Kenya’s World Cup farce

Soccer fever has gripped Kenya in the lead-up to the World Cup in South Africa next year.
Joseph Magiri | 11 December 2009
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President Mwai Kibaki with the World Cup trophyThe FIFA World Cup trophy is touring Africa to in the lead-up to the finals in South Africa in June next year. The 225-day tour began on September 21 in Cairo.

Soccer is wildly popular in Africa, even though the best an African team has done in a World Cup is a spot in the quarter-finals. Cameroon achieved the feat in 1990 under the spell of 38-year-old talisman Roger Milla. Senegal made it in 2002. Keen followers of the game here reckon that were it not for suspect refereeing, the two teams might have reached the semis.

The World Cup is one of the most watched global events. New York-based IPG Media, one of the big four global advertising holding companies, reports that the 2006 FIFA World Cup had an average of 95 million viewers per match.

But the World Cup marketing here is defying common sense. Starting in 2006, FIFA in conjunction with Coca Cola launched the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour. A press release from FIFA said:

"world football's greatest prize is set to embark on its longest ever global tour, with FIFA and The Coca-Cola Company taking the real solid-gold trophy to 86 countries during a 225-day journey and allowing thousands of fans to enjoy a rare close-up view of the authentic FIFA World Cup Trophy. The trophy will travel 134,017 kilometres (83,274 miles) and visit every nation in Africa (except war torn Somalia) to give African fans the once-in-a-lifetime experience of having their picture taken with the trophy."

There is something ridiculous about a whole continent going gaga about a trophy it has not won. Trophies are for winning, not for goggling at. FIFA calls the trophy soccer’s Holy Grail. But Holy Grail is mythical. There is nothing mythical about the FIFA trophy. It goes to the country that invests in its soccer.

The trophy's sojourn in Kenya encapsulated the absurdity of this 21st century idolatry. Like a VIP, the trophy was received by both President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga at the airport.

These two politicians who -- on paper -- are in a power-sharing arrangement had first to be educated on the protocols of handling the trophy. Only the players of winning teams and heads of states can touch the trophy. So Mr Kibaki, being the head of state, was the only Kenyan who could even touch it. Got it? No power-sharing here.

This tormented Mr Odinga, a keen soccer fan, especially since Mr Kibaki is an avid golfer with no known interest in soccer.

But despite the farcical elements in this comedy, the government’s two-faced stupidity was enough to make you weep.

Nyayo National StadiumOnly a few months before President Kibaki touched the trophy, his government had withdrawn from a great deal with Coca-Cola. The multinational was to refurbish the dilapidated Nyayo National Stadium, Kenya’s second largest. In exchange, for four years it would become Coca Cola Stadium and wear Coke’s colours. For Coke it was a brilliant marketing opportunity, as competing teams will be using it in the coming months to acclimatize to tropical conditions.

But after work started, the government suddenly reneged. The reason? Nyayo Stadium could not be renamed. The word "Nyayo" is part of the country’s legacy, the Kiswahili word for footprints. It was an emblem of the wish of Daniel Moi, Kenya’s second president, to follow in the footsteps of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, our first president. True to his word, Mr Moi followed in Kenyatta’s footprints. Corruption and cronyism became entrenched in government business. That is the legacy Kibaki’s government wanted to keep alive.

Most of us were incensed. Here were government honchos drooling over a trophy after they had emasculated efforts to give our country a fighting chance of vying for it.

To add insult to injury, any government-funded facility of note is called Kenyatta something or Nyayo something or Moi something. Kenya’s biggest hospital and airport, Nairobi’s largest avenue and Kenya’s second biggest university are called Kenyatta. The country’s largest sports complex and second oldest university are called Moi. Kenya’s stillborn national automobile was the Nyayo car. A failed government bus company was Nyayo Bus. And a building in downtown Nairobi used by Moi’s secret police to torture agitators in the 1980s is called Nyayo House.

So much for the Nyayo legacy.

Thank God for the candour of private enterprise. At least Coke is not cloaking itself in love of country or even love of sport. Coca-Cola Muhtar Kent boss was up-front about his company’s sponsorship. "Our programmes to support the 2010 FIFA World Cup, such as the Trophy Tour, will leave a lifelong impression on consumers that helps to reinforce loyalty and preference for our business and our brands," he said.

So it is all about marketing. Ah, money, the cause that refreshes.

Joseph Magiri writes from Nairobi

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