A decade at Harambee Stars: Benson Otieno’s sojourn as Stars Kit Manager

Benson Otieno is the longest serving member of the Kenya national team, Harambee Stars. He has seen the joys, the tears and the intrigues at the national team and here he shares his story of the same.

Benson Otieno has been a regular face at the national team; he has seen players pass through the national team, to their retirement, coaches have come and gone. He has survived purges as federations made changes to the Harambee Stars technical bench. He is there for the long term and experience gained in the job, plus a few added advantages, make him an easy to work with fellow.

Otieno’s first taste at the national team came in 2008 when Mohamed Hatimy was in charge of the Kenya Football Federation, but it was not just a rise from nowhere. The decade he has spent with the national team started with a proposal from a few of his former bosses.

Basketball and Football

For the perfection he puts in, one may be mistaken to believe he has done this all his life, but Otieno started off as a basketball and a football player before switching lanes to go into management.

Born in Shauri Moyo, his interest in sports started early, at Heshima Primary School and extended it to secondary school as he took his studies at Eastleigh High, playing both games. While his interest at high school was in football, the school culture saw him play more and more basketball that football.

He would of course get time to play football, as a goalkeeper and a right fullback.

The unfortunate happened one day in 1996, when on the basketball court; Otieno sustained a knee injury and he had to shift from actively playing to management, and he started off at his team then, Eastleigh Sportiff where he served for four years.

Born in Shauri Moyo, his interest in sports started early, at Heshima Primary School and extended it to secondary school as he took his studies at Eastleigh High

Frustrations in sports management – the normal club politics, meager pay and more – forced him out and he had to stay away the game for two years between 2000 and 2002 before an approach came from Gor Mahia where he would take up the Team Manager’s role starting 2003 and a year later he would shift to the kit manager’s position.

This is where his journey in the position he occupies today started.

Otieno quit Gor Mahia in 2007 and when Antoine Hey was appointed the Harambee Stars head coach, he demanded to have an official on his bench who would manage kit and players when in camp. Otieno’s name was floated among the candidates for the role.

“I had worked with Erastus Okul at Gor Mahia and he proposed me for an interview, which I went for and from it I was tasked to prove that I can handle the pressures of a big game. But then I had worked for Gor Mahia so I had been there already. It was not hard to convince them and I got the job,” he says.

Harambee Stars’ first game with him on the bench was against Tunisia.

Hatimy’s time at the federation came to an end in 2011, and Sam Nyamweya was the new Sherrif in town. His first act was to change the entire technical bench, then headed by Zedekiah Otieno, assisted by Leonard Saleh and Salim Ali, with Edward Oduor as Team Manager.

The only officials spared were Team Doctor Wycliffe Makanga and Otieno.

Part and parcel

“Nyamweya called me and told me I am still part and parcel of the national team because of my work, and the recommendations he had received about me,” he says.

He would easily slot into the frame as Francis Kimanzi took over, with Yusuf Chippo and Francis Baraza as assistants. The trio’s stint would last less than a year; the hammer came down on them when Kenya lost back to back away matches against Namibia and Togo. Only Makanga and Otieno were retained.

Next in was Frenchman Henri Michel as head coach. The former French international served a really brief stint, and pulled a bizarre move when he named two national teams for duty in 2012 – one for the CECAFA Senior Challenge in Uganda and the other for what he considered the more serious international assignments.

So James Nandwa, assisted by Ken Odhiambo, handled the team at the CECAFA tournament in Kampala as Michel stayed home with the other team. In the end, the Frenchman handled the national team for just two friendly matches – against South Africa and Tanzania. Both ending in losses.

Henri Michel served a really brief stint, and pulled a bizarre move when he named two national teams for duty in 2012

Otieno considers the Frenchman’s appointment then biggest ever mistake by the federation.

“Michel came with a glamorous profile and with that came a lot of pride and arrogance from him, to an extent he never associated freely with players and always spoke in French. There was an unseen barrier between him and players, which I can say curtailed progress of the team,” he notes.

Otieno traveled with the CECAFA team to Uganda. In that team then, were some of the regular Harambee Stars players today, including David Owino Calabar, and David Cheche Ochieng.

“I think Michel was playing games with the federation. He was afraid of that challenge of taking the team to this tournament yet he was unsure how strong teams out there were and I also think he didn’t have much trust in our players.

“Ironically, this is where the star shone for most of our players, who were rarely looked at. Cheche, for example, showed his true prowess at this tournament and it has always been upward for him since then,” Otieno says of the team that would go all the way to the final before falling to hosts Uganda.

After the CECAFA exploits, Michel didn’t stay too long and soon Nandwa was in charge, albeit temporarily, before Adel Amrouche was hired.

Amrouche struck an immediate good rapport with the team after choosing to keep the entire technical bench he found in place, with Nandwa and Ken Odhiambo as his assistants and his profile shot up instantly after his first game when he led the team to a 1 – 1 draw with Nigeria away in Calabar.

CECAFA glory

Soon after, Amrouche guided the team to the 2013 CECAFA Senior Challenge, ending an 11 – year wait for the regional title. The team was enjoying a great period then and everyone at the team and technical bench was happy; teamwork was at an all – time high and the prospects were huge.

That would however come crashing soon after.

In 2014, two matches against Comoros saw Kenya win at home and draw away, setting themselves well in the preliminaries for the 2015 African Cup of Nations qualifiers. From the away match, however, there came the accusation that Amrouche had an altercation with the referee and spat at him.

That marked the start of his tribulations with Kenya as he was handed a suspension from CAF and the fact that he had outstanding unpaid dues from the federation saw deliberate moves made at ousting him. It was the typical between a rock and hard place situation for the Algerian coach.

“During Amrouche’s suspension, Kenya was beaten by Lesotho away from home and when we returned, Nyamweya called an urgent meeting and directed that all the dropped players be reinstated but that ended in the team only drawing in Nairobi, and Nyamweya went on a sacking spree,” Otieno reveals.

Only Otieno remained as Nyamweya wiped out Amrouche’s bench but upon reconsideration, he reinstated Nandwa and Odhiambo. That was not to last too long though; Nandwa and Odhiambo would soon be replaced by Bobby Williamson and Musa Otieno, with Mathews Ottamax coming on as Goalkeeper’s Trainer and Simeon Mulama as Team Manager.

During Amrouche’s suspension, Kenya was beaten by Lesotho away from home and when we returned, Nyamweya called an urgent meeting and directed that all the dropped players be reinstated

From his vantage position at the national team, Otieno had the privilege of seeing the intrigues at the team and federation and he notes that under Williamson is when the team went through the roughest patch. Mostly this was due to the handling the team was accorded by the federation.

It was under Williamson that Harambee Stars’ World Cup 2018 dream crashed. The team had just seen off Mauritius 5 – 2 on aggregate in the first round of preliminaries before beating Cape Verde in the first leg of the second round, at home.

The shambolic preparations towards the second leg and the journey to Cape Verde, however, ended the team’s chances even before a ball was kicked. The team had to endure a 12 – hour delay while players also staged a sit in, demanding for their allowances as information filtered through that the government had already released the monies.

Nyamweya’s downfall

By the time the team landed in Praia, it was just minutes to the match and a 2 – 0 loss would follow, meaning Kenya was set for a long spell out of competitive football. This was not taken too kindly by the football community. It was the start of Nyamweya’s downfall.

“It was the worst ever experience in Kenyan football; I pray nothing of the sort ever happens again to any Kenyan team. We were supposed to fly out to Cape Verde just a day after the game in Nairobi but it happened that the flight hadn’t been paid for by the time we were supposed to leave.

“The scheduled departure time was 8am, but we would travel at 10pm and it only took the intervention of then Sports Minister Hassan Wario. The senior players had refused to take to the flight and were already on their way out of the airport.

“It was not a very comfortable plane, and we had to go through seven countries. By the time we got to Cape Verde it was 30 minutes to the match. Just before landing, we could see our opponents warming up. It was a 17 – hour flight for us and the players were tired, angry, disappointed and hungry because all the food we had carried was already spoilt – the plane didn’t have a freezer.

“We didn’t warm up ahead of the game. We just went straight into the pitch and by the time we got our rhythm on the pitch, we had already been beaten 2 – 0. The President, Uhuru Kenyatta, made a call and spoke to us after the game. He was really mad,” Otieno recounts.

Cape Verde trip was the worst ever experience in Kenyan football; I pray nothing of the sort ever happens again to any Kenyan team

There was no way Nyamweya was going to maneuver his way out of this. The President wanted a full report on what transpired and a number of players and officials were summoned at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to record statements over the same immediately they landed from Cape Verde.

This would be followed by another poor show out in Ethiopia in the 2015 CECAFA Senior Challenge, when the team was eliminated at the quarter final stage, with the same issues about finances coming out again, and even seeing then Team Manager Willis Waliaula detained in his hotel in Addis Ababa over unpaid bills.

Nyamweya out

Soon, Nyamweya was out of office, replaced by Nick Mwendwa as the clamour for change swept through. With this change came new faces at the national team bench – Stanley Okumbi was appointed head coach with Frank Ouna one of his assistants while Musa Otieno was retained as a second assistant.

Otieno stayed on, in his role as kit manager; “Okumbi called me and told me he still wants me in his team. I obliged.”

He has gone on to serve under Paul Put and when the Belgian’s brief stint ended after winning the 2017 CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup in Machakos, Otieno stayed on in the same capacity under Sebastien Migne, the current coach.

“Put didn’t like the way we operate as a country. He was a very good coach but didn’t feel his team was getting the support it needed from the government,” he quips.

Under Migne, Otieno is confident of adding another feather to his cap, with the team set to qualify for the 2019 African Cup of Nations after a great run in the qualifiers.

“The belief in the team at the moment is very strong and there is nothing that will stop them from qualifying. The players we have at the moment are like lions that have felt the scent of blood; they are unstoppable,” he says.

With Migne and of course the support coming from the federation, it is a united house at Harambee Stars and Otieno credits the Frenchman and his assistants for the belief and harmony at the team. He says the team has always had the potential but Migne has unlocked it in a way never done before.

With a little more of government support, he thinks getting the team to play at the 2022 World Cup is an achievable target under the Frenchman.

“The national team is a property of the government and when it comes to financial and logistical support, it is up to the government. The team we have, and the systems the federation has set up with the junior teams, and the coaches as well, hold a big promise for the future of this country,” a confident Otieno states.

The national team is a property of the government and when it comes to financial and logistical support, it is up to the government

The team’s only loss in the 2019 AFCON qualifiers came in the opening game against Sierra Leone and it may not be in the public domain but the 1 – 2 reverse in the game, was a factor of the pre match treatment Kenya was accorded in the West African country.

Otieno says the handling by their hosts didn’t depict any form of fair play and his biggest regret is that the nation is serving a FIFA ban which means they will not be playing Kenya on the listed date. He’d have liked to see Sierra Leone to take a lesson from Kenya on how to treat guests.

Mistreated in Sierra Leone

“I was really praying for Sierra Leone’s ban to be lifted so that we beat them fairly here at home. We wanted to show them that in football even the opponents should be treated fairly and beaten on the pitch. They really frustrated us, and the referee played to their books as well.

“To access the stadium we had to go through the Atlantic Ocean after landing and then in the game, our bench was surrounded by policemen and military people there jostling for space with us and even one of our coaches was sent off after complaining over the same. It was so bad,” he notes.

His job may look easy from the outside and given his experience as well, but it is not always a good day out for Otieno. Before Mwendwa took over, there used to be a big problem with the kitting as one set of uniforms, would be expected to serve at least four teams – the senior team, U23 boys, U20 boys and the senior girls’ teams.

That problem doesn’t exist today but it is not all rosy still, as he has to deal with fans who never miss a chance to ask for a free jersey whenever they meet him.

“Handling fans is tough but I just have to tell them the reality; we don’t have replicas for fans at the moment. Most of them understand but sometimes we have to sacrifice our relations with them just because there are no jerseys to give them,” he adds.

The limited options with kits on most occasions sees only the skipper Victor Wanyama exchange jerseys with opponents, and though Otieno says no one is ever caution against exchanging, it is at times a question of the players knowing when to do it and when not to.

“It is a beauty to see players exchange jerseys but at times we are limited in terms of resources; we don’t have a sponsorship to enable us exchange jerseys every time we play and while we may want our players to keep souvenirs, they also understand our situation at times.”

We worked with Musa as a player but he had the team spirit of both a player and a manager. He would talk to players, and guide them

For all his stay at the team he has a number of top players he feels are extraordinary not only on the pitch but also in other aspects of their lives.

“Kenya is blessed with very many good players and with the improvements and coaching in football in the world, players today know how to handle themselves and their careers as well. My best three in this pick would be Musa Otieno, Victor Wanyama and David Calabar Owino.”

“We worked with Musa as a player but he had the team spirit of both a player and a manager. He would talk to players, and guide them. When I took over, he was in his final days of a long international career and when Hey brought him, he wanted him as assistant coach but saw his quality and sent him back to the playing unit. Musa has wisdom as a person.

“Another great player I have seen in this team is Calabar. He has team spirit and great courage; he is never afraid of an opponent no matter their profile. He is a leader and also knows how to handle fellow players and officials. He is good off the pitch just as he is good on it and I think that is why he is progressing well in his career.

“Thirdly, I rank Wanyama highly as well. He has a big heart and despite his achievements, one thing you will not see in him is pride and arrogance. He plays in the topmost league in the world but when he comes here, he is at the same level with his team mates. He interacts well with his team mates and does what they do.”

I rank Wanyama highly as well. He has a big heart and despite his achievements, one thing you will not see in him is pride and arrogance

The not – so – keen eye may fail to notice the role a kit manager plays in a team, but with a closer insight, Otieno says the position is among the most crucial ones on the technical bench, as it has to do largely with a player’s mentality when stepping out to the pitch.

“A kit manager is a very special person in the team; his performance will reflect on the mood the players take to the field and that has a direct relation to how they perform in the game. A player wants a perfectly fitting jersey, boot, short and socks; these impact on their happiness or not when going to the game and you find that such psychological situations could make or break a team. I believe that is why I have stayed so long in the team,” he points out.

For a man who started serving in the national team back in those days when they’d go without pay and saw some of his mates quit, Otieno is clearly reaping from his sacrifice but he still has ambitions.

He has stayed on because of his passion, and he lives for the game; but he wants to water it to a level he will see the national team play at the World Cup. “That could come in four years time,” he chuckles as he signs off.

NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the 15th edition of the Soka magazine