Kampala Kids League

When the 2010 Football World Cup finals get underway next summer with 32 nations tussling it out for the world’s most coveted soccer trophy, the Ugandan national team the Cranes will, as usual, miss out.

The miserable Ugandans, though, need not worry for they will not miss out entirely.  Good news is that the Kampala Kids League team (KKL) or  The Kids League (TKL) as they are known outside Kampala that comprise football playing  wonder boys aged between 4-14  have saved the nation from the soccer black-out.

The team’s rapid success has attracted the world’s soccer governing body FIFA’s attention to recognise and select them to send a youth team to participate in the finals of the 2010 soccer festival in South Africa dubbed, “Football for Hope.”

KKL founder and country director, Trevor Dudley told the Uganda Record recently that the festivals to take place from June 27- to July 12, 2010 will feature 32 youth teams that have been selected from all over the world.

Dudley disclosed that the Ugandan team to South Africa will comprise of players to be selected from Kampala, Arua,  Karamoja and Gulu districts. “This is great for us. Though [the] Uganda Cranes will not be there, the KKL  team will,”  he said with a broad smile.

Conquerors of Europe

In Europe many teams and soccer fans refer to KKL as a unique team that plays football with a smile on their faces. The team comprise of youngsters that are strictly trained never to deliberately kick an opponent’s leg, abuse or employ any dirty trick in order to win. To them football is a friendly sport and magnet that has a big
impact by bringing together and uniting kids from schools, the street, orphanages thus  breaking down barriers.

The KKL is a sports programme by a non governmental organisation and a brainchild of a Kampala British resident, Trevor Dudley. It all started in 1998  to provide sporting opportunities  for boys and girls aged 4-14  and help them improve their lives  through sports.

The KKL project aims at promoting  health, life skills and a powerful tool for spreading important messages on education. Dudley believes sports is an important part  of the all round education that can produce fit, health children and developing their team spirit and leadership.

The idea started when Dudley was then visiting some schools. He observed that many were reducing the amount of time devoted to sports to concentrate on academics in order to  improve their  positions in the annual national examination results table.

Reason there was an urgent  need to provide weekend sporting opportunities for such kids.  The KKL story is amazing. Since its formation 11 years ago, 900 teams have competed in 62 KKL football, basketball, baseball and cricket  competitions. In all, over 16,800 boys and girls from over 170 schools have taken part.

The KKL success has been most notable in football. “Since 2002 we have been invited to compete in 26 European football tournaments and have amazingly won 20 of them,” said Dudley.

The wins include seven Tivoli Cups (Denmark), six Gothia World Youth Cups (Sweden), three World Football Festival trophies (Denmark) and two Norway Cups.

These, Dudley says, are not simple or just for fun tournaments.  According to him, the annual Gothia World Youth Cup in Sweden is for instance considered to be the largest and most influential youth tournament in the world where over 200 teams take part.

To win this year’s Gothia Cup, KKL scored a total of 121 goals in nine matches, an achievement not achieved before in the 35 year history of the tournament in which around 30,000 teams have competed.

The final where KKL beat IK Franke of Sweden 4-3 was broadcast live on TV across Sweden.

The Swedish press was full of articles about the incredible football performance and entertainment provided by KKL with the Aftonbladet newspaper coming up with a full page article listing an impressive record breaking performance of the KKL in the tournament and praising the top scorer and best player, Ibrahim Mpanga. Mpanga  recorded a breaking haul of 34 goals in nine matches.

In the Football Festivals tournament in Denmark, a premier tournament for the top 16  football academies, KKL again faced IK Franke of Sweden, walloping them  9-2 in the finals.

Earlier, the wonder kids had no respect for FC Barcelona of Spain and Brondy of Denmark, disposing them in the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively with an ease compared to that of an old man taking an evening stroll .

The Barcelona team the KKL defeated prepares players for entry into Barca academy on reaching age 13. In all during the tour, the KKL team won 36 out of 37 matches played in five weeks. They scored 440 goals in 25 hours of football played.

Perfect ambassadors

Dennis Anderson, the tournament leader of Gothia Cup once described the KKL  team as being perfect ambassadors for Uganda, a country previously known worldwide for producing demonised figures like Idi Amin and Kony .

This is echoed by the team’s current coach Eddie Butindo: “With their football and music talents, the KKL boys whenever  travel abroad entertain crowds both on and off the field. They have become so popular and attract thousands of fans to the games.” he said.

According to Butindo, discipline, love for the sport and unity among players are some of the important qualities learnt by  boys and partly responsible for their rapid success. ‘Right from the beginning, the boys are taught skill development and come to learn that football should never be war, but a sport full of joy and fun, a sport where they learn to both win and lose,” he notes.

Butindo says KKL is not only about football. Wherever they go, the KKL team sing and perform cultural dances from different parts of Uganda, something he believes has contributed to binding them together as a strong team. “This togetherness has worked wonders for us. Wherever we travel, we sleep together, eat together, walk together, everything we do together.” he asserts.

No trophy space

A visit to the KKL headquarters at Plot 35, Nakasero Road in Kampala tells it all. The glittering giant trophies won over the time dwarf the likes of  the Uganda national  football league trophy  and make it look like a big joke. Trevor Dudley takes me around and with confidence and huge smile in particular points at the glittering Football Festival trophy won this year in Denmark.

“Many visitors coming here swear never before to have seen such magnificent trophy on Ugandan soil. Some compare it to the European Nations Cup  both in size and appearance.”

At this moment Dudley’s smile suddenly disappears. His only worry, he says, is lack of space for more trophies expected to be won in the coming years.  Newspaper clippings in praise of the Ugandan team and pictures taken during the tours decorate the office walls.

In one corner, a huge picture taken in Feb. 2007  is so remarkable and can’t be missed. It shows the boys posing with European champions Barcelona stars like Samuel Eto’o, Lione Messi and club president Joan Laporta.

Barca connection

In Uganda KKL operates within the generous support of the UN children’s agency UNICEF in addition to other sponsors.  Keen to demonstrate the importance of UNICEF’s sports for development programmes, Spain’s FC Barcelona invited the KKL members to spend the day at the club and play a game against one of the club’s junior teams. It  ended  4-0 in favour of Barcelona.

KKL played the Barcelona junior team that then had players like Bogen Kirk (now Barcelona striker) and Do Santos who now plays in the English Premiership for Spurs. It was a memorable evening for the KKL youngsters and when they walked onto the Camp Nou pitch the crowd roared in appreciation.

Later that evening the boys were accorded VIP seats from where they watched  Barca play Real Zaragoza in the Copa Del Rei Cup. The director Trevor Dudly still remembers that day with vivid memories. “At half time Barca’s president Joan Laporta approached the KKL team members to inquire whether they had so far had a good evening. The boys said  all was okay except that they felt sad leaving Camp Nou without meeting their idol, Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o who despite missing the match because of injury  happened to be around in the stands.”

On hearing the boys’ complaint, Laporta took out his mobile, called and spoke something like, “Samuel, come here immediately.” Within the twinkling of an eye there was Eto’o, to the delight of the KKL boys.  He shook hands with them and they took photos, surely leaving a winning smile on their faces.  Laporta himself assured Ugandans that this sort of co-operation can give an example that through football and with organisations like UNICEF, they  can improve on their society.

UNICEF and Barcelona had earlier signed a five year partnership agreement in support of programmes reaching some of the vulnerable children. Every year for five years the club was to donate 1.5 million Euros to help fund projects aimed at combating AIDS in Africa and Latin America.

Conflict areas

In order to penetrate Uganda’s remote rural areas and introduce grassroot sports development to as many children as possible, in 2003 the Kids League project was set up to operate outside Kampala. It started in Gulu and today operates in 11 districts of the country including remote ones like Karamoja. The project has benefited over 40,000 boys and girls with improved lives through football and other sports disciplines.

Through basic sports programmes, some of the children whose lives have been drastically affected by the recent conflict in northern Uganda now have an opportunity to develop skills such as discipline, respect for others and commitment. Besides, through sports  tribal, religious and social-economic differences have become less important.

Here former abductees and orphans participate in the kids league, something that  helps to reduce the stigma they face within their social groups. Children with disabilities too have not been forgotten. An all inclusive league has been designed to include such children, just as their able  bodied  counterparts  have been doing for some years.

In Drogba’s path

Coach Eddie Butindo salutes the KKL team for their quick success within such very short period. This, he thinks will be of great benefit to the nation and the future Uganda Cranes team. “We are already harvesting the fruits of labour. Just look at the Cranes team that has just won the 2009 East and Central African Challenge Cup and you will realise that a good number of players have gone through our youth training programmes.”

He mentions stars like Dan Wagaluka (who scored in the final), Geoffrey Massa, Steven Bengo,  Derrick Walulya, and Ssali Edward who worked heaven and earth to bring the prestigious trophy home. Others like Ibrahim Saddam, Gift Ali, Guma Dennis, Ssentongo Godfrey and Makoba Denis have too gone through KKL. In addition, the programme boasts of profession players of the calibre of  Denis Onyango (Supersport-South Africa), Ochan Benjamin (South Africa, Nsumba Augustine (Iceland), and Nsereko Steven (USA) among others.  In addition, KKL’s  former player Klonaridis Darian is today featuring in the academy of AEK Anthens FC of Greece.

All said, coach Butindo feels sad to note that some former KKL boys and others that have gone through similar youth training camps and academies have not shined or benefitted the nation later in their footballing career.  Such were youngsters that proved so good when still under KKL programmes later to sink into oblivion.

He blames this on soccer administrators and clubs for rushing them to play for bigger clubs with players of more advanced age.  “Psychological awareness is so important for them. They need enough experience to control their emotions, expectations plus handling different situations unlike older players, ” he says.

Most super league clubs reportedly rush to sign such youngsters for financial reasons since they don’t need to pay them as much as what older  players usually demand, thus saving a lot.  Coach Butindo, for instance wonders why youngsters like  Bunamwaya FC’s Ibrahim Saddam should be called to the national senior team at this time despite being so good! In the Super League division, Butindo specifically blacklists Arua FC  for using the services of such under-age players before the right time.

The KKL coach urges the soccer body FUFA and government to invest much in such promising youngsters the moment they graduate from soccer camps and academies by ensuring that they get proper feeding, medical treatment and training under professional coaches. He mentions great players like Didier Drogba (Chelsea) and Samuel Eto’o (Inter-Milan) who were spotted from Africa’s  soccer academies belonging  to some big European clubs.

And seeing the KKL team training can be so enjoyable and give a lot of hope  to this nation.  The boys are  handled  by several coaches under the overall guidance of coach Butindo. At the Old Kampala  pitch  it had just rained  with a lot of mud. All the same the kids, smart in their sporting kits looked not bothered at all.  They played with such zeal that those passing by stopped for a moment and cheered.

They were put in several groups according to their ages with the youngest ones that morning looking like seven or eight. “This is the most difficult group to handle since its training  involves acquiring among other soccer qualities, skill formation,” Butindo remarks.

In the middle of the pitch I quickly spot Charles Ssali who captained the KKL team to a number of victories during this year’s tour of Europe. The 12-year-old primary six pupil  of Namirembe infant school is so proud of the team’s achievement. “We went and worked so hard like a team in order to give Uganda a good name in football. At the end of the tournament every mzungu was talking about Uganda and this really made us feel like kings and the true ambassadors of this country.” he mused.

His toughest game of the tour was the final of the Gothia Cup where they beat Frankie of Sweden 4-3. He will also never forget  that match where the KKL  team beat Gothenberg of Sweden 28-0! I mean twenty eight goals to nil in seven aside soccer!

I talked to Ssali days after he had just returned from South Africa for a sporting campaign programme against malaria sponsored by FIFA. As captain of KKL he is also   ambassador of Malaria (campaign against malaria”. “We want to use football to kick Malaria out of Africa simply because players can’t play football when they have malaria,” he reasons.  During the tour he met with FIFA president Sepp Blatter, England star David Beckham and former Cameroonian striker Roger Milla. Blatter signed my ball and said, “I wish you success,” he recalls.

Another member of the 2009 KKL winning team, Khemis Khalifan, 13 a student of Makindye Citizens School, too is optimistic about Uganda’s football future. “We want to emulate football stars like Chelsea’s Didier Drogba  who started training seriously at our age but has ended up taking Ivory coast to the World Cup,” he said.

Khalifan thinks it’s high time junior teams should be taken and treated seriously by soccer administrators on the continent. “You see the other day the Ghana under- 20 did us proud by winning the World Cup and another Nigerian youth team was narrowly beaten in the final of another major tournament,” he recalled.

Surprisingly these wonder boys have received very little recognition here at home in Uganda where most attention is focused on senior footballers and the national team, The Cranes.

Little wonder that the Uganda Sports  Press Association (USPA) has hardly mentioned them during their monthly awards for this period. Is it because being kids they don”t deserve praise or simply because are not heard complaining of being unfairly treated, unlike their seniors?

Whereas some Ugandans point to the Uganda Cranes as the team of the last decade when it comes to football,  my choice is undoubtedly the Kampala Kids League team. During the last decade, of course the Cranes won four regional soccer titles but this all.

At the same time the team has miserably failed to qualify for the African Nations Cup nor  the World Cup. In a big contrast, between 2002-2009, the Kampala Kids League team won 20 trophies away from home, to arguably become Uganda’s undisputed soccer team of the decade. To some, the truth may sound bitter, but it has to be told.

The writer is a long-time journalist based in Kampala and can be reached at:
rmugagga@yahoo.co.uk

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