George Orwell, he of the Animal Farm, quipped that ‘sports is war mimicry.’ I can’t agree more with this great writer of yore. Though he was referring to international sport, his observation applies to localised sporting events too.
There is a chance that you saw me celebrating the exit of teams (those that I was supporting to lose) from the world cup and probably thought that I am a callous unsympathetic human being who revels in other people’s misfortunes. That I am full of bile and schadenfreude and that I have a ball every time a big team falls. My signing off with ” good riddance team x” may particularly have removed any doubt you had about this notion. Most probably, you went ahead and concluded that your’s truly doesn’t understand or comprehend how it feels to lose in a high stakes football match. I bet you even crowned your conclusion with a msemo. That “ùtakanyuììrìire ndamenyaga karì riita” (one who has never drank from a container doesn’t understand it carries liters upon litres.)
The year is 2003. Our school team, which I was part of, was taking part in Mathira Division Secondary School Zonal ball games.
We had arrived for these games in Gikumbo with high spirits and high expectations. We were sure of a better performance than the previous year’s where we were knocked out in the interdivisional meeting in Ngoru Mukurweini through what we believed were dubious means by the games administrators.
Our confidence was buoyed by the adequate preparations we had put in place, the return-to-squad of our midfield maestro Peter Kariuki who had been suspended by the school principal on the eve of the game and the availability of boots for each of our players. Lack of boots for our three starting players had been our greatest undoing the previous year where the referee refused to let our guys play “mguu chuma.” By the time our games teacher managed to secure three pairs of boots from friendlier schools, the game was already lost having conceded three unanswered goals. From this point, we were only chasing shadows and doing damage limitation.
The training regime that had been put in place in preparation for the 2003 games was top drawer. They had brought in a trainer from the military who had really worked on our fitness. Though I should say that the first few days with the guy were not a leisure walk. You couldn’t squat in a pit latrine without screaming or involuntarily sitting on the floor. This had been caused by the thousands of frog-jumps we had performed up and down river Gathanji valley.
We were also confident that we would progress further than the previous year given that we had brushed aside local footballing giants among them Kanjuri High School in our journey to Mukurweini. This, coupled with the fact that our school team formed the bulk of the village team which had emerged runners up in the Nderitu Gachagua tournament in the lead to 2002 general elections, gave us a sense of invincibility. I have talked at length about this team (here and here ) and the talents we had at our disposal.
We dared to dream and hoped to reach at least the District Finals and possibly even compete at provincial level. Why not? The players we had had shown time and again what they were capable of in and out of school games.
In the first match early morning, we faced Magutu Secondary School. This is a game we expected to win with ease. Against the run of play, a Magutu player directed from distance a seemingly tame grasscutter shot that skidded goalwards on the wet grass.
The ever reliable Peter Gichuru, a goal keeper in the mould of Nuer, went down for the knee-down pick-up but just when we thought he had corralled the ball under his body, we got shocked to see our opponents running towards the corner flag. Celebrating. The ball had inexplicably bobbled into the net. One goal down! To compound the scare of an early goal, our goal keeper had injured himself in the process. He was limping as he picked himself up from the heap.
We tried throwing everything at Magutu including the kitchen sink but nothing seemed to work for us. On two occasions, our talisman Amos Njeri was put through on goal but the ball hit his heels and ricocheted to safety. Normally, he would leave the defenders for the dead as he buried the chance. This is a guy who even found time to tease opposing goalkeepers asking them which side of the goalposts they would rather prefer he put the ball.
Things were just not clicking. We rattled the opponents crossbar and the uprights on more than five occasions. We ended up losing the game 3-1. This left us unnerved but took solace in that there were still two games to play.
This now became a do or die. Lose the match and bid the tournament goodbye. We were playing Kangocho Secondary School who had lost their first game against Kirimara High School. Beat Kangocho with a high score and beat Kirimara later in the day and we would sail through, the small matter of losing to Magutu in the morning not withstanding. The pitch was not wet like the one we had used in the morning. In the first game, the ball was skidding on the wet surface ruining our possession based play. Our opponents must have adequately practiced on the wet pitches because they seemed so in place with the situation and took full advantage of every ball that was miscontrolled as a result of a skid.
We started the game on the ascendancy looking to secure an early win. A guy called Isaac Mwai flummoxed his markers out wide on the right, raced down the flank like a hare and crossed the ball for Amos Njeri, the striking totem, to nod home from 6 yards out.
1-0 up. A few minutes later, Peter Kariuki the midfield dab-hand and a dead ball expert would score with a rasping shot 25 meters from goal. 2-0 up. Things were going according to plan which was to run riot against Kangocho. The cheerleaders were urging us on from the touchline. We were however unable to extend the lead before halftime.
Come second half, Kangocho started getting a grip on the game. They surprised us by pulling one goal back early after the restart. They became emboldened and it didn’t take them long to bring the matters level. Two-two. With momentum on their side. As We threw everyone forward pinning Kangocho to their 18 yard box, they hit us on the counter and sat deep again to see the game through at 3-2 to their favour.
At the final whistle, we dropped to the ground wallowing in anguish having lost match two. We then huddled together sitting as we tried to take in the spectacular implosion. We were totally shocked by the dramatic capitulation. There were forlorn faces, inconsolable faces, faces full of melancholy, pitiful faces. Faces. People lying on their backs exasperated and shell shocked. Somebody said that we still stood a chance if Kirimara beat Magutu, and we beat Gikumbo bringing up a glimmer of false hope. The ominous mood evaporated briefly as we listened to the improbable permutations. We were hard done. There was no way back for us. Unless the two teams came from the game with no points. Which was practically impossible. We could not wrap our heads around the loss no matter how much we tried. Our world had caved leaving us feeling completely crushed and helpless.
If somebody came to us with pills (cyanide) and asked us to swallow rather than go back home hurting in defeat, saying that no son of Gakuyu had ever gone back home with tails between their legs and heads stooping in humiliation, we could have readily obliged. That was the mood at that particular moment. Even our own cheering girls from our school had abandoned us. They were nowhere to be seen. Women start dissociating from failures at a very young age.
The last game pitted us against Kirimara High School. This was just formality football. Having lost our two opening games, we were effectively out of the campaign. But since things happen that were not envisaged, we had to give it our best. Any two of our three opponents could indulge in indiscipline seeing themselves disqualified thus leaving ourselves and one other team to progress despite our abject performance.
The game kicked off late afternoon. Our coach the games teacher made a few tweaks to the team in a bid to get a consolation result. There were changes to personnel and playing positions. Yours truly was deployed out wide on the left from what used to be my preferred position behind the striker. Mr Kanyi wanted me to try creating chances from the flank where I could use my trickery to cut inside and pick any of the mercurial Amos Njeri and the fox-in-the-box Isaac Mwai Warungu.
Kirimara was among the teams we had beaten convincingly the previous year. Why not repeat the feat? The game started on a high the two teams going all hammer and tongs at each other but despite all the attacking fever, halftime would find us level. Zero-Zero.
Come second half, Kirimara thrashed us like burukenge. They beat the living daylights out of us. At the final whistle, we were 4-0 down. We were out of the competition at the first hurdle. Dreams shattered. Hopes dazed. Egos smashed. Aspirations fractured. The pain was compounded by the fact that majority were in form four and this was effectively their last competitive school-football match.
A sombre mood rent the air. Some shed tears. Visible tears. Others cried on the inside. Stubborn toads the size of a brick were stuck in our throats refusing completely to dislodge no matter how hard we swallowed. We were totally wretched and downcast on our trip back home.
I had never established the cause our loss until the other days, 15 years later, when I talked to Peter Kariuki (a member of the team) who came up with a theory that I believe, holds.
We were missing Francis Mugo Maingi (Cantona) in our team having cleared school the previous year. Cantona was a very accomplished box to box midfielder and the guy could kick a football. He has many burst balls to his name lying on hedges all over Mathira.