No football game in Kenya stirs the blood and emotions quite like the Nairobi derby. The Mashemeji Derby between Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards not only divides the city of Nairobi but also largely the whole of Kenya. Like so many rivalries around the world, it’s based on geography, class, tribes, and bragging rights.
Arguably Kenya’s most successful teams, the two clubs command more than 80 percent of Kenyan football fans between them. It’s not an exaggeration but when these two teams clash, Nairobi comes to a standstill.
Meet the Rivals
All Footballers’ Confederation Leopards Sports, known as AFC Leopards, was formed in 1964. They are known by their nickname as ‘Ingwe’ (which is a Luhya name for Leopard). Its emergence was due to small clubs joining together to form the Abaluhya Football Club. However, the name change came later after the government ordered various clubs to change their names. This was because most of them had tribal affiliations as well as political inclinations. The move was also made so that the club could be more inclusive. A tribal name would have pushed away many potential fans who did not come from the Luhya tribe.
AFC Leopards have 12 top-flight league titles, 10 Kenya FA cups, and 5 CECAFA club championships.
The club’s home ground is at Nyayo Stadium.
Gor Mahia Football Club, popularly known as ‘K’Ogalo’ or ‘Sirkal’ came into existence on February 17, 1968, after the unification of Luo Union FC and Luo Stars Football Clubs.
All this was made possible through the intercession of the late Tom Mboya, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and a few other Luo leaders who brought together the ‘waring’ parties and formed a United Luo team known as Gor Mahia.
The clubs prides itself on being the only club in the entire East Africa region to have won the African Cup Winners Cup (which is now called CAF Confederations Cup). Additionally, they have won the Kenyan top-flight league a record 18 times and the Kenyan FA cup 11 times.
With a rich history, the club went on and won the 1976 league unbeaten and as fate would have it, they did it again in 2015.
Gor Mahia’s home ground is at Nairobi City Stadium but they also use other venues such as the Moi International Stadium Kasarani.
The AFC Leopards vs Gor Mahia Rivalry
The two teams have been eternal rivalries since the first Nairobi Derby was played on May 5, 1968. Their first-ever encounter was at Nairobi’s City Stadium when Gor Mahia came fresh from a merger between Luo Union FC and Luo Stars FC. Gor Mahia won this tie by a solitary goal.
This fixture has a long history of controversies that range from witchcraft, hooliganism, and even referees failing to show up. It’s a monstrous encounter that the rivals do anything in their power to make sure they walk away with a victory.
There have been countless instances whereby abnormal occurrences have marred the Nairobi Derby. The following are some of the most abnormal occurrences that have been witnessed in this encounter:
AFC Leopards players refused to use the Nyayo Stadium changing rooms
On one occasion, when these two teams met, Leopards players and staff shelved their plans of using the changing rooms alleging that Gor Mahia had sneaked in a corpse into the vicinity at night before the match. On the match day, they changed outside the rooms.
Chicken-head on the field
Before the referee blew his whistle to kick off one of the derbies, the official was shocked to find the head of a chicken at the center of the pitch. He had to carry it and dispose of it before things could continue.
Dust blown on match officials before the derby
In the old days, officials from both sides of the divide were allegedly guilty of blowing dust on match officials before these crucial encounters. This practice was common because they believed it was to counter-spell cast by their opponents.
A Rivalry Rooted in Kenyan Culture and History
Being a fierce derby, it’s always a heated affair. The Gor Mahia fans are predominantly from the Luo tribe while the AFC Leopards ones are from the Luhya tribe. This makes this rivalry tribal even though the two clubs have a huge number of following across the country.
Sadly, like almost all rivalries across the globe, violence is at times seen in this fixture. Several matches have been called off due to crowd trouble in the past. Due to this fact, you will always find legions of riot wielding batons and shields cops in all their meetings. Ready for the action that always ensues.
Aside from this eternal rivalry, these two sets of fans are closer than you would ever expect. They literally live together in almost all areas of Nairobi and across the country. The name ‘mashemeji’ means ‘in-laws’. They see each other as brothers and sisters regardless of the fierce rivalry.
However, when it comes to football, all love is lost as the chanting to the big day always starts in the mornings of the match days and for many hours after. Leopards fans are always clad in their traditional white and blue jerseys known as the ‘rio tinto’ while the Gor Mahia fans will never miss their dominant green jerseys. To some, it doesn’t matter who wins, loses, or draws. There is always a legion of followers who always song and dance away regardless.
The Mashemeji Derby rarely fails to provide talking points regardless of whether the duel is a footballing classic in its own right. You simply have to experience this derby first-hand to understand its excitement and intensity.