Kenyan giants Gor Mahia turn to fans for financial bailout

By Peter MusembiBBC Sport Africa
Jacques Tuyisenge of record 19-time Kenyan champions Gor Mahia
Gor Mahia are Kenya's record 19-time champions

Kenyan champions Gor Mahia have turned to fans to bail them out of a financial crisis that has seen players from one of the country's biggest clubs go without pay for at least five months.

In an unusual move, the record 19-time Kenyan champions are appealing to fans to convert loyalty points accrued by subscribers to a mobile phone company into cash for the club.

Known as 'bonga' points, the loyalty scheme enables subscribers to start accumulating points as soon as they are registered, with extra points coming for extra data usage.

The points are usually redeemed to buy phone credit, data bundles or simply converted into cash, rather than fund Kenya's most successful football club - with Gor Mahia's 19 titles seven better than closest rivals AFC Leopards.

Meanwhile, the club's players will be hoping the scheme pays off since many are facing eviction from their homes after being unable to pay rent.

The club's desperate financial straits have prompted chairman Ambrose Rachier to not only make the appeal but to turn to his bonga points as well.

"These are reserves a lot of people are not aware of," Rachier told BBC Sport Africa. "For example, I discovered I had 80,000 points which I've converted into 25,000 Kenya shillings ($235) which I have contributed to the fund."

The club's financial problems - which some fans lay at Rachier's door - began late last year when betting firm SportPesa withdrew their sponsorship of the club following a local ruling which raised taxes on gambling stakes.

SportPesa's sponsorship amounted to some US$565,000 (60m Kenyan shillings), which covered a significant amount of the club's annual running costs, which are believed to be in the region of $750,000 (80m Ksh).

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"With no football to be played it is only going to get worse," admitted Rachier. "The players have gone five months without salaries yet they have rent to play and families to look after."

"Going without pay for this long is the worst thing that can happen to a player," said captain Kenneth Muguna. "You need money for daily living and also for proper diet because without that, you cannot train."

This year's coronavirus pandemic has only compounded Gor's financial issues, with the suspension of the league in March meaning the club could no longer gather gate receipts.

It also meant that several of the club's other sponsors, who contributed significantly less than SportPesa, have since kept away.

"Sponsors depend on visibility and they are only willing to put money where they are getting value," added Rachier. "Many of them are from the betting industry and they are putting operations on hold until football resumes."

Like many gambling firms in the region, Kenya's have suffered huge financial losses as a result of the widespread suspension of global sport forced by the pandemic.

Three years ago, Gor Mahia were riding high as they gained global attention as Everton - who were also sponsored by SportPesa at the time - beat them in a friendly in Tanzania.

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Now, they are hoping fans can rescue them even if Rachier acknowledges the appeal is unlikely to solve the club's financial woes, since many fans are facing financial hardship themselves due to the impact of Covid-19.

Nonetheless, he hopes the sums raised can reduce some debts and help the players but captain Muguna, who says the players have suffered extreme difficulties in recent times, is not so hopeful.

"I always trust our fans, no doubt about that, and whatever amount they will raise will go a long way in solving our current problems," he said.

"However, I must be sincere - they will be doing their best but their best cannot be enough because not many of them have good earnings and you cannot blame them."

With some players facing eviction from their homes, Rachier says he has pleaded with landlords to show patience.

"I told the landlords that rent arrears are attributable to the salaries we haven't paid the players for reasons already in the public domain, and that they will pay when they get the money."

Gor Mahia were declared champions in late April after the season was ended prematurely and there are concerns their financial state may affect their ability to represent Kenya in next season's African Champions League.

However, a legal challenge to the Kenyan federation's decision to cancel the league means that Gor's latest league title hangs in the balance - much like their finances.