The last time I crawled a few Nairobi pubs was during the soccer World Cup back in 2006. So the start of the Africa Cup of Nations was a good enough excuse to do it again. Seriously, I was curious to find out how Kenyan football fans are reacting to what is going on across the continent in Ghana – especially in the light (or should I say the dark?) of what is happening here in Kenya.
It was Monday evening, and the game was the tastiest of all the group matches – the Super Eagles of Nigeria against the Elephants of Côte d’Ivoire. Would I see the same kind of interest that is generated when the heavyweights of the Premier League play each other: Arsenal against Manchester United, say, or Chelsea against Liverpool?
The two Monday night contestants had plenty of stars from the European leagues in their ranks – players such as Didier Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Touré, Obafemi Martins, Nwankwo Kanu, Yakubu, John Utaka, Joseph Yobo and Danny Shitu. Big names. So there was no doubting the quality of the encounter – after all, they are the best of the African footballers, and they were performing on the African continent. You would have thought there was enough there to excite the pride and passion of our local soccer fans.
Given the persisting security concerns, I didn’t want to venture out too far. There was no point, however, in just popping down to my Lavington ‘local’, the Kengeles in the Green, because it doesn’t have DSTV or GTV; and none of the local channels had, by then, put up the money to carry live broadcasts of the matches.
I asked the most ‘man-about-town’ of my colleagues to advise me where I would find matches showing in places within a reasonable radius of home.
‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘The bars around Hurlingham.’
So that’s where I went.
I started in one of the more salubrious of the choices: the Fusion bar of the Kwality Inn along the main Argwings Kodhek Road. A big screen had been set up in the main lounge, but there was only a scatter of people occupying the chairs and tables. So I opted for a stool at the bar and a smaller screen. The match had just started, but as for interest, the screens might as well have been showing a CNN report on the ship-breaking yard of Chittagong or a pie-eating contest in Oslo.
The only excited guys were a couple of Nigerians – you could tell them by their build and their accent – who groaned at every near miss of the Eagles and complained at every heavy tackle by the Elephants.
I moved on and drove down the narrow lane to Buffet Park. There was no buffet that I could see – and the only park is the carpark. A big one. And it was packed tight. For me, this place has nothing to recommend it but space and cheap beer. No charm. No finesse. Just a place for drinking and shouting above the music. Here, there was even less interest in the match.
So I drove home to watch the DSTV – just in time to see Salomon Kalou weave round four defenders to score the superb winning goal for Côte d’Ivoire.
I was left wondering how full the bars would have been had Kenya made it to the finals in Ghana – and how engrossed in all the matches. And what effect would it have had on the post-election protesting and rioting?
They say football can be a unifying force. It is certainly a potent distraction. But it can also be a divisive force. I remember the story of Africa’s worst soccer disaster. It was in the very same stadium where Ghana opened the Cup of Nations on Sunday evening. It was back in May 2007. Asante Kotoko from Kumasi were playing Hearts of Oak from Accra. The Kotoko supporters protested the winning goal by Hearts of Oak. They started throwing chairs and other missiles. The police fired tear gas. In the stampede, 127 people were killed.
Ironic, isn’t it? Another example, then, of how easily ethnic feelings can be inflamed – even by a game of football – and how protests can get so tragically out of control.