We’ll Follow The Beast To Hull And Back

Forbes Africa
Published 5 years ago
We’ll Follow  The Beast To Hull And Back

Tottenham Hotspur fans call him ‘The Beast’. In Swahili, Wanyama means animals; to the Luhya tribe to which he belongs, the appellation is more impressively specific – he is ‘the one born when an animal was slaughtered in celebration’. Spurs fans have indeed had much to be thankful for since the Kenyan midfielder’s arrival from Southampton in June 2016.

So far this season, Victor Wanyama has started all of Tottenham’s Premier League fixtures, and is arguably their most dependable asset. A silent enforcer who allows the club’s most creative players to pivot and rotate around him, Wanyama also has a dusting of the artist’s flair so beloved at White Hart Lane. His passing choices are deceptively simple and considered, and he recently demonstrated a hidden depth of slick versatility in Spurs’ January draw at the Etihad, dropping back to center-half when required against a predatory Manchester City side that were ready to profit had he been less assured in his understanding of football’s fluid geometry.

LONDON, ENGLAND – MARCH 19: Victor Wanyama of Tottenham Hotspur during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton at White Hart Lane on March 19, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)

Wanyama’s destiny as his country’s most valuable football export was forged in the dusty streets of Nairobi, Kenya’s electric, bustling, intoxicating capital. He attended St Peter’s Claver Primary, in the infamous Landhies Road area in the old center of the city, where matatu drivers, market traders and teeth and skin-whitening peddlers jostle for custom in a chaotic miasma of klaxons and exhaust fumes. His class teacher, Penina Ogony, remembers him as quiet and respectful.

“He didn’t have much to say,” she laughs. “But he was a good boy, and he did well in his final exams. And he was huge for his age, as big as his teacher at the time.”

A few hundred yards up the road nestles Wanyama’s old secondary school, cowering behind the ubiquitous Nairobi construction sites with their laborers’ bellows and Hadean clang of metal on hot metal. Kamukunji is a nursery for the best football talent in the city; gifted young players from the school train a few blocks away at a local estate at dawn before class, with the most promising earmarked early by local Kenyan Premier League teams and allowed by the school to link up with their clubs during class time, provided academic targets are met.

A framed photograph of Wanyama from 2015 – he is addressing beaming Kamukunji students in the school courtyard – is the proud centerpiece on a table of jostling football trophies in the office of the school’s current principal, Patrick Gakung’u.

“Wanyama was very consistent,” he says. “He was able to successfully blend football and classes. That’s difficult, and it’s something we encourage here. And these young players prefer this school because we have that element.”

It’s a delicate balance that can be hard to sustain. The thin line dividing full-blooded enthusiasm and reckless indiscipline is easily crossed, as Kamukunji discovered in 2016 when their goalkeeper’s violent overreaction to a refereeing decision resulted in a two-year ban from all secondary school competitions. Gakung’u is appealing the ban, and argues that a cadre of talented and disciplined youngsters should not have to endure an injurious collective penance. He assembles the players in the school courtyard for a team photograph; they smile shyly in the sunshine as their coach, ‘Leopard’ Ngari, reminisces about a young, unassuming, “very hardworking” Wanyama.

“Although he was talented, he was very humble; you never saw him say no to others,” he says. “When he came back to address the students, he repeated one thing: you have to be focused. We are very proud of him.”

Gakung’u gently encourages current team captain Tom Atieno and attacking midfielder Fiston Nchungu to break from the group for a moment to talk about their aspirations.

“Victor inspired me to play like him,” says Nchungu. “To be disciplined. To play in England, because there is so much competition there.”

His captain favors Arsenal; what odds on these two young men facing off in a future North London derby?

The road to professional success to date has been a narrow and precarious one for a young Kenyan player; relatively few have made it the hallowed ground of a club in a top league overseas. Only eight of the current national team squad currently play outside Africa, and the UK’s strict and unsentimental points system for evaluating a non-EU national’s eligibility for a work permit is punishing on countries with a low FIFA ranking. That climate is evolving fast, however. Kenya has climbed almost 30 places, to 87th, in two years thanks to the appointment of former Glasgow Rangers striker Bobby Williamson as manager in 2014, and the dynamic new approach of the youthful current head coach Stanley Okumbi. In late February, local betting giants SportPesa, sponsors of the Kenyan Premier League and English top-flight club Hull City, sent a squad of 18 of the best young Kenyan players in the country to the UK for a training camp and friendly match against the Premier League side. Wanyama is unlikely to remain the sole Kenyan in the Premier League for long (and many Kenyan fans argue that Liverpool striker Divock Origi, a Belgian international with a Kenyan father, is also flying their flag in the world’s toughest league).

Wanyama’s recent success is even more remarkable, given the scarcity of such opportunities in Kenya a decade ago. His break came when he was scouted by former AFC Leopards coach Edward Manoah while playing in a high school tournament for Kamukunji (Wanyama’s disciplinarian father Noah had been a successful and adored left winger at the club, and ties between the Leopards and the Wanyamas endure).

“He was a striker then, tall for his age,” says Manoah.  “He was strong in the air and could hold the ball up well. He came on in the second half on his Leopards debut – and scored the winner.”

Wanyama’s development was rapid. He earned his first cap for Kenya at 15 years old, and quickly emulated the progress of his older brother McDonald Mariga, another of the Kamukunji ‘golden boys’. Mariga’s talent had been spotted by Swedish lower division side Enköpings SK, and he took quickly to European football, moving to Helsingborgs IF before joining Serie A club Parma, and later Inter Milan, where he became the first Kenyan player to appear in the Champions League.

After short stints at Nairobi City Stars and JMJ Academy, Wanyama at last followed his brother to Helsingborgs. A robust three-year stint at Belgian side Beerschot caught the attention of Celtic, where he became the first Kenyan to score in the Champions League in an emotional win against Barcelona. Mauricio Pochettino, then manager of Southampton, brought him to St Mary’s in 2013, recognizing the qualities of diligence, athleticism and humility that are the hallmarks of the Argentine’s team ethic; the move to Pochettino’s Tottenham in 2016 seems, in retrospect, an inevitability.

It’s January 2017, and a hot, bright morning at Marist University in the leafy Nairobi suburb of Karen, about half an hour outside the city. The AFC Leopards first-team squad is playing a gritty, breathless seven-a-side game on a difficult dusty surface as new head coach Stewart Hall, a seasoned former Birmingham City academy director, observes from the touchline. On an adjacent pitch, the Leopards youth team runs through passing drills as the club’s CEO, Ronald Namai, outlines a positive but realistic future for the next would-be Kenyan superstars.

“This year we have actually promoted four of the youth team, so we are focused on bringing young players through to the senior squad,” he says. “We have constant feedback from schools; if we identify a promising player, we will pay their school fees and they will train with us over the holidays. What we insist is during school days, you must be in school. Otherwise we are not going to allow you to train. You see we have promoted 17 year-old. But when you are 28, 29, you are on your way out. So what are you going to do after that? You need an education.”

For Namai, there is still room in his grounded realism for the promise of some modest success; one of the three Leopards players in the squad traveling to Hull, he insists, will be a Premier League player by 2018.

Hall jogs over while the first team takes a break. He points out Ibrahim Mao, one of the four recent graduates from the youth team. A slender, evasive winger with an intelligent first touch, Mao jumps a tackle and hits a fierce shot hard and early while we watch.

“There’s some real talent in Kenya,” says Hall. “I’m saying to all my players, now listen, there’s a Kenyan playing in England, but also Belgium, Russia, Bulgaria, Sweden, Norway, Denmark. There’s a Kenyan in the MLS in the States. And because of this, the scouts are moving out here and taking kids from here younger and younger.”

He says that fostering the right attitude in these players, a Wanyama-like focus, is now a priority.

“Before, it’s been a case of wanting to be the best in the village, not the best in the country. That’s been a problem.”

His exhausted squad breaks for lunch. There’ll be a second session in the afternoon to hone fitness; the announcement of the league’s opening fixtures is believed to be just days away.

“I’ve said to this lot, if you don’t want to be a serious footballer, I don’t want you at the club. And I’ll chase you away,” he says. “We’ve put in a recruitment strategy that says we want to be the youngest team in the league. And now there’s a hunger here. Everybody here should want to be Wanyama.”