Joe KadengeThe great football legend

Do you recall the popular football slogan “Kadenge na mpira?” This was the slogan that catapulted Joe Kadenge, now eighty-years-old, to fame thanks to a voice sports commentator at the then Voice of Kenya (VOK) during a regional cup championship that Kadenge starred in. ESTHER KIRAGU had a chat about all things football with the all-time Kenya’s soccer star of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

My love for football began during my childhood days in Western Kenya. I was a star in my village. I used to play football with other children and often, beat them at the game. I didn’t really get any formal training on how to play soccer, but my love for the game and the fact that I played it often helped me improve my skills. But this came at a cost; some of the older kids in school would pick on me whenever I beat them at a game. But this was not enough to change my passion for football. I thus had to balance between my studies and the game.

During my high school days at Musingu Boys High School in Kakamega between 1952 and 1954, I played for my school team all the way to the national level. I loved football so much that at times, I would walk 10 miles to Kakamega Bukhungu Stadium just to watch local teams play. Upon completing my secondary education in 1955, I travelled to Nakuru in search of a job. At the time, Nakuru was the home of football and was known for big football clubs and popular football players. I got a job at Nakuru Public Works Department (PWD) as a junior clerk and since the company had a football team, I would attend their trainings after work.

I had been eyeing the right-wing position and one time approached the coach of PWD football club and told him I could play better than the guy who played the right wing at the time. The coach, a white man, did not believe me but when he gave me a chance to prove my worth, I outdid myself. I was selected to be part of the PWD starting 11.

A passion for the game…

Within a span of one-year, people had noticed my football skills and I was named the top football player in Nakuru for that year. That’s how I ended up joining the national team, Harambee Stars, in 1956 at the age of 21, shortly before a regional cup championship tournament, Gossage Cup, in Kampala, Uganda. I was the youngest in the team.

Unfortunately, during the training for the tournament, I was dropped from the team on the basis of age.  I was told I was too young to play in the national team. I was disappointed but vowed to train harder and sharpen my soccer skills in order to make it to the following year’s play-off in Zanzibar. True to my word, I made it but we lost the game 1-0 to Uganda. This prompted me to vow to revenge by beating Uganda in the next contest to be held the following year (1958) at Nairobi City Stadium. This was the game that accelerated my rise to fame. I controlled the ball from the midfield to score the sole goal of the match with Kenya winning 1-0 against Uganda, hence the popular slogan “Kadenge na mpira.”

The then governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, was so excited that Kenya had won the game that he threw his cowboy hat to the crowd. I felt the need to own a cowboy hat since that time. Up to this day, it remains my trademark of sorts. My football career was set in motion after this match and I travelled to many countries to represent my country. I am honoured to have played for the national team for 14 years.

Football gave me a lot of exposure and opportunity to travel but I must admit that despite all the glory I received over the years, I didn’t benefit financially from the game. Sometimes I think I was born before my time because if I were playing football today when it is recognised as a profession, no doubt I would be an international player. None of the many accolades I have received have come with monetary benefits.

In 1974, I was nominated to head the Kenya national team as a coach; a job I must acknowledge is tough for anyone. Whenever a team wins, the coach becomes a darling of the public but when the team loses, he receives the wrath of the same public in equal measure, as was the case when the Kenya national team lost 1-0 to Sudan under my stewardship. I resigned due to the backlash I received from the public. In 2002, I managed the Kenya National Football team and was later succeeded by Jacob Mulee. During my time as a coach and team leader, I was key in sourcing some of the talent we see in today’s football scene and I am excited whenever I see them excel.

The Federation of International Football Association (FIFA), the world’s football governing body, greatly honoured me when they invited me to represent East and Central Africa in gracing the opening ceremony of the World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010.

Although I have retired from football, some of my sons have furthered my football legacy while creating a legacy for themselves. My eldest son, the late Francis Kadenge, began playing football for the national team in 1979. His brother Evans Kadenge played with Nzoia Sugar and went on to coach the team, whereas Rogers Kadenge played for the Utalii team and Oscar Kadenge, a Former AFC Leopards winger, is now playing for Nairobi City Stars.

Unlike today when local football is played professionally, this wasn’t the case during my time. We had full time jobs in addition to playing football. I worked for various companies including Uplands Bacon Factory in Limuru where I helped market bacon, which was not popular among Africans at the time. I went on to work for Coca Cola Company for about 16 years then moved to Six Eighty Hotel, where I worked until my retirement, after which I put up a cab business as a means to fend for my family.

Sometimes I feel very sad to see that despite the football foundation we created, Kenya still lags behind with the national team barely making it to the World Cup, let alone The Africa Cup of Nations over the years. It is a pity that sometimes football officials elected to look into matters football have no passion for the game and today football is mired in a lot of politics.

In sports, just as in many aspects of life, unity and the spirit of teamwork is key as it trickles down from the football officials all the way to the players.

My advice to them is to put their house in order; and to the youth and especially those who play professional soccer, always cultivate discipline and hardwork if you want to excel in life. And to the Kenyan public, support local football and when your team loses don’t turn to violence, simply salute the winning team because in life, at times you win and other times you lose.

Although I support local football, I am also an ardent fan of the English Premier League and a staunch supporter of Manchester United, popularly known as Man U. I have supported them since 1959 after the Munich air disaster, where 23 people, including eight Man U players died when the plane they were in crashed. I put myself in the shoes of the players left behind whom I equated to orphans in need of love and support. I haven’t changed camp since.

Life with an illness…

My life hasn’t been all rosy. In 2006, I was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure and was hospitalised for some time. I remain indebted to former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, who settled my hospital bill and the many Kenyan well-wishers who flocked the hospital to visit and say a prayer for me. Since then, I have been on medication, which is expensive, especially since I have no steady source of income as the cab business today has become competitive and my age does not allow me to be as active as I would wish to be.

It is a shame that despite flying the Kenyan flag high, I really can’t say I have much to show for it. There is need to honour those who have made a positive impact in society and it’s a shame that when you visit other countries, you are held in high esteem yet in your own country you are not celebrated as was the case when I visited South Africa during the 2010 world cup. At my age, I really do not need much, just good nutrition and proper medical attention.”

Football LegendJoe Kadengemy story