The Kenyan in Qatar who unites people through football
FC Kenya's humble origins can be traced back to Friday kickabouts in the park. The players gathered simply to catch up with friends and enjoy their day off. A decade later, however, and thanks to the stirring drive and passion of one man in particular, the club now boasts a fanbase, along with founder member status of Qatar's leading amateur football league.
And if John Ngurugwe gets his way, this is only the start. His dream is to one day see FC Kenya compete in the professional ranks of Qatari football.
"What I want is for this football team to carry on and grow into something even bigger," said Ngurugwe, who plays as the team's goalkeeper. "You never know, one day it might be part of the Qatar Stars League."
Thanks to his involvement with FC Kenya, Ngurugwe has become a popular and well-known member of the Kenyan community in Qatar. And one of the main reasons for his status is the unifying power of football.
"I am a person who likes reaching out to people," said Ngurugwe, who works as an HSSE Officer at UCL Qatar. "When I first came to Qatar, I thought football was the best way to reach out to other Kenyans in the country."
Those Friday kickabouts were given a new lease of life when Ngurugwe joined them in 2009, as team captain Eric Otwal recalls.
"About six of us used to play every week," said Otwal. "It was a way to enjoy our day off and we'd discuss family and work issues, sharing what's going on in the world."
Otwal continued: "We used to play friendlies until John came. When he joined the team, he came up with new ideas. At first, nobody knew much about Kenyans here, but now this club has a fan base and people come to cheer us on."
The club's chairman, Athman Hamis, remembers Ngurugwe's liveliness during those early games.
"He would get changed and put on his gloves, ready to play his heart out between the posts."
Very soon, the weekly Kenyan kickabout began to be taken more seriously.
"We started growing and getting more people involved," said Ngurugwe. "We started to realise we had a very good environment for football and looked at moving things forward. We decided to create a club."
FC Kenya now has 60 players on its database, with a core squad of 30 training every week at UCL Qatar facilities, which Ngurugwe organises through his employers.
"When you train here, it doesn't matter where you work, it doesn't matter where you go to church or where you worship. We come as a team, we come as one family," said Ngurugwe.
"We have so many young kids in the team with great potential. We even have players who played in the leagues in Kenya but they couldn't get better pay or join the national team – so they ended up coming to Qatar for work."
Running the team is always a challenge, with work commitments and transportation costs affecting the squad size on match days. But as former professional player Davis Ayala explains, Ngurugwe's outreach efforts and strong organisational skills bring everyone together.
"We have people from the hotel industry, the service industry, construction. Some people come from Umm Salal and the Industrial Area, others come from Al Khor."
Ayala continued: "Sometimes we might gather them all at once, but sometimes they have to sacrifice playing. We don't have ample time to train but we have great management and one of the best units in terms of discipline."
FC Kenya's breakthrough came in 2014 when they took part in the Qatar Foundation Semi-Pro Football Cup and made it all the way to the quarter-finals.
"That made us think 'yes, we can go far'. It was amazing when we realised we can win," said Ngurugwe.
The team went on to compete in Ramadan tournaments, the African Nations Cup in Qatar, the Embassy Cup and – eventually – the Qatar Community Football League (QCFL), which was founded in 2017 and is sponsored by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) – the organisation responsible for delivering the infrastructure and legacy required for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
"We have been with the league since it started," said Ngurugwe. "It's a really tough league but we have been able to survive in the Premier League for the past three seasons."
FC Kenya has raised Ngurugwe's profile to such an extent that he was asked to be the focal point for the local Kenyan community in dealings with the SC.
Four years ago, Ngurugwe signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the SC which sees the Kenyan community support events related to Qatar 2022 in return for exclusive access to a range of engagement activities.
"The MoU is about us as community leaders being the voice of the Supreme Committee here in Doha and in our community back in Kenya," said Ngurugwe.
Thanks to the MoU, Kenyans in Qatar have taken part in workshops, training sessions and other community engagement initiatives, such as stadium visits and meetings with key personnel.
Ngurugwe said: "We have had the opportunity to nominate people from our community to take part in workshops related to media, events and engineering. Being involved with the SC has also given me a voice – I have been able to sit around a table with decision makers and voice my opinions."
Thanks to his exploits with FC Kenya and link-up with the SC, Ngurugwe has earned minor celebrity status in his home country – a profile which he uses to share positive messages about the next FIFA World Cup™ host nation.
"When people back in Kenya see the stories about the team and our involvement with the World Cup and the legacy it is creating, they see the impact [of the tournament]. Thanks to us, people in Kenya feel they are part of this."
Ngurugwe is determined to enjoy the World Cup when it comes to Qatar in three years' time – but even after he eventually leaves the Gulf, he wants FC Kenya to continue to grow.
For now, though, Ngurugwe should simply feel proud about uniting his compatriots through the power of football, as Hamis explains.
"Little did we know that he would lead us to where we are now as a team. He exposed us to heights we could only dream of. He inspired all of us. He made us respected and recognised."