Kicking for Kenya

| March 1, 2013 - 13.05UTC
Football-2

Could Victor Wanyama – Celtic’s midfield dynamo and newest hero of Europe – be the player to put Kenyan football on the world stage? Chris Hatherall grills the Harambee Star.

It’s icy in Glasgow. The temperature outside is -4°C, and the most talked-about footballer in Scotland is reminiscing about scoring a crucial goal against the mighty Barcelona. But the man in question isn’t from Scotland – nor even from England, Spain or Italy. No, the player I’m chatting to is 7,000km from home – and he is Kenyan.

In Britain, Kenya is more famous for exporting tea and coffee than footballers, and renowned for its long-distance runners rather than its soccer stars. But things are changing fast.

In fact, Victor Wanyama, playing far from his hometown of Nairobi, is so good that some of the biggest clubs in football – including Manchester United – are monitoring his progress and could even have pounced by the time this article goes to print.

For now, though, the powerful midfielder is still coming to terms with his new hero status at Glasgow Celtic, itself one of the most famous and historic clubs on the planet.

It’s a remarkable story because only seven years ago Wanyama was attending Kamukunji High School and playing football in the streets with his brothers – including McDonald Mariga who is another of Kenya’s soccer exports and plays for Inter Milan in Italy.

Though the life of a footballer overseas might sound quite glamorous, it’s not without its hardships. It is 28°C colder in Glasgow than in the Kenyan capital, and the 21-year-old lives alone in a city-centre apartment with rather too much time to practise his PlayStation skills, which are certainly well honed. His workplace is a freezing training field and, though his family plan to visit for Christmas, 24 hours later he’ll be playing in Dundee (even further north, and even colder).

These are the sacrifices that African footballers have to make if they want to reach the very top – and the consensus is that Wanyama has a chance to go  all the way. Particularly in the wake of that famous Champions League goal for Celtic in the team’s 2–1 victory over Barcelona in November at Parkhead.

“It was very, very emotional – the best day of my career,” remembers Wanyama. “And all the better because it was against the finest team in the world. I had a chance to score and I took it. I can’t describe it – it was just massive.”

So what does it mean, to achieve something so great as a player from Kenya? “When I scored, I just thought about home, you know?” he recalls. “I love Kenya, I love my family. I was just very happy that I made my family proud. And of course if my country is on the football map now, it makes me very happy, too.”

It’s those special moments that make being a professional footballer such an incredible job – not to mention the riches that await those who reach the very top. But that doesn’t mean it’s always an easy life.

“There are times when you are missing home, you are missing family – that’s true,” Wanyama agrees. “It’s not easy. But I think I’m coping with it well. The staff and my teammates – we are like family. They are good guys and help you if you need it.”

But clearly Kenya is very different from Glasgow. “Totally different. The weather is not the same and it’s hard to cope with it – that’s the toughest part. But apart from that, everything is good. The people are nice people, they make you welcome.”

Glasgow is not exactly bustling with Kenyans, and though the local Calabash African Bar and Restaurant provides a welcome taste of that distant continent, the culture is certainly different to life in Nairobi.

“I don’t go out a lot,” admits Wanyama, whose dedication to his job means he avoids late nights and nightclubs anyway. “Maybe I go and see a movie, or to walk around and go shopping, but that’s all. Most of the time I come home with my friends and play football on PlayStation. I’m very good on it now!”

Wanyama is pretty good at the real thing, too. He showed promise as a footballer from a very young age, and made the Kenyan national team at just 15 years old. He turned out for Nairobi City Stars and AFC Leopards before heading all the way to Sweden to train at the Helsingborgs Academy.

Clearly, Wanyama hasn’t been afraid to travel in order to make his name. He was playing at Belgian club Beerschot AC, where he’d signed in 2008, when Celtic spotted him; they initially tried to prise him away in 2010, finally paying £900,000 (Ksh 123 million) to sign the midfielder in 2011. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength. Most recently, he was shortlisted for the Confederation of African Football’s Most Promising Talent award for 2012.

“I always believed in myself and I knew what I wanted to do because I grew up in a sporting family,” he admits. “My dad, Noah, was also a footballer for Kenya, and he was making sure we got to play and got to learn from a young age.”

There were no grand training grounds, though.

“We played in the garden and in the street, with friends,” he recalls. “When my dad had time he would come out and pass the ball a bit with us, and my brothers played, too. Nobody wanted to go in goal – so we played with a small goal and no keeper. That was the only way to do it – but it seemed to work!”

Despite those humble beginnings, it’s easy now to imagine Wanyama playing in one of Europe’s major leagues – England, Spain or Italy, perhaps – and becoming one of the biggest names in football. There’s no doubt that the pull of the English Premier League will be huge if the interest mooted by several clubs materialises, despite the incredible £25m (Ksh 3.5 billion) pricetag placed on him by Celtic manager Neil Lennon.

“I watched Premiership football a lot as a boy,” he admits. “I used to like Paul Scholes and Patrick Vieira – they were my heroes. I was a Manchester United fan: it was nice to watch them as they were winning something almost every year. That’s where I got some of my attitude from, because I don’t like losing. One day I want to win big trophies, too; I want to win the Champions League.”

It remains to be seen whether Wanyama can achieve those aims at Celtic, or if he will be tempted elsewhere. But he has already pushed Kenyan football into the spotlight; now he aims to take the national team to another level, too.

“It means a lot for me, playing for my country,” he says. “I love my country. When I pull on my national team shirt, and I see the colours of my flag and all my family watching in the stands, I really want to do well,” he adds with pride.

“Football is very big in Kenya, and it is growing,” Wanyama claims. “It’s not only running in Kenya, you know! We are starting to hit form and I think one day we will be there, qualifying for the African Cup of Nations or the World Cup. That would be very special.”

When that happens – and he believes it is a when, not an if – all those months playing far away from home, watching ice form on the window in Glasgow while the sun shines in Nairobi, would be worth it. And that’s why the midfielder keeps on dreaming and keeps on working. God only knows how far it will take him – but, so far, the signs are good. It may be cold outside, but Victor Wanyama is definitely hot property.

Stars on the rise
Can Kenya’s latest batch of promising young footballers carry the Harambee Stars to new heights? Along with  Victor Wanyama, here are five other exciting players to watch out for…

McDonald Mariga
Position: Midfielder
Victor’s elder brother, 25, was the first Kenyan to play in Europe’s Champions League when he signed for Italian giants Inter Milan in 2010, helping them win the league and cup double that year. He spent much of last season on loan at Serie A club Parma, his home for three seasons earlier in his career. He has 54 caps for Kenya, scoring 22 goals – an incredible record. In 2010 he came close to joining English club Manchester City but problems obtaining a work permit stymied the move.

Dennis Oliech
Position: Striker
The 27-year-old is one of the stars of the Kenyan team, which he has captained; he also has a fine record of 28 goals in 57 matches for his country. He plays his club football with Auxerre in France’s Ligue 2.

Allan Wanga
Position: Striker
The AFC Leopards striker is 27 and has 26 caps to his name. He almost made it in Europe: he was targeted by Azerbaijan side FC Baku, but missed out when he failed to earn a work permit – which shows how hard it can be for African players to make the leap. He’s also played in Vietnam and Angola.

Thomas Wanyama
Position: Defender
Yet another of the Wanyama clan, defender Thomas, 23, has played for Nairobi City Stars and Sofapaka, making his international debut in 2012.

Curtis Osano
Position: Defender
Curtis is a rarity – a Kenyan who has made it in England, albeit at a lower level. He currently plays in League Two for AFC Wimbledon. He has also played non-league football for Luton and Rushden and is tipped for a call-up for Kenya soon.

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