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El Capitán

5pm in Daystar University Athi River campus represents the end of a formal working day. Students have already left class and the bus can be seen chugging along exiting the school. But, for a select number of students, 5pm represents a second berth, a new lease of life, a new day.

For the past few months, I have been making my way back to school at 5pm. My destination:”The Bethel Barracks.”  I have been coming here to savour the beautiful game and, most importantly, to keep a close eye on one of Daystar’s roaring young talents: Bulbul Mangoa Ratemo.

***

“Most people don’t get it,” Bulbul tells me as we settle into our seats at Choma Zone – one of the local diners in the Kinani ward. ”Just because I choose to play football doesn’t mean I am daft. On the contrary, it is because I express myself best with the ball on my feet that I kick it.”

And express himself, he does. With the ball on his feet, the 5’ 7’’ Central Defensive Midfielder exudes confidence. He possess the little Argentine’s touch with a pinch of the famed Samba flair. Simply put, with the ball on his feet, the boy is Cruyff. 

It is a warm Caribbean January night, Bulbul is dressed down in a plain black tee, camo shorts, flip flops and, something that’s quickly becoming a trademark of his, beanie.

Not fully aware of the magnitude and depth of his love for football, I casually ask why he bothers with the sport yet he knows how much it pays locally.

“Wouldn’t you be better off getting a real job? Like, I don’t know, something a little bit more illustrious?”

Instantly, his eyes flare up. I quiver.

He takes a minute to cool off.

“As long as I’ve got air in my lungs,” he reaffirms gently tapping on the table with restraint, “then I will find a way to kick this ball.” 

The waiter arrives to take our order.

Similar to most businesses here, Choma Zone is an iron sheet contraption; a kibanda. The kitchen is divided from the service area by a cardboard wall with a small window partition linking the two. On top of each table lies two copies of the day’s paper, People Daily. I find this to be chic and thoughtful. 

Today, as usual, is a full house. Choma zone’s competitive prices and its signature dish, Spesho; a mix of beans, peas, greens, chapos, chips and everything in between, has endeared the eatery into the hearts of the Daystar faithful.  

A dozen customers have filled all the plastic chairs placed alongside the four plastic tables, which are opposite and adjacent to each other. The room is filled with banter and hearty laughter. 

“So, from the top…” I lead Bulbul on as the waiter leaves with our order: two chapos and scrambled eggs x 2. 

“ I’m the last born in a family of four: Remmy, Sylvie, Carlos, Bulbul (in that order). My father’s name is David Makori Ratemo. My mom’s name is Fatma-” 

“Hold on, your mom’s Muslim?” 

“Yeah. The two were hard headed, they didn’t let religion get in the way of their love.” Then, apropos of nothing, “My ol’ man was a football player himself back in the day.”

“Remmy,” he proceeds, “is married and blessed with two kids. Oh, she’s Muslim too.” 

“What about the rest of you?” I ask puzzled. 

“Christians,” he replies steadfastly. 

I probe no further.

Like most guys, @bulbul_official love affair with football sprouted at childhood; at their home in Ukunda (Kwale County).

“I was the kid who always got selected first, the one you always loved playing in the same team with and, the one you dreaded playing against.” He brags.

Much as he enjoyed playing the sport during his childhood, it was in high school when he got his football epiphany.

“I joined Marion Secondary School in 2010. The following year, I made it to the school’s football first team. The year after that I was appointed football captain and sports captain. And, in my final year, I helped the team win the Kenya Private Schools Sports Association (KPSSA) tournament – a fete that is yet to be replicated to date.” Bulbul modestly states.

Bulbul speaks in a deep and guttural voice and, although he has spent the better part of the last decade here in Nairobi, his Coastal accent is gloopy, surprisingly so. It coats his Swanglish like he has a mouth full of Novocain.

“My initial years in high school were speech tough,” he confesses light heartedly, “my classmates used to make fun of my dialect. They would say tyre (car tyre), I would say tairi.” 

“Tough times indeed,” I concur.

We crack up.  

Going by the flashes of magic the Libra had shown on the field of play, it came as no surprise when scouts -and international one’s no less, frantically tried to snap him up. And, were it not for his father, his story might probably be reading differently. 

“My father turned down all the offers I got. One after the other. I couldn’t believe it!” He laments. 

“His rationale was I should get an education first; something to fall back on. Back then, I didn’t see it that way, I felt he was robbing me of my dream. We didn’t see eye to eye for a while and I even stopped playing – thinking I was hurting him.”

Knowing what I was going to ask next, he goes on, “I got back to lacing up because I consider football to be my God given talent. Choosing to sit back and do nothing with this divine gift would be a great injustice not only to myself, but also, to God.” 

Bulbul’s love for the sport is truly palpable. The lad waxes lyrical about the piece of hide skin, taking time to choose the most poetic words to describe his doe eyed princess. It’s quite something really listening to this football extremist. He makes it sound like everything in this world is vilified and tainted. Everything, except for football.

***

Not known to many, Daystar University rolled out its International Relations programme in August 2013. Bulbul, who is set to graduate in December, was amongst those who constituted the pilot class of the programme. 

“Wasn’t it risky? Signing yourself up as a guinea pig for a course that had never been tried or tested?”

“Choosing Daystar University was a no-brainer. This institution offers the most comprehensive International Relations programme regionally, coupling IR with Security Studies“.

Coming into Daystar, the Wazza admirer was very thin, almost feeble, but very much determined. Determined, to carry on a culture he began at St. Augustine Preparatory School; that of representing every institution he was in, in football.

Immediately after the orientation week, he reported to work. 

They were a huge lot on day one but the number quickly dwindled. In true reserve inauguration fashion, the coach typically never bothered to look their way. They trained themselves, by themselves. The best chance one had of travelling with the first team was as their water boy, which they coveted.

After all the sprinters had fallen off, Bulbul and a few others were allowed to train with rest. Eventually, the rookie got his first taste of professional football in January 2014, coming off the bench against Africa Nazarene University.

He would continue to serve as a fringe player till late November of the same year when he was awarded his first start.

“My first start was anything but a dream. I was so nervous that I played dismally. It took a while for me to acclimatize to the big stage”, the veteran Falcon player recounts nostalgically.    

The waiter is back with our order, dinner is served. 

We dig in.

***

A player can be good but it’s up to the coach to get the best out of them.

“When I took charge of the Falcons team in April 2014, Bulbul used to play further upfront. He was good but ineffective.” Mr. Bernard Mutuku enlightens me at the end of one of his training sessions. 

“As a coach, you’ve got to understand, amongst other things, your player’s mentality and their style of play before incorporating it into your team management. Bulbul is defensive minded. He can comfortably fill any of the backline positions but, play him as your deepest midfielder, as your regista. There, he’s lethal.”  

Granted, the defensive midfielder position isn’t regarded as a glamorous one but with good reason – to paraphrase Spain’s world cup winning coach, Vicente Del Bosque, “If you watch the whole game, you won’t see the CDM but watch the CDM and you’ll see the whole game.”

The CDM’s role is quite simple and straightforward: break up attacks, hold possession and orchestrate offensive blitz. To play in this position one requires to have a treble of abilities.

Mentally, you must have great vision and be able to anticipate plays. Technically, pin point passing, tackling and interception skills are essential while a great engine and phenomenal leg power rounds off the CDM’s list of requirements.

The “Makélélé role” was initially brought to prominence by Frenchman, Claude Makélélé during his time in Chelsea and was duly named after him.

Currently, the role has been christened, the Kanté role. After, yet another, Chelsea player and Frenchman, N’Golo Kanté- you know, the guy at the cog of Ranieri’s historical Leicester team which lifted the English Premier League (EPL) trophy against a 5000-1 odds. Who, last season, covered 25% of the earth for Conte’s Chelsea, thus indicting the manager as 003 in EPL history to win the league in his first season, thereby, inadvertently, etching his own name in history as the second player in EPL history to win two consecutive league titles with different teams. 

Yeah, that guy.  

“As a player, what do you consider to be your greatest strength?” I candidly ask Daystar’s Kanté.

He, again, takes his time, thinks about it, “…My mind…”, the twenty one year old sagely replies.

***

Like any other player, and defender at that, the young bull (pun intended) has had his ballistic moments. “I once got red carded. It was duri-” 

“Did you deserve it?” I interject.

“I’m not a dirty player, it’s not in my nature. But, in football, as is with life, there are good players and bad players. The referee didn’t notice when my rival antagonized me but, apparently, he was all eyes when I retaliated. “Footballers”, the diplomat rules, ”are quite cheeky. And, if you’re dumb enough to fall for their theatrics, then you’re done and dusted.”   

Soccer being a contact sport, players are always bullying each other. Tired of easily getting jostled off the ball, Bulbul took a semester’s break in May 2015. 

“The semester’s break was well in, a player’s physicality is equally as important as his ball skills. Bulking up, for me, was compulsory and there were no two ways about it.” The lithe and muscular athlete concedes.

The devout Mancunian’s X factor, however, isn’t his pronounced pecs or his well chiseled Depay like legs. His machismo lies deep in his firm brutish gaze, quintessential in every sportsman, which harbors a masculinity that, like most alluring things, can only be felt. Think: Daryl Dixon, The Terminator or Rocky Balboa.   

As the Falcon’s fortress pumped iron at Roxpark, Diani, The Boss was making a very important decision back at base camp. 

“The captaincy is an integral position. You cannot mess it up. You just, cannot!” the coach warns as he shakes his head insistently. “How do you expect the players to respect you yet they don’t even respect their own captain? 

“Captains are not defined by the arm band, the arm band is a prop. A captain is spotted by the way they carry themselves on and off the pitch. I chose Bulbul to be my team captain purely because of what he embodies; discipline and hard work. And, I’m sure, the rest of the players see it that way too.”

“You’re in charge of a battalion of twenty three “soldiers”. How do you get them to listen to you, to respect you, as their captain?” I inquire – more interested in managerial advice than for the story’s sake.

“Simple, you treat them like adults and accord them equal respect.” El Capitán quips.

***

The Daystar Falcons ply their trade in zone A of the fourth division (regional league) of the Football Kenya Federation league system. At the moment of going to press, the Falcons lead from behind, languishing at a disappointing pos. 16/16.

Their “below par” performance in the league can be attributed to multiple factors but, ultimately, it all boils down to the fact that Daystar University is, primarily, an academic institution not a football club or rather, a sports center.  

That being said, Daystar’s trophy cabinet isn’t full of dust and cobwebs. During the past four years, the Falcons have managed to hoist up not one, not two, but THREE major football honours. The most recent being the JKUAT Open in mid-2016.

“Winning is important, it validates hard work, but it isn’t everything. Provided you’ve worked hard and given it your best, that’s a W.” The champion boy decrees.

“Bulbul is a good player. He is getting better with every game. If he continues to work hard, trust God and remain humble, he will surely go far. So far, in the country, systems have been put in place to enable one to earn a living from the sport. As long as he continues on the path he is on, then I see no reason as to why he shouldn’t clean up well.”   

Coach’s sentiments are echoed by Mr. Muda the Assistant Sports and Recreations Officer.

“Bulbul is a good student, I hold him in high regard. He is honest and a team player. With his fellow players, he is long suffering and patient; a true servant leader. When it comes to his studies, I’ve seen his grades, he does well and is also a team player in class work. And, as opposed to what people believe about sports being for academic rejects, Bulbul is excelling both in academic and sports.”

***

Matchday 19 – 1500hrs, Saturday, 15 July 2017. 

I hate to admit it but I’m such an African timer. 3 pm finds me walking hurriedly to the Daystar University Athi River football ground for the last home game of the semester. The sun is being a sport today, it shines clemently from up above a cloudless sky. Who knows, maybe it’s in on this match day fiesta. 

On my way, I come across other fans making their way there and, Morris, a staff member, cruising in his whip. He generously offers us a ride and we, more than gladly, hop on. We arrive on the pitch in a flash.       

I find the players going through the formalities, patting down and identification checks which is being conducted by the referee and his assistants. (Phew!).  

The home fans have turned up in large numbers. Even more startling is, the Falcon’s 12th man isn’t composed of pure testosterone. A good number of WAG’s have also turned up – I met this girl, Winnie, a Kardashian by all means, at the tail end of the game and managed to score her digits (wink).    

Off the pitch, the entertainment is being provided by a boom box belonging to a fan and Atulo, Daystar’s very own Jaro Sojah. The ambulance is parked next to the pitch while two armed police officers stand at a distance seemingly disinterested in the whole shebang. 

I manage to squeeze myself in with the home fans on an already packed bench. Daystar’s Most Outstanding Sportsman of the Year 2017 is conspicuously absent from the starting 11 today.

Kick off. 

The Falcons, in white and subdued accents of sky and deep blue (secondary color), immediately go for Taqwa’s, in navy blue and white (secondary color), neck.

Victor and Alvin come close to putting the Falcons in front but are denied by the woodwork and the all-important luck.

As the game drags on, Taqwa FC find their footing and bring the fight to the Falcons exploiting their loose midfield and nervy defense. It’s an entertaining game, to be honest, you can’t afford to blink.  

Then, a momentary lapse at the back hands the visitors a chance from nothing and they make it count.

The home fans are briefly hushed.

The game is restarted but the goal seems to have demoralized the Falcons as they now play a bland style of football. 

The first half ends with Daystar Falcons trailing by a goal to nil.

Second half begins.

Merely seconds into the restart, Bulbul is brought on for Mbioka to rapturous applause. His first touch is something akin to martial arts and, funny enough, the show boater manages to pull it off. His introduction seems to reignite the fire in his teammate’s hearts, the Falcons spread their wings again, they play with conviction. 

The super sub doesn’t waste possession, he completes all his passes and finds space to receive the ball. On the defensive end, he snuffs out attack after attack and wins every tackle, Taqwa FC don’t register a single shot on goal since his coming on. 

The away team is increasingly becoming frustrated and the upbeat home fans don’t seem to help one bit. At one point, two opposing players try to double team Falcon’s CDM but hawatoshi mboga; Bulbul glides past them.  

Throughout the second half, the Falcons, chasing the game, have been playing with a sense of urgency. And, in the dying minutes, Bulbul picks up the ball in his own half and unleashes, one last kick, a defense splitting pass which leads to Falcon forward, Abraham Rogato, being brought down on what seems to be the 18 yard box.     

Was it a genuine foul? Was it simulation? Was it in the box? Was it outside the box? I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. The referee is pointing to the spot. The decision does not augur well with the opposing players and no sooner has the referee given the penalty, than… pandemonium. 

A Taqwa player punches a Falcon adding fuel to the already blazing fire. The provoked player doesn’t clap back but other players of both sides get involved. A brawl of shoving and tugging ensues and Atulo even joins in; 12th man for real!

The men in blue still watch on unperturbed.

The guilty player is immediately sent off and breaks down as if his hands are clean, like we just didn’t see him land a punch. Some nerve!

Collectively, the Taqwa players are an undisciplined lot. Their own coach has to get physically involved in trying to restrain them. 

Far up the field, another irate Taqwa player charges towards the Falcon’s skipper presumably breathing fire as he points at him. Bulbul authoritatively fly swats his hand as soon as he gets to touching distance. The bugger is stunned, I doubt he will be barking up that tree anytime soon.  

The law enforcers have casually started making their way into the pitch. To them, this is just another day in the office. Classic Kenyan football.

Realizing they waged a losing battle, the travelling crowd and players decide to calm themselves down and result to verbal threats.  Wait till the away match… You’ll see!” They sneer.

“@#$!!**@#$!” 

Colorful words are being exchanged on the stands as Alvin, steps up to the plate.

Bated breaths. 

Aaand… He Harry Kane’s the spot kick and falls to the ground in dramatic fashion. 

Game, set, match. 

The Falcons have lost yet another game but not never their fans’ hearts.

***

It’s getting late and Bulbul’s phone has been blinking non-stop for the last five minutes – the missus. 

I go through my notes one last time.

“Just how important are the fans?” I ask conclusively. 

“The fans… (Sighs). The fans are everything. The mere fact that someone took time away from their day… Then, to cheer you on, to share your pain… (Another sigh). I consider that to be the noblest of gestures, don’t you think?”

 

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