lost glory. I hope it do what its predecessors did and that we can once again look forward to meeting the best of Africa on equal terms.
There will need to be a radical shift in everything- policy, in processes, in ethos. But it is doable. What a terrific future lying behind us! What a great future still beckoning ahead. Good luck to the class of 2015.