By: CELLESTINE OLILO
It has been 30 years since Gor Mahia lifted the Cecafa Club championships trophy. Perhaps not too long in the grand scheme of things but the last time they did so, Kenya was still under single party rule.
Last year, the team returned to the tournament after 19 years in the cold, and they had a particularly bad outing, failing to win a single match. This year has however been quite the opposite where they have dealt with their opponents on every level and are just 90 minutes away from the winning the trophy.
Yet all the talk of a “new dawn” will be in vain if they fail to lift the Cecafa trophy this afternoon, and Gor coach Frank Nuttall knows as much. Judging from their exploits so far and the potential they have shown, a loss in today’s final will mean that Gor Mahia players will not have achieved their full potential in the tournament.
This is the harsh reality for the team that so dearly wants to win the title, and who now have to win it to gain the full respect of its regional neighbours. Victory today will elevate K’Ogalo to status previously enjoyed only by five-time winners Yanga.
From the first day, the 2015 Kagame Cup championship tournament has lived up to its billing. Coaches have displayed tactical prowess in the tournament. The physical ability of the players has entertained fans in the tournament, complete with interesting stories of teams relying on witchcraft to win matches.
First there was Yanga, the home team that met K’Ogalo in the opening match. Yanga looked anointed to win the competitions based squarely on their multiple titles, their squad abilities and their numerous home fans. But the five-time Kagame Cup champions lost the first match and, although they went on to win the rest of their group matches to finish second in group ‘A’, they never fully recovered.
They had missed a penalty in that opening day match on their way to a 2-1 loss against Gor, something that turned out to be a harbinger for what was to come.
Hans van der Pluijm-coached Yanga missed another spot kick in the quarter-finals where after they had done everything against stubborn Azam in the match which ended in a barren draw in regular time. They went on to lose 5-3 on penalties.
On that Saturday afternoon, the tournament saw the true face of disappointment. It was engraved on the faces of the Yanga fans who wailed uncontrollably at the stands after the final whistle. Some Yanga fans walked away quietly, shaking their heads and just wondering what may have been.
What if Haji Mwinyi had converted his spot kick? What if Azam goalkeeper Manula Aishi Salum hadn’t repelled that well-taken penalty.
And then there was minnows Khartoum National Club from South Sudan who were a last-minute repacement for Sudanese giants El Merreikh (El Mereikh are busy in the CAF Champions League).
With the knowledge that Khartoum had finished a distant third in the Sudanese league, the region’s journalists continuously refereed to them as minnows but the more this tag was used on them, the more they proved pundits wrong. Their first statement in the tournament was a punishing 5-0 won over Djibouti Telecom, a team that proved to be the real minnows of the competitions but whom Gor laboured to beat 3-1 in the group stages.
With former K’Ogalo man Anthony Akumu as the engine of the team and revered Ghanaian coach Kwesi Appiah for psychological motivation, Khartoum provided the strongest challenge for Nuttall’s men, holding them to a 1-1 draw in the group matches. The Sudanese team crashed APR of Rwanda 4-0 in the quarter-finals, instilling fear in K’Ogalo squad.
But they were unable to hold out against Gor again in Friday’s semi-finals, throwing away an early lead to lose 3-1 and relegate themselves to the play-offs.
Telecom and South Sudan side Al Malakia proved tough against K’Ogalo, and Nuttall was left looking for answers when his energy-sapped team laboured to beat Malakia 2-1 in the quarter-finals.
To win the tournament, something that was a distant hope just two weeks ago, Gor will have to go overcome hosts Azam Sunday afternoon at the National Stadium in Dar es Salaam. The team has received enough motivation even from president Uhuru Kenyatta who is expected to turn up for the match, and striker Michael Olunga must be at his best upfront. Nuttall has since declared that his team is gunning for the Sh6 million cash prize and the gleaming trophy.
“Our target changed the moment we won the quarter-finals,” Nuttall said on Friday.
Tanzanian press has described Nuttall as a very apt and cunning man but who is susceptible to fits of anger.
Ahead of the final, the words “focus” and “concentration” have kept popping up. These are elements both Nuttall and Azam’s Stewart Hall wish that their respective teams will pay attention to.
Azam have been nothing short of impressive. They are arguably the best team in the tournament and, other than Gor, are the only other unbeaten team in the tournament. My the best team win.