Kenya: Why Steadying Malkia Strikers Ship Is Bitok's Top Priority

13 August 2019

The captain versus coach tussle in the Kenya women's volleyball team took a new twist upon the team's arrival in the country last Tuesday when outside hitter Mercy Moim called Kenya Volleyball Federation (KVF) technical director David Lung'aho to organise a meeting with KVF president Waithaka Kioni the following day. At that meeting, players threatened to boycott the African Games if Italian Shailen Ramdoo remained as coach. Interestingly, it now turns out that not all players backed that stand.

"It's not true that everybody that was against the coach. For the short time, he was here he had introduced new systems and we were slowly starting to embrace them. Physically we were very fit and the team was improving. He just had a weakness with his temper which could have been sorted if he stayed longer and got to understand his players well. He is one of the best coaches I have worked with," said a player who sought anonymity for fear of victimisation.

According to Kioni, the picture painted by the players to him and two other National Executive Committee (NEC) members Mududa Waweru and Alfred Chedotum who attended that meeting was sufficient to warrant a dismissal. The entire NEC was later on Wednesday informed of that decision through their WhatsApp group and Kioni wrote Ramdoo an e-mail to the same effect on Thursday morning.

"The National Executive Committee of Kenya NF (NEC) has received very clear reports that the relationship between you and the entire team (players/coaches) is very unhealthy to the extent that it undermines their self-confidence. Indeed players have threatened not to participate in AAG with you as head coach.

"In the circumstances I have been requested by the NEC to advise you to urgently contact the FIVB requesting them not to extend your contract which expired on 30 July 2019," read a part of Kioni's e-mail to Ramdoo.

Ramdoo has now accused Kioni of dishonesty, stating that he was an "easy target" that had to be eliminated for political interests.

"Why did they introduce (Paul) Bitok to the team after we came from Cairo without my consent as head coach? I asked Kioni what was his role but he couldn't explain to me. If I am the head coach I should call the shots on who to have in my bench," Ramdoo said.

However, Kioni noted there was a fractious relationship between Ramdoo and other technical bench officials and retaining him was not good for the team. "He was just being insecure (about Bitok's presence). If he really wanted to keep his job, he should have endeared himself to the team and create a good working relationship with the players and coaches. We have a long-standing relationship for instance with Jica (who send Japanese volunteers to KVF), how were we going to ruin that (after the Cairo incidence)? He should only blame himself for what happened," said Kioni.

In addition, Kioni says that Ramdoo had coerced KVF to write to FIVB for his extension on the premise that he would be rendered jobless after his contract expired and needed to earn an income to support his family.

"I have no work or income for next 2-3 months at least. I have to bring food on the table and pay all heavy bills in Finland to support my daughter as main single parent. I had trust in you to continue without a signed contract while waiting for the extension possibility from FIVB. I just need to do my job right, not being involved in local drama to earn a living and qualify for the Olympics. That was my simple wish and your legacy wish," read a WhatsApp message sent by Ramdoo to Kioni.

In a rebuttal, Ramdoo expressed his disappointment that past issues that had been resolved were being bandied around to justify his dismissal adding that only a contract could secure his place. "How can the federation claim I forced them to extend my contract yet they have the power to say no. I had done a good job and that's why they sought to have me here longer. They told me I needed some more time like six months or one year so that I could have a bigger impact on the team," said Ramdoo. "If you are working in such an environment you need a contract to be secure. If I got my extension, how sure are you I would have taken this team to the Olympics even if we qualified? The problem is that we don't have honest people in the national team, they just follow where the wind is blowing to protect their interests. I did not need perfect people to work with, I just needed people who were dedicated towards the success of the team," added Ramdoo while singling out Lung'aho for orchestrating his dismissal.

Lung'aho laughed off the claims and reiterated that he supported Ramdoo during his stay in the country.

"To my best understanding there was no conflict between us. I used to ferry him every day to and from training. I even bought him a phone to use locally with my money. I was not coaching the team so how would I interfere with his job? Mine was just a supervisory role," said Lung'aho.

"I was not even in Italy so this is just a lie. The captain called me to organise a meeting with the president which I did since that's the normal procedure. I did not even attend that meeting," he added.

It will be remembered on July 23, Bitok remarkably told Nation Sport that he was coy about taking up a coaching role in the national women team.

"I did not come here to take anybody's job and will not take up any full time coaching duties if any current coach will be dropped at least for now," said Bitok on that Tuesday where he attended his first training with the girls. But times have changed, Ramdoo is gone and he is now at the helm of a team that is more divided than it's united. His appointment, according to a source privy of the ongoings at the NEC did not come at the right time.

"After we held the Board of Administration meeting last month, stakeholders really wanted Bitok on the bench. But the timing was not right because Ramdoo was already doing a good job. There was no need to rush this decision. It could be a right decision made at the wrong time," said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A week from now, Kenya will be seeking to defend her African Games title in Rabat. And as the dust settles on the drama surrounding Ramdoo's departure, pressure is now on Bitok to unite the team.

"I faced a similar situation in Rwanda in 2011 so I have experience on how to handle it. We have very short time to prepare and it's unfortunate that these issues are coming up when we are close to the competition (African Games)," said Bitok.

Gold in Morocco will certainly be a vote of confidence for Bitok and will shift the discussion to where it should really be, performance on the pitch.

"The few sessions I have had with the girls have been very good, the morale is high. I want to urge everyone to put their differences aside as we focus to Morocco. We can revisit everything else after that," added the former Kenyan international.

Indeed, Malkia Strikers is a sports team, an exceptional one for that matter. They are the nine-time African champions, not a battle for cheap politics. Their next task is the African Games in Morocco.

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