I recently had the pleasure of meeting Mercy Akinyi, a striker, who was the top scorer at the Chapa Dimba na Safaricom tournament, and Beryl Eshituku,  who was the MVP.

Chapa Dimba na Safaricom finals was held on the 25th of March at Bukhungu Stadium, Kakamega. Plateau Queens from Nyanza won 4-3 against Tar Tar girls from West Pokot in the girls category.  Plateau Queens won their rival team Tar Tar girls in a post-match penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw in regulation time.

They both seemed a little shy at first but loosened up eventually after some small talk. Beryl and Mercy play for Plateau Queens, the football team from Nyakach Girls High School, which beat Tartar Girls to emerge the champions at the finals.

For Mercy and Beryl, their greatest achievement was winning the title cup which earned them a trip to London where they would train alongside Victor Wanyama of Tottenham and Ksh. 1 million.

So why football?

“For me, football has been a passion of mine since I was small. It keeps me fit and healthy as well as giving me a place to unwind after class. I also enjoy winning,” says Mercy.

As for Beryl, “I like football because the game starts in the mind. You need to be very attentive in order to anticipate your opponents next move so that you can decide what tactic to use. It all starts in the mind and that’s what I like about it. You also have to believe in yourself. If there is even a bit of doubt, you have already messed up”

For both of them, their aim was to use their wins to encourage their school mates to take on football as a sport and to keep playing.

When I asked them about the hardest game they had played at Chapa Dimba, they unanimously agreed that it was the final against Tartar Girls. “That game was tough,” says Beryl, “we knew each other’s strengths and weakness since we had played alongside each other throughout Chapa Dimba even if we weren’t exactly playing against each other. So when we played, we knew each other’s tactics,”

“Plus we both had our minds set on winning and going to London. Who would want to pass up on that opportunity?” adds Mercy.

The biggest challenge they faced was getting the entire team to participate in the tournament. “Because the school had closed for the holiday, it was hard to assemble the entire team. We come from different backgrounds so some parents did not have the means to let their children leave home and participate in Chapa Dimba, sometimes we played without the whole team”

Whether they would continue to play football and transition to professional level after high school was something they weren’t sure of. “We want to keep things open. Right now our focus is finishing school and getting to university,”

For their coach, Edwin Sakwa, this was the highlight of his career. “I have been coaching for almost fourteen years, that is if you count the times that I coached my friends in primary school after watching European Premier League games. So this was a big moment for me. It is the first cup I have won.”

Nyakach Girls has a strict policy on who gets to join the team. Academics come first and each girl has to get a minimum of C+ in order to join the team.

As the conversation went on, we segued to women’s football in general. “These girls have very few mentors. Especially because most of the women who transition to university give up on football because they is no pay. Female soccer needs to be treated as seriously as male football”

“The lack of female coaches also makes the girls vulnerable to sexual abuse by some male coaches. There are also issues that the girls may face that may be beyond my depth and can only be tackled by a woman.”

Chapa Dimba na Safaricom was launched in June 2017 with the aim of promoting grass root football and propelling gifted players into the national teams. So far, some of the tournament’s top players such as David Majak, Fredrick Krop, Hassan Iddi and Ahmed Subri have been signed up for Kenya Premier League teams. Additionally, players including James Omsinde, Alpha Chris, John Njuguna, and Yusuf Mainge are among some 13 players who have also earned call-ups to the national under 20 team.