“I don’t believe they can beat us by three goals. It is impossible,” so says Dutchman Mark Wofee in early April of 2011. Kenyan domestic cup holders Sofapaka are into the second round of the CAF Confederations Cup, and they only need to honor their return leg against Ismailia to tow the ever so familiar path for Kenyan clubs at the continental stage. No one remembers when last a Kenyan club made it to the group stages of the Champions League or the Confed, but everyone remembers that no Kenyan side has eliminated an Egyptian club in these competitions, yet.
Mr. Wofee brings with him a 2-0 first leg cushion to Nairobi and because it is impossible for his Kenyan opposition to even get a goal, if allowed, he wants to win in the Kenyan capital too.
Anthony Kimani and Bob Mugalia- at the time fully a Kenyan International- ensure the Dutch tactician goes into the half time break with his initial statement on a plate. One more goal and he will be forced to eat it. Titus Mulama makes it three, and Patrick Kagogo four. How right the Dutchman was. Sofapaka could never beat them 3-0. 4-0 it ended at the Nyayo National Stadium and the Egyptian side walked forlorn out of the 2011 continental showpiece.
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Akwana Midas Touch
Ezekiel Akwana was the man at the helm for the Batoto Ba Mungu side, at least on interim basis because even with the monumental win, Francis Kimanzi would arrive from the Netherlands fresh from his KNVB badges quest and take over. Up next was St Eloi Lupopo in the second round, and John Baraza’s left-footed winner at the death at Nyayo Stadium meant Sofapaka, though tied 2-2 with Lupopo, advanced on away goal rule. They then only had one more hurdle to make it into the group stages. In other words, Sofapaka were a win away from Ksh 12 million. Four years before, the club had failed to participate in the same competition despite winning the 2007 domestic Cup. Being a club only three years professional and not yet in the top flight, the side cited financial constraints for failure to participate in the 2008 Confederations Cup. Now they had a dozen millions waiting to be grabbed. They only had to beat another North African side.
Fate has a way of making up for past torment, sometimes stretching relief to just enough distance within your grasp so that you take it. Sofapaka could have stormed into the 2011 CAF Confed group stages stinking rich, yet they didn’t.Club Africain was thrown Sofapaka’s way. Just like the Egyptians, Club Africain went a rampant 3-0 up for a first leg advantage; belief is what Sofapaka could hang onto now. A side captained by James Situma, Coach Kimanzi’s team had previously overturned a near similar result and if they could score four past Ismailia, they definitely could do the same with Club Africain. They only managed three, Ezechiel N’Douassel’s away strike for CA making the difference.
A lapse in defense had given the visitors the lead trough N’Douassel but Congolese center-half Dodo Kayombo drew Sofapaka back by the breather. John Baraza then sent the hosts up for the first time in the game before John Onami made it 3-1. Damage had however been done by the Chadian International’s away strike for Club Africain. Ulinzi Stars, Kenyan league champions from the previous year had bowed out of the CAF Champions league in the very first round following a 4-0 hiding from Egyptian giants Zamalek.
Sofapaka bowed out, but honorably so.
The Tunisian side, Club Africain, would reach the final of that year’s Confederation Cup and fall 5-6 on penalties to Moroccan opposition Mas Fez. Twin 1-0 victories for either side had taken the match into penalties.
Blast from the past: Kenya’s Golden era
From Church to The Premiership
Sofapaka (SOTE (kama) FAMILIA (kwa) PAMOJA KUAFIKIA AZIMIO (all as a family working together towards success), as a professional club, begins its journey in early 2004 even though records indicate that prior to that, the team had been in existence for a couple of years back as a Church team; Maos Ministries Church to be precise. Three years after Mr. Elly Kalekwa had taken over the team, Sofapaka- still in the second tier- won the President’s Cup, an equivalent to today’s GOtv Shield. Promotion into the Premiership had to however wait for another year as the wrangles in the management of the Kenyan game meant even with their domestic cup triumph, they still weren’t ripe enough for the top flight. Coach Martin Ndagano and his assistant Diallo Mudimu felt one more season in the lower tier wouldn’t hurt and a year later had earned promotion into the Kenyan Premier League. By this time though, Mr. Kalekwa had seen it fit to add some experience in the technical bench and as Sofapaka were crowned Nationwide League Zone B champions, Robert Matano was at the helm. A church team would play in the KPL. All praise unto God.
As if winning the domestic cup while still in the lower tiers wasn’t history enough for them, Sofapaka Football Club won the Kenyan Premier League in their very first attempt. The two names on the score-sheet as the side drubbed Red Berets 3-0 on the final day is enough proof at what the Church side had gradually evolved into. A John Baraza brace either side of Zimbabwean Tafadzwa Dondo strike won Robert Matano the 2009 league title just ten months into the top tier.
Though started an amateur side with street boys turning out for the team in its raw years, Sofapaka could now attract a few names form across the borders. John Baraza, 2009 Golden Boot winner, had been to the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) before, and in hindsight at least, seasoned top flight teams at the time should have been wary of Matano’s side. Wilson Oburu walked home with Goalkeeper of the Year award while Matano himself was Coach of the Year. Anthony Kimani bagged the season’s choice for Best Midfielder while his team manager Ben Matindi was crowned TM of the Year.
In the run-up to their maiden title, statements had been rife that the newbies wanted more from the top tier experience. First, Patrick Kagogo aiding a dismissal of defending champions Mathare United then title favorites Tusker FC. While Sofa battled towards the summit, AFC Leopards, promoted alongside Batoto Ba Mungu earlier that year, will remember this as the season when a hard earned point against SoNy Sugar on the last day kept them in the top flight.
The incredible story of John Baraza’s transition into coaching and Sofapaka’s magical survival
The Congolese Connection
Flair for things foreign continues here, a couple of months into their second season in the top flight when Ugandan Sam Ssimbwa takes over. The 2010 CECAFA Kagame Cup is his first major assignment (other than defend the league crown) and is pooled against two of his former sides. Mr. Ssimbwa’s wealth of experience before Sofapaka had him do stints at both Atraco of Rwanda and the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) FC. The fourth team in Sofapaka’s pool will be none other than Tanzanian Champions Simba Sports Club.
Sofapaka collected all nine points in the group, first a 4-0 drubbing of home team Atraco before URA were also treated to a generous share of three un-replied goals. The last one, and perhaps hardest for Ssimbwa’s side was to take down Simba SC 1-0 to top the Group C log. John Baraza’s goal subdued countrymen George Wise Owino and Jerry Santos wearing red on the other end of the bout. Maximum points and not a single goal conceded, maybe Sofa were the favorites then, but this was the CECAFA edition that had been graced by TP Mazembe and Nigeria’s Heartland FC. A goal-less draw against another host club Rayon Sport sent their quarter-final clash into the penalty lottery, Laurent Tumba scoring the seventh to capitalize on Jerome Sina’s miss.
In another quarter final clash, Rwandan giants APR took on the tournament favorites Mazembe, but that game would end prematurely as Mazembe skipper Tresor Mputu led a walkout in protest after he was shown a red card for a push on the referee having been denied a free kick. Mputu did not just walk off the pitch; he would run from the touchline straight to attack the referee and scenes that followed saw the game called of on the 38th minute, then APR leading courtesy of Twite Kabange’s goal.
A Jean Baptiste Mugiraneza-captained APR then, in the semis, would be Sofapaka’s end as Malawian international Chiukepo Msowoya made the Kenyan side concede for the first time in the tournament with a controversial goal that was furiously contested after the the long range shot hit the bar and back down on the goal line before Wilson Oburu gathered the ball.
Atraco were the defending champions of this edition and would receive a second drubbing from the Kenyan side in the 3rd place play-off match, a 2 – 1 win that saw Sofapaka end their first ever CECAFA appearance in third place.
Mr. Ssimbwa may have brought Elly Kalekwa bronze from the regional tournament but bronze- it turns out- never guaranteed anyone participation in the CAF Champions League. He had failed to defend the league title and towards the end of 2010, alongside his assistant John Bobby Ogolla, off he went.
Ezekiel Akwana, named interim coach after Ssimbwa’s departure, aided the team to a fourth place finish and domestic cup victory against West Kenya Sugar. Whoever comes in as head coach then would play in the following year’s Confederation Cup. It would be Francis Kimanzi, UEFA A License holder at the time.
Akwana’s admirable finish to the 2010 season did not go unnoticed at was rewarded with the assistant coach’s role, in fact- while Kimanzi rushed to the Netherlands in early 2011 to finish his A License course, Akwana was to be in charge. It is during this time that a North African club was felled by a Kenyan side for the first time.
Now known for lavish spending, Sofapaka had completely changed how the transfer market worked in Kenya. Big money moves at some point made the outfit only field an assortment of internationals. The years 2011 and ’12 though were not forthcoming in terms of silverware. Gor Mahia dismissed the side in successive Cup finals of those two years and heads rolled each time. Briton Stewart Hall may be the shortest-serving man at the club with just seven weeks at the helm. He however will be remembered for the exits of Collins Gatusso Okoth, Hashim Mukhwana and Congolese import Demonde Selenga among others. 2013 was a step further away from continental football as the team finished third in the GOtv Shield.
Gor Mahia Football Club were on the verge of winning their second successive league title in 2014, until a 3-2 loss to Sofapaka in Machakos in October brought the Batoto Ba Mungu back into contention with just two matches to play. It went down to the wire; Gor taking on Ushuru (KRA at the time) and Sofapaka needing an unlikely win at Ruaraka. K’Ogalo won, of course they had learned to deal with final day demons by this time while Sofapaka settled for second on the log. A GOtv Shield final victory over Posta Rangers a few weeks later however brought Kalekwa’s boys back into the big boys’ league.
However, with dwindling finances after the unprecedented withdrawal of East African Portland Cement sponsorship, the return wouldn’t be rosy. Zimbabwean side FC Platinum edged Sofapaka with twin 2-1 victories. The team had started 2015 on a wrong footing but more was to come.
John Baraza, for all his entire Sofapaka adventures will quickly want to forget the first Sunday of June 2015. A day unlike any other KPL match day. Sofapaka sat third on the log yet had not won a single match from their previous five. AFC Leopards on the other hand was still looking for a way into the first eight. Wycliffe Kasaya should be in goal for the Leopards yet minutes before the match the TV Cameras find him seated in the stands- nibbling at what I now presume were groundnuts.
Sofapaka have had their warm-up but there is the small matter of missing opponents. AFC Leopards are nowhere to be seen and maybe Sofa’s quest for three points today has been halved. Match is delayed by half an hour and in these, phone calls to save the name of the Leopard are made. The half an hour is gone and Coach ZdravkoLogarusic has managed to assemble 13 players, among these- not a single one of his three goalkeepers. Karim Ndugwa, signed as a striker at the start of the season will adorn in Kasaya’s goalkeeping kit and the latter will continue nibbling at his groundnuts. If Sofapaka do not bury this match in the first half, it will be because AFC Leopards will have already surrendered and probably walked off the pitch.
Sofapaka’s Togolese import Abdoul Yorou scores in his own net for an impossible Leopards lead. Karim in goal has been splendid so far and if they can just hold one for another 45 minutes, history books at the den will never forget what they did on this afternoon. There’s only seven minutes to play when Lamine Diallo prevents a goal-bound Sofapaka effort with his hand. The Ivorian takes one for the team and walks off red carded. John Baraza then steps up to equalize, but can he? Will he?
It is not the kindest sport football. Baraza, a known goal poacher, was expected to score the easiest goal of his career but he didn’t. Karim could have still be a hero even if Baraza scored but that wasn’t enough for him. He dived his right, and Baraza sent it right there. 1-0 Ingwe won.
Even with a 3rd place finish at the end of the 2015 season, how low had the Batoto Ba Mungu sunk.
Financial limitations continued to trouble the club as the 2016 season set in, what followed was a massive exit of players from the club while the club’s all time top scorer, Baraza retired to take over as assistant coach. Head coach Sam Timbe had not returned after his exit in October 2015 following the expiry of his contract and his assistant David Ouma was tasked with leading the team into the 2016 KPL season.
For the first time in a long while the team that just a year ago had raked in Ksh 24 million from the sale of a player, conducted trials. Burundian International Fiston Abdoul Razak had joined South African giants Mamelodi Sundowns on 5th June of 2015, two days before that wretched afternoon against AFC Leopards.
The team not only finished outside the top four for the first time in the club’s history but also had to win on the last day in order to stay afloat. A 5 – 1 thumping of Thika United marked the turning point to a nightmare season and it was all John Baraza’s hand. Having been named coach for Sofapaka’s last four matches, he won three; one against newly crowned KPL Top 8 champions Muhoroni Youth and another against AFC Leopards, sandwiching a morale crushing draw with Mathare United. The last game though, was the one that mattered.
Money it seems, has found its way back to the Batoto Ba Mungu outfit. Gaming company Betika are the current shirt sponsors and with 17 new mid-season signings, Sofapaka clearly want to head back to where Kenyan football has had them in recent years, and that is among the top sides. The club that single-handedly opened up financial frontiers in the local league through hefty payouts to players, is back, and doing just that. Over time, you’ll agree that a few other clubs followed suit in a bid to match up to the quality Sofapaka had started attracting.
*** Fiston Abdoul Razak’s Ksh 24 million move to the Premier Soccer League (PSL) remains the highest ever for a player leaving the KPL. Michael Olunga’s Ksh 16M move from Gor Mahia to Djurgardens in early 2016 comes a close second.
*** Martin Ndagano and Diallo Mudimu are still part of the Sofapaka FC technical bench since earning promotion with the team back in 2008.
By Fabian Odhiambo