Umeme sports ground, popularly known as Ziwani sports ground, is a small, tight sports ground where the annual Koth biro tournament is held. Located in Kariakor, getting to the ground from railways bus terminus is an adventure in itself.  One takes Haile Selassie to the roundabout near Marikiti, takes the first exit onto racecourse road, then down until the Kariokor roundabout, through Grogon and onto Kinyanjui street on Kariokor.

Hemmed in by Kariokor world war II Cemetery to the back, Kinyanjui road to the front, and estates and shops on both sides, there is barely any space for anything else on Umeme sports ground, apart from a normal football pitch, and a few feet next to which four stone walls encircle the ground. All these give the Umeme Sports Ground, or Ziwani sports ground as it is popularly known, a claustrophobic, intimate feel.

Woe to you if you are a fullback playing on this ground, the taunts and disses from young rival team supporters are so close you might as well be having a personal conversation. They can’t be ignored.

Watching the game is similar to what watching an NBA game courtside must be like, during my first time watching a game a footballer came hurtling towards me as he chased the ball that was going out of bounds. Rooted in my plastic chair, I was sure my end had come, but the guy changed direction at the very last minute.

Koth biro football tournament is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2018, having first been held in 1978 as a tournament to entertain the people of Ziwani during the rainy season of December, thus the name Koth biro. It shares a name with Ayub Ogada’s classic hit, which you can listen to here. Playing in the rain, mud and cold weather of December is part of what makes this tournament so alluring and unique.

This article by John Lawrence of Standard Newspaper gives a great snapshot of the tournament, its history and some of its early founders.

This year, 2018, Koth biro attracted over 45 teams, and some teams had to qualify to the main tournament through the playoffs. The main tournament has 40 teams divided into 8 groups of five teams each, with the top two teams qualifying for the round of 16, from where it will be straight knockouts until the final to crown the 2018 winners. The winners will pocket a cool KES 300,000 while runners-up, third place and fourth place sides will take home KES 100,000, 75,000 bob and 50,000 bob respectively. It is an impressive amount to play for.

Koth biro attracts teams from all over Nairobi, as email correspondence with the CEO of the tournament led me to know, this year’s tournament has attracted teams every corner of Nairobi County: South B, South C, Kibera, Dagoretti, Kawangware, Komarock, Kayole, Kasarani, Githurai, Saika, Kahawa, Langata. The only teams that are from outside Nairobi County are one from Ruiru, and the one and only Nkoroi FC from Kajiado.

Nkoroi FC did not do enough to qualify this time around, finishing with one win, one draw and two losses, but the quality of competition has been higher than arguably what they faced in the Nairobi Sub-county League last season. It is hoped that the experience will help them be better in the upcoming season.

Nkoroi FC standings after four matches

Koth biro football tournament is a unique out of season tournament in that there are no age or professional restrictions whatsoever, in some of the matches I watched, I could spot 16-year-olds playing next to men who must have been over 30. This gives a chance to up and coming young footballers to test themselves against the very best in the country. With the Kenyan Premier League set to start in December and many teams in the professional divisions already in preseason, at least this year, there will be no KPL footballers sneaking in to play for their home teams.

The quality on show is absolutely top drawer. In a game I watched between Borussia and Kiambio, Borussia’s right-sided fullback and the winger would swap positions a la Jodi Alba and Jeremi Mathieu of Spain’s Valencia, keeping their opposite numbers honest. Delicious.

With minimal government support other than providing the ground on which the tournament is held, that the Koth Biro tournament has been held annually for forty years, sometimes getting sponsorship, sometimes not, is a minor miracle in itself. The tournament is sponsored by sportpesa, while Koth biro is also supported by Pamojah Movement, Street Radio, Sila Sulwey and former Harambee Stars goalkeeper Arnold Origi.

For football diehards who want to see a football tournament that is virtually free (all I paid when I went was a plastic chair for 20 bob, which I sat on for two games, and those who want to seat on the wall or on the ground can do so), during the December holidays, they cannot get better than Koth Biro.

Special thanks to Koth Biro CEO Mr Robert Ochola who was very helpful in answering my many queries about the tournament, as well as Nkoroi FC Fraternity who allowed me to ask many questions as well as accompany them for their games.