It’s the biggest match in Nairobi, but its presence as a derby is felt well beyond the city’s 9.3 million people. It brings Kenya to a full stop, and is one of the fiercest rivalries in all of Africa. The tension so thick you can cut with a knife is always present when Gor Mahia FC and AFC Leopards take the field in the Mashemeji Derby.
The two clubs that represent Kenya’s capital city first took the field against each other in May 1968. AFC Leopards, who began in 1964, is known as Ingwe (The Leopards) and was born out of the combination of a couple local teams into Abaluhya Football Club. Born in 1968, Gor Mahia FC was named after a legendary medicineman, Gor Wuod Ogada nyakwar Ogalo, whose nickname was Gor Mahia (“Magic Son”). The team came together when Luo Union FC and Luo Stars FC merged together. They’re known colloquially as K’Ogalo, which means “House of Ogalo.”
Part of the rivalry between Leopards and Gor Mahia is its tribal roots. The AFC Leopards has a fanbase that is primarily Luhya, which is present in the name of the club. They go by AFC to be more inclusive to communities that are not Luhya. Gor Mahia’s base, on the other hand, is Luo based on the leaders of the group that brought together feuding sides to form the team. While other communities in Nairobi support one team over the other, the rivalry’s fire stems from that tribalistic foundation.
Gor Mahia won the first meeting between these two teams, played on May 5, 1968 at Nairobi City Stadium. But throughout this rivalry, there have been so many things that have influenced the contest, from hooliganism to witchcraft. There have been chicken heads left on the field to hex a team, and sometimes due to the threat of violence, referees refused to show up to officiate a derby. In the stands, there’s true devotion to each team, and that devotion has turned into violence at times. Still, an entire nation clings onto every kick of the ball when this match is played.
Still, one unique aspect about this rivalry is that it’s not one that’s geographic. Fans of Gor Mahia live, work, and hang next to fans of AFC Leopards. That’s where the name of the derby comes from: Mashemeji Derby…the In Laws Derby. They are neighbors, family members, friends…until the match begins. Then, you will see AFC Leopards fans clad in white and blue next to the green jerseys of Gor Mahia fans. It brings a huge police presence in an effort to keep the peace amongst the passion exhibited, but bragging rights are on the line, and the entire country tunes in on television or packs the National Stadium or City Stadium to watch. Life stops when the derby is on in Kenya, and that passion takes center stage.
The rivalry was dominated initially by AFC Leopards, but recently Gor Mahia is unbeaten in the last 11 matchups. To date, Gor Mahia has won 32 derbies, AFC Leopards with 28 wins, with 32 matches ending in a draw. On top of that, the two teams are consistently challenging each other for trophies. Gor Mahia has won 19 Kenyan Premier League trophies, including the last 4. AFC Leopards have finished atop the standings 13 times. Leopards have 11 President’s Cups to Gor Mahia’s 8, and have 5 CECAFA Clubs Cups to Gor Mahia’s 3. Gor Mahia has the most prestigious confederation trophy between the two clubs, winning the African Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987.
The Mashemeji Derby is one of Africa’s biggest rivalries. When a team wins, the bragging rights are taken clear across the country, but the passion can be felt all across the African continent. It’s a rivalry that should be included among the world’s greats on the club level, and hopefully the world will feel the passion exhibited on a matchday between AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia.