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Billionaire investor Sono makes entry into Kenya, buys Re-Union FC

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By ROY GACHUHI
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Peanuts is the word used to describe a ridiculously small amount in a business transaction. But peanuts paved the road that made Jomo Sono a billionaire investor.

Sono, who didn’t complete primary school education, but has been honoured with doctorates from the University of London and the University of Dubai “for his contributions to football and business,” was in 2004 ranked 49th in a poll of the Top 100 Great South Africans.

He hawked peanuts to survive even before he was a teenager like the little boys you see doing the same in our own stadium terraces during football matches.
The orphan boy was dirt poor but today he is in virtually any business that you can think of.

“The only business I am not in is prostitution and that is because it is not taxed,” he says only half in jest.

In a way, the timing of his entry into the Kenyan market seems perfect because Government appetite for taxes is at its peak.

Very soon, the weight of his business acumen and financial resources is coming to a Kenyan football club and academy near you to replicate his Jomo Cosmos FC operation in South Africa.

“My grandfather was a blind man. He was a shop owner and a minister of the Presbyterian Church. How he managed his affairs in that condition I will never understand.

“But I owe all my business training to him. I am what I am today because of him.

“He gave me my first box of peanuts to take to the stadium and sell. He gave me directions to the stadium and I never understood how he was able to do that.”

Sono dutifully did as instructed.

He was eight years old and his father had just been killed in a car crash.

His paternal grandparents had taken him in because his mother was nowhere in sight.

This went on year after year.

One day, he was selling peanuts and apples in the tough streets of Orlando East in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital.

He saw many people going in one direction and asked them where they were headed to.

“Haven’t you heard?” somebody asked him.

“The big Orlando is coming to play an exhibition match today. Everybody will be there.”

Sono followed them, weighed down by his box of apples and peanuts.

Soon he was in what turned out to be a football festival, something similar to carnivals that people in other countries hold annually.

The celebrations involved matches involving Under 15, 17, 19, 21 and the senior Orlando Pirates team, founded by his own father as a breakaway from another team known as Black Pirates.

The U-15 team was a player short and the manager was in a panic.

He was going to lose his job for such an egregious dereliction of duty.

He turned to the young hawker. But Sono told him: “I can’t play. I have never played football in all my life. I don’t even like football. I prefer boxing.”

The frantic old man offered him a deal: “I will buy all your apples – all 15 of them – if you agree to play for our team.”

“Fine,” Sono told him. “But you must pay me first. Give me all the money for the 15 apples now because I don’t want to come looking for you after the game.”

The man agreed at once and Sono took the money and handed it to his grandfather’s neighbour.

He then took to the pitch – and scored a hat-trick. It was a virtuoso performance and everybody seemed to be in awe of him. People were heard asking: “Whose son is he?”

He was, of course, his father’s son and many people agreed that he was just like him. The manager of the senior Orlando Pirates team said: “He has got a burning spear in him. He plays with so much fire. He has a burning desire to win.”

Burning Spear was the name given to Kenya’s first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta who was very famous in Africa at that time.

There and then Sono became Jomo, the Burning Spear.

First it was a nickname but everybody called him by it and so with time, he registered it and it became his official name.

“I have no idea how I was able to extract such deal with the guy who bought my apples,” he says. “I was only 13. But as I like to say, peanuts and apples took me to Orlando Pirates. That is how my football career begun.”

He was designed for football. He performed poorly in school and didn’t care. He was mad about football and threw all of himself in it.

His first stop as a top professional was Portugal as a player for Sporting Lisbon.

Here, he faced the legendary Mozambican-born Eusebio, who some muttered was as great as Pele during his heyday. Eusebio turned out for Sporting’s eternal rivals, Benfica.

But Sono never mastered Portuguese and after eight months, stricken with home sickness and frustrated with the language barrier, he returned to South Africa to resume his career with Orlando Pirates.

But his sights remained on the horizon. Sporting Lisbon had expedited his purchase upon getting news that Prof Julio Mazzei, the legendary Brazilian coach employed by Pepsi Cola and who formed a life-long partnership with Pele, was looking for him. Sono made contact with Mazzei again and before long, he was heading for America for trials with the New York Cosmos. The trials were rigorous, took two days, and he was the only African.

He made a decision: he would play in the free-wheeling African style that he knew, no one-touch stuff that he was being asked to perform like the Europeans.
“If it was putting the ball between defenders’ legs to have my way that is what I was going to do. I was not going to do things that I was not accustomed to.”

He a tad pessimistic about his chances and wistfully thought that having his picture taken with the legendary Pele and then return home would be satisfying enough.

As if to confirm this outlook, he was the first to be pulled off his game after 20 minutes of the second half.

That’s it, he thought, I am going home.

But as he walked towards the dressing room, he looked at the people on the grandstand above and the first person to catch his attention was Pele, clapping happily for him.

Then he say Mazzei who gave him a thumbs up sign. He was overwhelmed.

He burst into tears. He showered and raced for the nearest telephone booth to call home and inform his grandfather that he had passed the trials.

The American adventure would take him to Atlanta, Denver and then to Canada where it would end in a tragedy that he called a blessing. Toronto Blizzards, for whom he was playing, was in the process of selling him to Italy’s Juventus. The fans loudly objected and he felt trapped. But Giovanni Agnelli, the owner of Juventus was not going to have it any other way. And so there was one last game between the Blizzards and Manchester City. For Sono, it was time to move to England.

But it was not to be. Dennis Tueart, drove a hard tackle into Sono’s right ankle and the tough South African came tumbling down, his career at an end. His ankle was broken. There was going to be no Juventus and what lay ahead was anything else but playing time.

“I didn’t take it as a setback,” he says, “I took it as God’s signal for me to return home. I have never allowed storms to interrupt the course of my life. Even real storms, like the ones you see smashing though entire towns and causing massive destruction of life and property, they shouldn’t bring despair to those who survive them. Look, after they have done all that damage, go there a few years down the line. You will find beautiful hotels and homes. Whenever a storm comes my way, I just let it pass and then I proceed with my life. That is what I did.”

He returned to South Africa and purchased a white-owned football called Highlands Park for R50,000 (approx. Sh350,000).

All white players left because they couldn’t play for a black owner and so Sono had “a certificate but not club.”

He renamed the outfit Jomo Cosmos after his beloved New York Cosmos and started from scratch.

Today, it is valued at hundreds of millions of shillings.

And so he now has his sights set here. I asked him whether he had researched on Kenya’s football clubs.

He told me had done it on the surface because, “if you have seen one African team, you have seen them all.

“The problems are the same and so are the opportunities. There are a lot of complaints about incompetence and corruption in Kenya but don’t tell me that there are no good people in Kenya.

“There are. I hate corruption, in fact, at the 2002 World Cup the father of one player offered me a million rand to include his son in our national team. I said to him: ‘Say that to me again, and I will break your neck.’ I did that in the presence of the assistant coach. I don’t do business like that.”

Sono’s philosophy has always been to go for the new.

He thinks the problem with Kenya football might be focusing too much on professionalism at the top rather than development below.

He wants to reach the furthest corners of the country believing that “a country with one Victor Wanyama has 30 others.”

He is credited with bringing into South African football new stars such as Beni McCathy, Mark Fish, Helman Mkhalele, Sizwe Motaung Philemon Masinga and even others outside the country’s borders such as Zambia’s Chris Katongo.

He says: “What sports can do to unite people, nothing else can. President Mandela got it right; only sports truly unites people. I am going to use this vehicle for that purpose for as long as I live.”

Next time you walk into the stadium and a boy within sunken eyes and threadbare clothes implores you to buy a packet of peanuts from him, respect him. You never know.

He might end up employing your children, their cousins, friends, neighbours and countrymen at large.

For these are the mysteries of the world.



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