The Man Who Single Handled Shackled Nigeria in Nairobi.
By Mukurima X Muriuki
After Harambee Stars humiliated Algeria, bundling them out of the 1998 World Cup qualifiers, soccer pundits thought this was out of sheer luck. Algeria went on to ban their coach Ali Faghani for life, from football related affairs. Their star player Moussa Saib retired from international football.
Kenya would then be grouped together with Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Guinea in the 1998 World cup qualifying final round. This was arguably, the group of death as each team, save for Kenya, had a star studded line-up. Guinea had the reliable Aboubacar “Titi” Camara; Burkina Faso had Mamaddou “Bebeto” Zongo; Nigeria was in a class of its own, boasting among others, a player who was so good that his mother gave him the same name twice-Augustine “Jay Jay” Okocha. Kenya only had hope. And coach Reinhardt Fabisch.
In the first match in Conakry, Guinea thumped Kenya 3–1 with “Titi” Camara giving a deserved man- of-match performance. Fans were disappointed. What would follow later was even disastrous. A fourth finish in the Senior Challenge Cup in Sudan had Fabisch fuming with fury. After sustained speculation on the longevity of the fans-favorite-coach’s job, the German tactician made changes to the national team that made the same fans pause. And ponder. He fired all the established players and only retained the services of goalkeeper Francis Onyiso and defender Musa Otieno. Striker Mike Okoth was dropped but recalled a few months later.
Kenyans were surprised. Some were shocked. Arguably, never in the history of soccer in the country had a coach dared to make such a sudden change in the middle of world cup qualifiers. But Fabisch did it anyway. He brought in the likes of Tom Ogweno, John Lichuku, Seif Mutie, Seleman Rashid, Kadir Galgalo, Maurice Wambua, Eric “Cantona” Ochieng, Josiah Ougo, Ken Simiyu, Francis Were, Titus Mulama and John “Baresi” Odhiambo.
John Odhiambo now lives in Oklahoma in the USA. I caught up with him and we talked about soccer and life.
“I was born and raised in Kenya and my upbringing made me who I am today-the struggles, the challenges, the missed opportunities, the friends made, the betrayals-everything I have been through, I would not for a minute want to change any of that experience because that is what has shaped my life. I have many happy memories of my friends and family.
I started playing soccer as every other child in Kenya-from day one, conceivably, when I started walking! Everything at home would be turned into a soccer ball-cups, plates, and basins! Later on I would graduate to playing with a ball made out of polythene bags. It was an exciting moment. My friends would come to revere my skills and some urged me not to give up on soccer.
I would watch a lot of local soccer and I found myself idolizing Bobby Ogolla, Zico, and Zangi among others. European soccer also fascinated me and the likes of Karl Heinz Rummenigge, Lothar Matthäus Ruud Gullit and Franco Baresi made the list of my all-time favorites. It was Baresi, who my peers would nickname me after. All these players influenced my career.
I would go on to play for Gor Mahia, won the premier and life was good. At that time, our premier league was dominated by AFC Leopards and us. I recall every clash, every minute of the games I played against Ingwe. It was as a result of our dominance that AFC started a soccer revolution in Kenya-they brought in foreign players. This helped improve the standards of soccer. But Gor kept on getting better. With AFC having such incredible players like Omar Banza, Peter Kakonge, James Kayimba, Hassa Sessey, Kevin Ateku among others, it meant our team had to keep improving in every front. And we did! Many young players started shining and it would be a matter of time before the fans, and the country noticed.
My hard work, commitment to training, discipline, and growth, was rewarded when I earned my first cap to play for the national team. It is in every player’s dreams to wear the national team jersey and I believe my hard work, discipline, and commitment to learning new things, which made me earn the call. At that time, coach Fabisch had assembled a new team and we had to prove our mettle and ability to the hungry fans. I was in for the ride!
Many soccer fans remember the game we played against Nigeria in Nairobi. Some call it historical. Others say that it was one of the best Harambee Stars performance in years. For me it was just like any other game I had played before, with superstars on the other side. One advantage I had going into the game was that I had studied Nigeria’s style of play by watching a lot of film from their previous matches. I knew how Okocha moved and how their midfield operated, how their strikers switched, and other tactical plays by the team. However, for Nigeria, I was a surprise. They did not know who I was and they may not have given me attention as they scouted our team. The match ended in a draw and the Kenyans started to believe in the team once again. There was hope. Kenya was now firmly in contention to qualify for the World Cup and with that came a lot of expectations from the fans.
We went on to beat Burkina Faso at Ouagadougou and the return match in Nairobi remains one of the greatest performances by the national team, ever. This match is also memorable to me, because I realized I had good soccer IQ. After going down 0–2 down courtesy of goals from Sanou and Zongo, I remember the silence at Kasarani stadium. You could feel a pin drop. What was encouraging, however, was to see that the spirit of our players did not dampen. We kept on fighting. As the match progressed, I managed to ask coach Fabisch if we could switch from the prohibitive 3–5–2 system and go with a 4–2–4 system, something which had never been used before. The coach agreed. It proved to be very effective fielding the country’s top 3 leading scorers alongside Mike Okoth. It was a rainy day and the midfield was by-passed for the large part of the game. We did not need 4 midfielders. Soon the crosses from our wingers started raining in the penalty box. The Burkinabes could not defend this avalanche of attacks! We won the game 4–3
With Kenya needing a victory in Lagos to qualify for the World Cup, we made a gamble, which would prove disastrous. The team was offered an opportunity to train in Germany, where our welcome party included a very cold weather. This did not prepare us for the hot and humid weather in Lagos. In the match against Nigeria, the game was lost in the first ten minutes, and we were out of contention.
My soccer journey would land me to the United States in 2000. After graduating college with a degree in Business Management, I joined the manufacturing industry with the goal of becoming a production manager. Soccer was my passion but I also wanted to do more with my life. I have always been intrigued by the manufacturing industry, because it doesn’t take long to see the end results-not like soccer where you can play out to a barren draw! I am now settled here with my family. I conduct soccer clinics to the local community and this helps in the notion of cultural flows, that a Kenyan can contribute to the overall good of a community in a foreign country.
My son, Wyqie is following in my footsteps. He has been voted Most Valuable player in most of the tournaments he has played. I hope and pray that he will be more successful than I was. I am not sure which country he will want to represent-America or Kenya, but that will be his personal choice!
Relative to the state of soccer in Kenya, our players seem to have a lot of natural talent that needs to be nurtured. The only problem is the leadership-no one seems to have the best interests of the players and the game in mind. Until we have leaders who realize that if we don’t invest in our athletes as other countries have (such as the Ivory Coast), we cannot be competitive. We have been doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Is this not insanity!