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THE JUGGLER: For our football to grow, we must nurture the youth

Whether or not Gor Mahia proceeds to the next round of the Caf Champions League after their duel against Congo’s AC Leopards, the sad story about the utmost neglect of youth football in the country is one that must be told.

Since time immemorial, Kenyan football management has been at fault for leaving out Kenyan youth in football, and the most under 19 tournament, which was the only remaining semblance of a youth platform for the game, died last year and shows no signs of ever being played again.

The result has been the continued struggle by the Kenyan national junior team, which, although was not as hurriedly assembled as the management likes to do with them, honourably exited the All Africa Games qualifiers.

The team was put in training at the Moi International Sports Center, Kasarani, for a period of five weeks, a commendable effort from the football administrators who have for the longest time relied on instant coffee teams assembled a week before match day and which train for three days before flying out for the assignment.

Still, they went on to record a humiliating 3-0 defeat in the hands of Egypt in the openings match, although they managed a respectable 1-1 draw in their return match last weekend.

Coach Bobby Williamson and his assistant Musa Otieno, maintain the fact that the team is work in progress. They say that they are executing a long term plan that will see this junior team grow into a force in the coming years.

My fear, however, and that of thousands of sports enthusiasts in the country, is that until we show commitment to the development of youth football, until we begin to trust the technical bench and desist from changing the coaches every other day, then this dream is still a very long way off from becoming a reality.

YOUTH TOURNAMENT

The English Premier League, which apparently showcases football splendid enough to lead their fans to commit suicide at their teams’ loss, has serious youth structures, including the Under 16 International Youth tournament.

Closer home, African giants such as Nigeria, Ghana and our perennial tormentors Egypt, have admirable and progressive youth tournaments which churn out fine players who then feed the national teams. And the fruits continue to be visible.

And while Kenya struggles to emulate this formula, the truth is that Kenyan youth are largely left out whenever concerned individuals come up with strategies aimed at raising the standards of football in the country.

The wrangling between the two warring factions has now become a court battle, with players being left out of the pitch for weeks on end. Nobody, not even the president of this country, has sat down to think about how discouraging the stalemate is for aspiring footballers.

I covered the last edition of the national Under 19 tournament in 2013 when Western Stima lifted the cup, and the level of ignorance with which the competition was handled was highly offensive, if not thoroughly depressing.

To start with, the players’ kits were almost identical. There were just about three kits, a situation that threatened to have opponents taking to the field donning the same jerseys.

Secondly, the teams looked bad, and this I say with confidence. Apart from perhaps Thika United, and Mathare Uniteed, none of the other teams had their players working like a well-oiled machine – the result of hurriedly assembled playing units.

VERY OLD PLAYERS

All other players looked anything but 19 years old with teams from Nairobi the most notorious for bringing in very old players with passports that prove otherwise. But that is story for another day.

Striker Michael Olunga, then a Tusker FC player, was freshly out of high school. Seeing him continue to dazzle fans now after rising through the ranks to join Gor Mahia, warms my heart in the same way that it saddens me to see that there is no such platforms for the continuity of this story.

And while the government in general and the Machakos Governor in particular, have done a commendable job in renovating county stadiums (or at least trying to do so), a lot still needs to be done in terms of growing youth football.

The government is yet to show any signs of fulfilling their election promise of building five new stadia, while the estate and village playgrounds, from where youth talent can be harnessed, continues to be grabbed with impunity.

There is need to create a consistent and clear national junior team, keep them in competition both locally and internationally and get willing people to oversee their activities.

If we get our resources, priorities and leadership system right, there is nothing difficult about doing the above.

Because even with state-of-the-art football stadia across the country and a league running uninterrupted, the one sure thing to move Kenyan football going forward is nurturing youth talent.