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Covid-19 pandemic leaves Okal in dilemma over future

By Lynette Matheka
Monday, April 27th, 2020
Ariel Okal (third from right in the back row) joins team-mates for a team photo during the AfroCAN tournament in Bamako, Mali last year. Right, Okal celebrates with team-mates after a past match. Photo/PD/PHILIP KAMAKYA

Kenya basketball international Ariel Okal is a man in a limbo after his plans were thrown into total disarray due to the effects of Covid-19  ravaging the globe. 

Okal had signed a six-month contract, running until July 1, with Algeria’s top tier side (ABC National 1) US Setif.

He joined in February, after taking part in the Afrobasket pre-qualifiers with the national team a month earlier and after playing only four matches the league was suspended on March 16. 

He had earlier been linked to Uganda’s City Oilers where he was set to sign for the Basketball Africa League (BAL)-bound side in the second leg of their national league and feature for them in the continental competition. 

“The league here would have concluded in May so I had an extra month in my contract for further discussions with Setif or to complete my move to Oilers.

Oilers wanted me to join them in June for the second round games, playoffs and BAL, which was my mission this summer,” Okal told People Sport from Algeria at the weekend. 

He reflected: “However,  everything is at a standstill here.  A decision on whether the league will continue or be called off is set to be made on May 1.

Whichever decision is made,  Setif might want us to talk about the way forward. In case the season is to be continued, I will be here longer probably until August or September. That puts me at loggerheads with the Oilers.” 

Contract expires 

Okal says he has unfinished business in Algeria as he wants to leave a mark that would open up chances for other Kenyan basketballers.

He is also unsure of the decision to make since he wanted to be part of the inaugural BAL season as that is a bigger platform to play on.  

“I want to showcase the immense talent that Kenya has. Additionally, I am still getting paid until the contract expires so you can see how unfair that is for Setif.

We had four games left before the start of  playoffs and playdown. We had also qualified for the last 16 in the Cup competition.

That translates to about 24 matches depending on how far we would have gone in both the play down and Cup,” he added.  

By the time he was joining Setif,  the team had won two matches and is currently placed eighth in their conference.

That leaves minimal chances of making it to the playoffs that admit the top four teams from the two conferences of 10 teams each. 

Setif will therefore feature in the playdown, pitting the bottom four in the conferences against each other with the bottom two relegated to the lower league (Super Division).

Asked whether he would consider extending his stay in Setif if the league was to start afresh and possibly crush his dream of playing in the inaugural BAL, Okals said: “In this scenario, I will have to make a business decision. BAL is huge and I want it so bad.

I would choose BAL over everything unless my contract gets an extension with better a package, then I would consider.

Apart from the package it is also a question of loyalty and friendship versus business. I have created a good rapport with both teams but I will go with what my heart wants right now.”

“The Oilers deal has not been decided yet.  They just reached out and shared the future plans of the club and we had a verbal agreement.

Of course there are some other parties interested in my signature but my agent works to make sure I get the best deals possible.

What is best for my game and my resume and wellbeing as a professional athlete always guide my choice of team. My welfare is paramount and I do not even bargain on that,” he added. 

Unbeknown to many,  Okal landed at Setif by chance in what was a last-minute move. This,  after he turned down a longer deal with a Tunisian top tier side as he committed to help Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) qualify for BAL only to be let down by management. 

“Last year, I had so many things happening. I had signed with a Tunisian team and everything was in place. 

I had already decided my Visa and was set to join them in the first leg.  However, I canceled in the last minute when KPA qualified for the second round of BAL.

I made the ultimate sacrifice but KPA made a last minute decision and we arrived late in Kigali, forfeited our opening match which in the end cost us BAL. So I lost that and a good deal in Tunisia,” explains Okal. 

It was while in Kigali that Setif reached out to his management and he took the deal. He, however, stayed on for the national team assignment before travelling.

The player rates Tunisia as a bigger league and, despite having a better package at Setif, he had a longer contract with the Tunisian club as their season starts in September and concludes in June.  

Training sessions

“I am still hurt. That was our lives that got messed up and it is not right. Regardless of the procedures that we have to follow to get approvals for any trip, it was just wrong. 

We were not to what was happening until it was too late. We were ready to go to Kigali and play, but we did not have enough time to act.

The squad was really devastated,” said Okal on the events that led to KPA getting eliminated in the second round of BAL. Players catered for their own cost to participate in the competition. 

The former Nakuru Club player was featuring for KPA for a third season. He first joined the Mombasa-based multiple local champions in 2014, while still in college, before landing his first professional stint in Oman. He featured again for KPA in 2018 and 2019 season. 

“I joined Ahli Sidab for two seasons from 2015 to 2017. I moved to Seychelles and played for PLS Hawks in 2018, after finishing the season with KPA,  before returning to Oman where I featured for Dhafor.

At the conclusion of the Oman league, I came back to KPA where we had plans to play in BAL since they were the Kenyan representatives,” Okal  said.  

While he thinks Tunisia is bigger, Okal admits the Algerian league is the toughest he has played in. 

With elaborate and professionally run training sessions twice a day, league matches on weekends and Cup matches on week days,  he said one has to be at their best to compete there.  

With the North African country currently on lockdown due to the pandemic,  Okal has resorted to indoor workouts to stay fit.

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