Coronavirus effect: Woes in the football-watching business in Kenya
Jameson Muhati, a young Red Devils’ die-hard fan who is the owner of ‘Wembley Stadium’ football watching zone [COURTESY]

Soccer is not just a game. It is a billion-dollar business.

Undoubtedly, majority of Kenyan men love football.

Men would rather apologise for skipping a Valentine’s date than bear the agony of missing a Champion’s League night of football.  

“Well, I wouldn’t be too sure about keeping my missus waiting but watching Ronaldo score is sure to thrill me to the bones,” quips Kelvin Makau, a football enthusiast.

Peter Drury, a commentator who never disappoints with his poetic philosophy, best sums it up with his enchanting words, “Once again, we are at it together…this is what makes our hearts beat…it is always on the edge, it is always football…”

These words combined with the English Premier League (EPL) jingles and the Champions League bring happiness to every football fan’s heart.

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Even if you were not in the stadium, you always felt that ecstatic and thrilling experience that you are right at the heart of the action.

While it is expensive to pay for a decoder and endure the boring experience of cheering or getting disappointed alone at home, the option for many sports fanatics is always going to the game-watching halls, part with that Sh50 or Sh100 and watch your best player score.

But business has been unusual for owners of these joints.

“I closed down a month ago, and I don’t know how long the situation will last. I hear for some more months or weeks…I don’t know,” says a distraught Jameson Muhatti, an owner of a football-watching hall in Kangemi, Nairobi.

Men would always wait patiently for the weekend to run to his joint to watch their teams face off. 

They would crave for moments when Arsenal lost against Chelsea in the London Derby or get shocked together when Liverpool lost their unbeaten record to bottom-placed Watford after an 18-match unbeaten streak.

Coronavirus effect: Woes in the football-watching business in Kenya
‘Wembley Stadium’ football watching zone [COURTESY]

“Football isn’t a game, it’s a religion”

At least, according to the worlds arguably greatest of all times (G.O.A.T) player and the winner of the FIFA player of the 20th Century award, Diego Maradona.  

They would hold their breaths as the English Premier league returned, watch Cristiano Ronaldo do his soccer abracadabra in the Italian Serie A or get a taste of the occasional Champions League, UEFA Europa League and the FA Cup in England. they would also keenly follow the Kenyan Premier League.  

All this is entertainment for them. But for the person collecting the entry fee. It was business. A weekly boom.

According to Jameson Muhati, a young Red Devils’ die-hard fan who is the owner of ‘Wembley Stadium’ football watching zone, the good old days are gone.

I meet him outside having some banter with a few jobless youth on whether Paul Pogba’s return from injury would affect the Red Devil’s formation in the mid-field. He is quite articulate.

He argues Man United’s midfield pitying Paul Pobga, Bruno Fernandes, Scott McTominay and Fred would give other teams a run for their money.

“This will be the line-up to take us to top 4 of the EPL log…just wait and see for yourself when the league returns,” he says with a tone of certainty. 

But behind that almost certain argument lies a lot of uncertainty as to when his business will be back on its feet.

The suspension of local and international leagues has brought his business to its knees. More so, now that there is a daily curfew from 7 pm- 5 am. He cannot even show the repeats of some of the thrilling matches before the coronavirus pandemic.

The good old days:

Gone are the days when he would “eat life with a big spoon”.

Days he would smile as his customers, with mixed feelings, stormed out of his hall after the game, cursing the coach’s decision to substitute a player or two.

 

“I used to make over Sh8600 per game during the big matches. Days we had derbies like the Manchester or London derbies in EPL or when big teams clashed, were my big days, “ says Muhati as he struggles to unlock the padlocks to his hall.

The padlocks are however rusted. Perhaps because they have remained locked for weeks after major leagues were called off indefinitely.

The irony with padlocks is, if they are rusted, you may find yourself on the outside looking in, even if you have the key to the room. This is a life lesson for Muhati that he might have all the resources but are useless for now.

Muhati finally manages to unlock the padlock and recounts the magical old days. He switches on the lights, and he can now see everything.

He hopes the return of football will chase all the darkness from his life.

“I would make a comfortable profit of sh.32, 000 every month after paying all my bills: Monthly DSTV subscription, rent, electricity and some casual laborers who sweep and clean the hall after the game. Life was good then,” he adds

From his savings, he would invest in some coffee business that would keep his customers alert through late-night fixtures. These proceeds would help settle a bill here and there.

Coronavirus

The coronavirus came as a rude shock to many sports fanatics, both in business and those who were the business. The sudden suspension of several soccer leagues came to owners of such halls as a nightmare. 

A dream Muhatti and other businessmen hope to wake up from soon.

The directive that matches be played behind closed doors in England and Spain was just a tip of the iceberg. Soon, the directive crept in and the stadiums would shut completely, forcing him to close shop as well. His 140 seater capacity hall has now been deserted. The room had become aware of itself, of the history that once echoed within the walls. The excitement, the chanting, the adrenaline and of course disappointments.

All these were replaced by eerie of silence in this forgotten hall.

“I have not received a single coin in the past one month after matches were called off. My biggest worry now is that I might not be able to fend for my family during these tough times,” he says.

Although he could show some telenovela movies or some DJ Afro screens, this option is off the table now that the government canceled all social gatherings until the coronavirus whirlwind passes.

Muhatia is now caught between a rock and a hard place as the coronavirus grip tightens on the country with each passing day.

“I don’t know what to do next. This is my only means of survival and without football, it is a dark future for me,” he adds. 

The Football Kenya Federation (FKF) had recently indefinitely suspended major football sporting activities in the country due to the confirmation of the first coronavirus case in Kenya.

“All Kenyan Premier League, National Super League, and FKF Cup fixtures scheduled for this weekend will kick off as planned behind closed doors but will remain suspended indefinitely from Monday, March 16, 2020,” KPL’s statement read.

The directive was followed by stricter measures in the sporting world including orders to athletes to stop training in groups or face jail terms.

Other sports including marathon events, rugby, and tennis, among others share the same fate. 

In the international arena, major leagues such as the Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A were postponed as the fate of the return of the English premier league, hangs in the balance. Many managers have, however, remained hopeful that the league will return by June 1. But that remains just that; hope.

“The FA, Premier League, EFL and women’s professional game, together with the PFA and LMA are committed to finding ways of resuming the 2019/20 football season as soon as it is safe and possible to do so,” said EPL in a tweet.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the return of the good old days, football enthusiasts and business people, like Muhatia now remain hopeful that this was just a long half time and the second half will continue.

 

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