The latest decision by Kenyan Premier League Limited to order teams in the top flight to pay matchday officials could be a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
Just a day after the league managers confirmed that the league will go on despite lacking a title sponsor, then KPL CEO Jack Oguda followed the directive with a statement that all the 18 clubs will now be forced to cater for the allowances and wages of the referees until the league secures a sponsor.
Kenya’s top flight has been under difficult financial constraints following the exit of title sponsors SportPesa. Without monthly grants, clubs have been suffering, and about two weeks ago, Sony Sugar dished the first walkover of the season against AFC Leopards after failing to raise money for logistics.
“[KPL] clubs will have to share the expenses of the referees as well as their wages,” Oguda told Goal. “This is a resolution which was reached after the meeting with the clubs' chairpersons.
"However, once we get the sponsor, we will refund the teams the money used on officials.”
The latest decision comes at a time when teams in the lower league – the National Super League – are also struggling to pay referees after they were directed to do so by the Football Kenya Federation.
Already, complaints have been raised in the lower league with only six rounds of matches played, as poor officiating and alleged cases of match officials being bribed to influence the outcome of matches have taken the centre stage.
It has been alleged to Goal by figures within the local game, that some rogue officials are notorious for mishandling matches because of bribery, as the referees’ payment is no longer done by the federation but by the clubs themselves.
It creates a conflict of interests, and the issue is now threatening to cripple the league.
“It is frustrating and demoralising that a team can practice for a full week only for some shoddy officiating to destroy all that in a matter of just 90 minutes,” a top NSL official, who did not want to be named, told Goal. “People cannot keep complaining and nothing is being done so the Federation must simply be alive to these concerns.”
However, even though this situation is already affecting the lower league, the KPL have decided to follow this approach as they seek to maintain their league. However, one wonders whether the same problems which are being experienced in the NSL will not crop up in the top tier.
Oguda now insists the payment issue will not put the integrity of the league into jeopardy.
"The money shall be paid during the pre-match meetings. Clubs will share the expenses equally; it will not be done after the match,” Oguda continued. “This is to ensure the league maintains its integrity and no dirty games are played.”
However, former international Boniface Ambani disagrees with Oguda, stating the latest decision will water down the competition in the league and also bring back the match-fixing monster.
“Players are suffering, match officials are suffering, fans too, and when it reaches a point referees have to be paid by clubs, what does that show you?" Ambani asked Goal.
"Match-fixing is now boiling in [the KPL]. We are faced with tough times in Kenyan football. Who is to blame?
"I blame the guys who have always been at the helm.
“Why? Let's start with SuperSport. We knew they were going. We had all the time in this world to sit them down, talk to them, iron out our differences and continue with our business as it used to be. We became big-headed, we went on to chest thump, promised Kenyans we were shipping in our [OB vans]. The [OB vans] are still high seas three years later.”
Ambani further argues that the current football administrators are to blame for the current mess the sport finds itself in.
“[Administrators] have just failed us, they only sat down and watched SuperSport walk away,” Ambani continued. “The little they were giving these clubs went deep into helping these clubs financially. It sustained the clubs in one way or another.
“Then [SportPesa]. I think the football stakeholders could have formed a delegation to spearhead talks between the government and the betting company. That's FKF and KPL combined, showing them how much the three needed each other in the development of sports in the country could have gone a long way in rescuing the situation.
"I am sure they could have come into agreement and something tangible could have come out from the talks.”
Kakamega Homeboyz chairman Cleophas Shimanyula, who was among the officials fronting for the league to be halted, insists asking clubs to pay the match officials will lead to much controversy, and allegations of bribery.
“Imagine a referee coming from Kakamega to Nairobi to officiate a match without money in the pocket, and he or she gets an official with money, will he not do a favour for the money and change the result?” Shimanyula posed to Goal. “Paying match officials is the work of KPL and should remain to be the work of KPL.
"We should stop using shortcuts and do things the way they are supposed to be done.”
Shimanyula further argues that asking the same teams who have not paid their players and the technical bench salaries for the last three months to cater for referee’s expenses is a huge burden that risks making the situation worse for everyone.
“It is the reason why we wanted the league to be stopped, we put our acts together before it resumes,” Shimanyula continued. “It will be a huge burden for teams without a sponsor to start paying the match officials, they already have debts with players and coaches and now you add them the referees?
"It will not be possible, some clubs will even close shop.”
Gor Mahia CEO Omondi Aduda has described the move as a sad situation for Kenyan football.
“As much as I did not want to comment on the matter, it is surely a sad situation for Kenyan football,” Aduda told Goal. “That is where we find ourselves, and it is a situation Kenyans wanted to find themselves in, so we have to do what we have been asked to do and move on.”
With the league resuming this weekend after the international break, everyone hopes that all the matches lined up will be played as scheduled without any more postponements, following the KPL's latest decision.