Unmasking KPL: Where player contracts are flushed down like toilet tissue
- Kataka’s frustration is best shared by Gor Mahia man and Harambee Stars defender Philemon Otieno who was last year abandoned at the hour of need, by both club and federation when he sustained a career-threatening injury
- For him, the sacking offered an aura of martyrdom hence retreating to his private space to seek solace and reflection, and later emerging out of the woods, stronger than before
For years, its been suspected that Kenyan Premier League clubs don’t honour contracts between them and their employees, the players. However, it remains just that – a gossip. In this special report, Citizen Digital writer Jacob Icia reveals the shocking manner in which KPL clubs flush down the toilet the contracts of helpless players, many of whom dejected at the turn of events, and no one else to turn to, are left licking their wounds in silence.
SPECIAL REPORT Jacob Icia in Nairobi
A ride from the Nairobi City Centre via the famous Jogoo Road to Caltex Umoja on the busy Kangundo Road is a stretch of some 6.6 miles, and it takes me about 20 minutes or to cover with my small machine, the speed a steady 75km/h.
Not far from the famous Caltex Point stands Prigeo Enterprises Limited, a relatively small but busy hardware retail store.
Young men are hard at work here. If not panel beating, the hissing sound of the grinders cutting metals into desired designs greets you from a distance.
And some of the ready products; doors and windows are not only glossy but beautiful to the eye.
Not far off huge metallic gates of different designs are erected on a wall. Others are 40 to 70 percent complete, while those fully fitted are admiringly tasteful, showcasing real craftsmanship that went into them.
Several such hardware stores dot the area, the mushrooming permanent homes along Eastern side of Nairobi stretching into the neighbouring Machakos County, possibly explaining the demand for them.
Uniquely, on this particular store, a famous name in Kenya’s football scene is leading the operations. He’s not barking orders but doing the real hard metal work.
This soul happens to be Geoffrey Kataka. A former striker who many fans became accustomed to watching scoring goals for 11 years, some of them spectacular. Back then, neat football jerseys and boots were his tools of trade, but today he’s in an overall, a pair of big black protective goggles and the welding machine.
Kataka, who also featured as a Harambee Stars trialist under former coaches Adel Amrouche and Bobby Williamson, appears to have mastered his art; a seamless transition from the football pitch to the harsh vagaries of life that is the juakali sector.
Can of worms
Interestingly, he’s here by default. Had things turned out just fine in football, he’d probably been plying his trade overseas. Or had he followed his academic career path, he would probably be confined in four walls of a classroom, chalk in hand, teaching attentive students. After all, he’s a Bachelor of Education graduate, Geography and Business Studies, from the University of Nairobi.
So how did it all start? Kataka rolls back the clock with ease. Sometime in August or thereabouts in the 2018 season, while turning out for Wazito FC, he fell out of favour with his coach, and for long was on the sidelines. With play time hard to come by, the idea of starting an M-Pesa shop crossed his mind.
The fundi he’d called to set up the shop heeded his call and came ready with some metal cutting tools. This pricked his inquisitive mind further. He queried him on the cost of construction materials, particularly the metals and this birthed the idea of his hardware shop, specializing in metallic doors, windows and gates.
You see, with lack of regular football, and the club seemingly not keen to have him on their future plans, they terminated his contract.
“First and foremost, we would like to thank you for the short period you have been with us. However, due to your persistent misconduct, non-performance and general non-commitment to the affairs of the club TAKE NOTICE that the club has decided to terminate your contract forthwith. We regret that your services shall no longer be required by the club and we regrettably deem you as a surplus to the club due to the aforementioned reasons,” Kataka’s termination letter read, in part.
Funnily enough, the cancellation of his contract didn’t worry him at all. What took him by surprise was the professionalism involved. For the first time in his professional career spanning over 10 years, a club had given him reasons for firing him, and in writing! In the past he would just be informed via a text message not to show up for training or to return any club property in his possession. That effectively meant that one had been fired. That is not all; under such circumstances, getting benefits would be akin to milking water from a stone.
Pricked by Wazito’s gesture, Kataka, perhaps as a throwback to his fans, shared the sack letter on his Facebook timeline on April 26, 2020.
At face value it may appear as the normal thing when in reality it is the abnormality that dogs the Kenyan game, a top-tier football league that is mired in endless controversies; a competition where contracts of players are not respected, players are never issued with sack letters or a hiring letter. In fact, these contracts are flushed down the toilet like tissue papers moreso when clubs want to get rid of players.
From Gor Mahia, what should be Kenya’s football pride, to the very bottom sides such as Kisumu All Stars and Chemelil Sugar et al., players’ tell stories of pain. Pain of seeing their once promising football careers go down the drain at the slightest sign of an injury or loss of form. Unlike the top football leagues in Europe where contracts are respected to the letter, proper medical care for players in place, in this part of the world it is deemed a luxury despite football being a contact sport.
Sadly, the very body, Kenya Footballers Welfare Association, an equivalent of the giant Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) that should be protecting them, is a toothless if not moribund body.
In fact, Kataka’s tale offers just a glimpse to this rot as he narrates the pain of entertaining people on television, becoming a household name only to end up as a poor, broken and a bitter man whose survival is hinged on well wishers.
“I have played for almost eight teams in Kenya but this (Wazito) is the only team that gave me a reason why I should not continue playing for them… If you know what I mean, hizo zingine ni text msg or don’t come tomorrow (the rest are text messages or don’t come tomorrow),” Kataka said in his Facebook post, lifting the lid on the impunity with which club managers treat their players.
In his career, the father of one, has turned out for a dozen clubs, including MOYAS (now MOSCA), KRA (now Ushuru FC), AFC Leopards before signing for Nairobi Stima. He also played for Mahakama and Posta Rangers.
“I appreciate the professionalism that Wazito showed in terminating my contract. This is what all other clubs were unable to do, and what so many players go through. Most of the times it happens and players walk away in silence, without getting paid their dues. A player, who was once celebrated for his exploits while enjoying top form, is discarded as a nobody, and with nothing,” lamented Kataka.
League cartels at work
The familiarity of coaches within KPL and the lower leagues, which Kataka refers to as a web of league cartels, is attributed to a large extent to oppression of players.
But why don’t the players speak out?
“Look, most of the coaches operating in our leagues are very close friends. In fact, they keep on switching from one club to another. The moment a player launches a complaint, they may as well be sure the next move would be almost impossible. You will be profiled as the trouble maker, complicating your future. The coaches talk about players, and they want those who do not question anything,” he said.
Kataka also underscores the situation is made worse by lack of information and weak institutions which are supposed to safeguard players’ welfare.
“Most players sign contracts with complicated clauses they don’t understand. Others have the so called agents whose interest is to only get a share of the sign-on-fee, without concern for what happens next. The KPL Limited, Football Kenya Federation (FKF) and the players’ welfare association (KEFWA) have also done so little, if anything, to help players,” the 32-year-old offers.
Kataka’s frustration is best shared by Gor Mahia man and Harambee Stars defender Philemon Otieno who was last year abandoned at the hour of need, by both club and federation when he sustained a career-threatening injury. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a Harambee Stars tie against Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro Stars, in an Africa Nations Championship (CHAN) qualifier. He needed Sh 500,000 to undergo the procedure.
Both club and federation bolted out despite him having a running contract with Gor Mahia. The federation also gave flimsy excuses, leaving him to his own devises.
Otieno, who finally got help from teammates led by skipper Victor Wanyama and Michael Olunga to go under the knife, says players must know at one time they will have to be on their own.
“Honestly I was so disappointed. I felt alone. Only my family and some teammates were concerned. I knew very well the federation was to help me because I was on national duty when I picked up the injury. The help was not forthcoming.”
He continued, “I felt neglected. My club (Gor Mahia) was right to say I was injured on national team duty, but I still belonged in the club family. It was unfortunate their sponsor had quit so I knew for sure there was no money. However, on humanitarian ground, both from the federation and the club, I thought there should have been a way out instead of the blame game while I was suffering alone. I therefore advise players especially within the Kenyan leagues to insure themselves, because when those who should be doing so fail to take responsibility, you have to do find a way out. At the end of the day it is your career,” advised Otieno.
Otieno, at the penning down of this account, is still recovering nine months since his successful surgery, the funds for the procedure having been raised through friends on a WhatsApp group.
Charles Okwemba, arguably one of the most gifted midfielders KPL has produced in the post 2010 era, blames lack of goodwill from authorities for the local players’ woes.
Okwemba, who singles out AFC Leopards as his favourite local club in his career spanning close to 20 years that included playing for clubs in Rwanda, Uganda and Oman, recalls how Douglas Okumu was dumped by Ushuru FC when he got injured. “It’s very painful, especially when a club releases you without due procedure when you are down with a serious injury. That could as well mean the end of your career. The case of Douglas was so bad,” said the former Harambee Stars ace, who captained almost every club he featured for.
“I was very lucky throughout my career I didn’t have contract related issues. I however know I belong to the lower percentage, maybe because I was quite impressive and by God’s grace maintained a good form in all the clubs I played for. We may say players are ignorant and some don’t even understand what they are signing entirely, but where is the support system? Should the clubs, federation, agents and other stakeholders be exploiting players or educating and guard their rights?”
Former winger and a KPL winner with Mathare United in 2008, Innocent Mutiso gave up on his football career in 2014, quite early at 25, having been abandoned by his his then employers Gor Mahia after sustaining a disturbing injury.
“We were playing away against GFE 105 in the then FKF GOTV Shield when I got injured. I was only helped with pain killers, and that was it. I was left to cater for my treatment. I only learnt later through social media that my contract had been terminated, with six months to go. I was so heartbroken and that’s how my career ended,” said Mutiso, whose woes inspired him to join Kenya players union KEFWA.
He notes clubs like Ushuru, Sofapaka among others were notorious for releasing unreasonably high number of players at the turn of every transfer window by exploiting loopholes in their contracts exit clauses. Mutiso further notes general ignorance on contract details has always been used to dismiss them unduly.
Agonisingly, Mutiso adds that many players are going through hell right now, moreso with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I know of many players who have been completely forgotten by their clubs as if football will never resume. Some talk to me and it’s really disappointing a club as huge as Gor Mahia have only paid Sh 6,000 to the players since the league was stopped,” regretted Mutiso.
Professionally, national teams, globally, are supposed to issue players with insurance covers once they set in camps for national team duties. Clubs are supposed to be sent a copy of the insurance cover before a player kicks the ball in a national team set up, to ascertain their cover limits.
Some clubs with better medical structures arrange with the player and the national team to take care of their health cover in case of an injury. Nothing is left to chance.
It is such regulations, celebrated and outspoken former Harambee Stars striker Boniface Ambani says only exist on paper but are largely ignored in Kenya’s football landscape.
“You see, most clubs are run by quacks. They don’t want to see some of us who understand the sport near the players. They know we will demand for their rights, which will be costly to them. So players who know little about their rights fear going to court when they are mistreated, instead choosing to pursue low deals elsewhere,” elucidated Ambani, adding that until such a time when a player will come out and institute a landmark case against a club or the federation for violation of their rights, the trampling of such rights will continue unabated.
Ambani further opined wrong foundations by unprofessional go-betweens have ruined footballers’ careers, and weakened their welfare culture.
“I get disturbed when I hear of an intermediary who tells a player, say in Form Three, to repeat so that they can continue shining in Secondary School games and possibly graduate directly from school to KPL. Age cheating creeps in, and the foundation is messed up. What do you expect from such a player, learning from quacks from the onset?”
Ambani, who played in Tanzania, China, Oman and India in his prime, notes that focus on money at the expense on contractual obligations, has rendered the sport unprofitable to many.
“In my many years of professional football, I have noticed greed for money has smothered every aspect of professionalism in our sport locally. Clubs look mostly at the profit, without considering the player, who without there is no football. So many players have been thrown out when they are injured, with managers hiding behind the clause on performance. How can an injured player perform?” paused Ambani, now a youth coach and a businessman dealing in sports apparel.
The disregard for basic player welfare regulations has seen Kenya miss out on services of fine talents based in Europe, of Kenyan origin. Former Harambee Stars marksman Mike Okoth’s son, Divock Origi, now turns out for Belgium. Okoth had seen it all in Kenya while turning out for Shabana and Harambee Stars for many years and it was a foregone conclusion which flag – Kenyan or Belgian – his son would seek to defend on the international arena.
A number of other players born and raised in Europe have failed to wear Kenya’s shirt citing under-development of the game and lack of professionalism. One such is Germany based Phillip Mwene, who turns out for Bundesliga side Mainz.
A source close to his father, who is based in Austria where the former Kaiserslautern II and VFB Stuttgart defender was born, told Citizen Digital the only barrier to his son embracing Kenya’s national football team, Harambee Stars, is lack of an medical insurance cover.
“He is a top player. FKF badly wanted him in the national team, but could not guarantee his father of a medical insurance cover for his son. Some parents have invested in their sons’ careers since their childhood. They cannot imagine their careers ending prematurely, while playing for a country that cares less,” the intermediary, privy to the discussions between FKF and Mwene’s father, said opting to remain anonymous.
Mwene, 26, has been a point of debate among such other players, who FKF has acknowledged scouting for a possibility of playing for Kenya.
Veteran lawyer Elvis Majani, who specializes on sports disputes, says most contracts binding footballers and Kenyan clubs lean towards the club, further propagating unprofessionalism.
“These contracts are customarily written by the clubs, without the input of players’ union. So what do you expect? Most clauses will favour the club in an event of parting ways unceremoniously,” averred Majani, while also blaming players for signing contracts they do not understand.
However, he notes there is some improvement as some players are learning how to insulate themselves against unscrupulous employers.
“Of late I have represented players who seem to be doing due diligence before signing those contracts. Sometimes back, some would tie their hands by signing very unfriendly contracts such that arguing their cases would be difficult. To mitigate this challenge, I advise them (players) to be engaging good agents and lawyers before getting into contracts. That way they can be helped in the day of need,” expounded Majani.
He encourages KEFWA to be more zealous in educating the members of their rights and how to relate with clubs and teams, acknowledging little has been done on the front.
Weak bargaining power
Gor Mahia chairman Ambrose Rachier concurs that most players are always on the receiving end during contracts termination.
“Most players are released by clubs based on performance, which in most cases is based on reports by coaches. Some are not even known by fans because they don’t play almost the entire season. No player would also want to stay in a club where they are not playing regularly. In such situations, a player has very little bargaining power, on how the contract is terminated,” averred the experienced football administrator.
The veteran city lawyer also underscores the need for players’ support, to understand what contracts entail, in anticipation for such eventualities.
“I have seen players who don’t keep even a copy of their contracts once signed. Some are even caught by surprise when you tell them their contract is over. Others only check the remuneration details and put pen to paper disregarding other sections. Knowing that some are young boys coming from schools, there is need to improve coordinated efforts among clubs, KPL Limited, the federation and even KEFWA, to routinely educate players,” he explained.
Rachier was once offering the service on behalf of KPL to players, an initiative that didn’t last for long.
FKF Secretary General Barry Otieno says the club licensing regulations that were introduced by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the world football body FIFA, will play a great role in mitigating the challenge. But are those rules in practice? Are they followed to the letter?
“We are always ready to intervene when the players are caught up in such situations. However, we expect when the club licensing regulations are fully rolled out, players’ welfare in general will be more assured.”
Otieno also finds a weak link in the ‘unqualified’ agents, who cannot help players when unfairly dismissed.
“The young players who may not understand what is in those contracts find no help in the unregistered intermediaries. Such lack the legal authority to represent them in disputes that may emerge. You may be shocked to know that by April 2020, only three intermediaries were duly registered with FKF to legally transact on behalf of players,” revealed the youthful federation CEO.
In club licensing, one of the criterion is finance based, where clubs are expected to show prove of financial ability to guide them through an entire season.
But is this ever fulfilled?
Rachier agrees the licensing regulations indeed are part of the solution, but observes individual player has a bigger part to play.
“Every beginning of the season I fill those forms, for example asking about players turn over. It is set to help, but the players have to do their part. Their welfare association (KEFWA) needs to also step up efforts to help players, especially on the education part,” the KPL chairman added.
A renowned Kenyan football agent, former journalist George ‘Mendes’ Bwana, who has managed many players in the local league, Africa, Asia and Europe notes any player signed in a procedural manner cannot be mistreated.
“The problem is that most players do not have agents. Others think they have, but what they have are quacks whose interest is not their welfare. If a player has a good agent, the contract nitty-gritty they may not understand is taken care of by the agent. At the time of a crisis, the agent will be able to take a legal step on their behalf,” explained Bwana.
Bwana cites the cases of former Harambee Stars attacker Jacob Kelly, Gor Mahia’s Clifton Miheso and Simba SC’s Francis Kahata during their tussles with different clubs. They eventually won their cases and got their compensations.
“In 2018, when Miheso’s contract with South Africa’s Golden Arrows was terminated with over 18 months to run, he came to us and we took the case to FIFA. He was compensated. Kelly’s case with Zambian side Nkana was no different; we were able to fight for his compensation. I also fought for Kahata’s compensation by FC Tirana of Albania when he was unfairly released,” divulged the experienced intermediary.
Ironically, according to Bwana, players ignore the role of agents fearing exploitation only to end up losing bigger fortunes.
“There are well defined regulations guiding how players and agents should relate. An agent cannot take what a player is not willing to share. Three percent should not be a big deal for a player knowing, all off the pitch work is on the agent’s hands,” he stated.
Bwana also acknowledged the need for improving the basic terms for players in the KPL.
James Situma, the KEFWA chairman and a former Kenyan international, blames lack of goodwill among clubs as the main problem.
“Why should a club take advantage of a player’s ignorance to dismiss them unduly? Honesty for club managements it is a moral obligation that must be upheld if our players are to enjoy their contractual rights. This is not to encourage ignorance among players, as everyone should endeavor to get guidance from knowledgeable persons before signing contracts,” offered Situma, insisting a player without a legal document cannot be defended in times of crisis.
The veteran defender who featured for multiple clubs in KPL, also wants players to be airing their grievances immediately their rights are violated.
“Keeping quite is another way of encouraging unscrupulous individuals to continue oppressing more players. We have helped some players who have approached us, by engaging their employers. We also learn a lot from such cases as we continue to lay down more structures from our ranks to improve our players’ welfare.”
But Kataka poured cold water on Situma’s call to players to embrace KEFWA, for refuge.
“Most players have no confidence with KEFWA. Right now there are questions about eligibility of the current office holders. Already, that dilutes players’ trust towards them. Also, with less support from KPL and the federation on such matters, there is very little hope that KEFWA can help,” he said.
With most players suffering major financial blows from the weak system that appears to push them, Kataka advises proper planning for life after football must start as early as possible.
“For players in our local leagues where the pay is not that decent, you may not enjoy the game’s rewards for a long time after retirement if there was no clever investment. Sometimes it is difficult to tell a person to save or invest in big businesses when even daily needs are difficult to meet as some clubs fail to pay players for months.
“However, it is possible to start small businesses or register for short or long-term courses that one can rely on upon retirement,” advised Kataka, who joked that if his current means of livelihood was not viable anymore, getting a Teachers Service Commission (TSC) number would be the next option.
Kataka, a self-made jack of many trades, like many other stakeholders, summed up the local football leagues as semi-professional.
In a brutal assessment, he says the leagues will only attain the minimum element of professionalism when contracts between players and clubs are strictly respected.
That, he says, will need to be edified by the national federation, which he blames for obfuscating the little steps towards such a status through letting down players when they need their support the most.
For him, the sacking offered an aura of martyrdom hence retreating to his private space to seek solace and reflection, and later emerging out of the woods, stronger than before, the layers of his thick skin ready to face head-on, any challenges that the vagaries of life may throw his way.
The author is a Radio Sports Reporter at Royal Media Services; editing by Isaac Swila; graphics by Pauline Boke; review by OS Otieno
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