Kenya: Ex-Harambee Stars Defender - Why I Quit Football for Matatus

22 October 2020

On March 9, 2013, former Harambee Stars coach Adel Amrouche was at Moi International Sports Centre in Kasarani to watch a Kenyan Premier League (KPL) match pitting KCB FC against Tusker FC.

The game ended in a barren draw but the tactician was impressed by one player, Tusker defender Mark Odhiambo.

During that game, Odhiambo had done enough to convince Adel Amrouche to call him to the Harambee Stars squad that was preparing to face Nigeria in a 2014 World Cup qualifier in Calabar. He eventually made the traveling squad but did not play as Kenya drew 1-1 with the Super Eagles.

Veteran Kenyan football writer Patrick Korir explains to Nation Sport Amrouche's instant admiration of Mark Odhiambo.

"I remember I met him at Hill Park Hotel in Nairobi and he could not stop talking about Mark Odhiambo who he described as a "big, tough and very good defender" whom he wanted to build the national team defence around," Korir tells Nation Sport.

Fast forward and the once-promising Odhiambo is now a matatu driver plying the busy Umoja route. But how did things turn out this way for a player who was once described as a future national team captain?

To understand this, we have to go back to where his journey in the topflight league started - Tusker FC. In December 2012, Mark Odhiambo, who was then featuring for Nairobi East County League side Mbotela Kamaliza, went for trials at Kenyan Premier League (KPL) side Tusker FC. And he made it on his first attempt.

Interestingly, Odhiambo grew up in the same neighborhood as Kenyan international Brian Mandela, Mbotela, a tough neighborhood in Nairobi's Eastlands area. They played together at Mbotela Kamaliza before Niang, as Mandela is fondly known by his peers, moved to Tusker FC.

In 2012, Mandela secured a move to South Africa, joining Santos.

"This really challenged me. I knew Niang and played football with him in the neighborhood. His move to Santos really got me thinking and when I heard Tusker FC, where Niang was before, had trials, I jumped at the opportunity and gave it my best. It is at the trials that I met the likes of Michael Olunga and I was very delighted when I made the cut," Mandela tells Nation Sport.

This was his first professional contract but prior to joining the brewers, Odhiambo was already working as a tout.

"Touting is what was putting food on my table even before I became a professional footballer. I continued doing this although part-time after I joined Tusker. I eventually graduated to become a Public Service Vehicle (PSV) driver and I think it is the best decision I have ever made in life," Odhiambo reveals.

Odhiambo was not a regular player for Tusker in his first season and he eventually secured a loan move to KCB in mid-2014. He still continued driving matatus during his free time and managed to save enough to acquire his own.

"Driving is a skill like any other and I enjoy it. As a footballer, I realised I had so much free time and that is why I continued doubling up as a matatu driver. It is a decision that I don't regret to date. I managed to save up enough money to buy my own 14-seater matatu and even though I sold it off later, it improved my financial situation and opened my mind to explore more opportunities in the matatu industry," he says.

After a season at KCB, Mark Odhiambo took a break from football and focused on driving matatus. He would later join Wazito in 2017 but did not last there too, leaving in mid-2018.

"I keep seeing people telling Kenyan footballers to save money and invest but how do you save when you are not even sure you will get paid? Salaries in most Kenyan clubs are very little and never consistent. I was lucky to play for Tusker and KCB which are football clubs run by stable companies but what about the majority of players who play for other clubs? They are always in a race to survive and get the next meal," Odhiambo says.

After two years out of the game, Odhiambo, 32, is now looking forward to making a return to the Football Kenya Federation Premier League (FKF-PL) in the upcoming season.

I conducted this interview when he was on the steering wheel driving from Nairobi Central Business District (CBD) to Umoja and back. He seemed to enjoy his work and I was eager to find out if he would give up this aspect of his life if he was to join a team in the ongoing transfer window.

"Why would I do that? he quipped. "Football in Kenya is not really a profession you can depend on. I can do both as I have always done but I can never stop driving matatus because that is what I depend on," he said.

"The last club I played for, Wazito, still owes me over Sh700, 000. I was unpaid for almost a year and I would really be stupid to repeat the same mistake again. Whichever club I join, I will still continue driving matatus. Football is my passion while driving is what puts food to my table and I have learned to do both without any challenges.

"I can only focus on football fully if whichever team is interested in my services gives me a reason to do so and that can only be financial. If they appreciate what I bring to the table and my experience and assure me of a good salary that will be paid regularly then I can consider switching to football fully. I don't want to be another bad example of footballers who end up begging when they hang up their boots.

"That is why I am very focused and happy as a driver - I don't have to borrow money to meet my basic needs and I support my family through this," he added.

Outspoken nature

But even as he hunts for a new team, is he fit and ready for the challenge after two years out of competitive action?

"I have been training and I am very fit and mentally ready to play at the top level. I believe I still have something to offer and I can be useful to any team in the KPL that is willing to take a chance with me," he says.

Odhiambo is outspoken and this has put him at loggerheads with several coaches in the teams that he has played for. He however says he is mostly misunderstood.

"I am naturally very aggressive and born a winner. I am outspoken and always give my opinion on how I think or feel things should be done. This has put me in problems in the past but I think it is because most Kenyan coaches cannot withstand being corrected or sharing ideas with their players. It is always a master-servant type of a relationship and this is a big problem in Kenyan football," he said.

"This needs to change if Kenyan football is to go to the next level. We also need to encourage younger coaches to take up roles in the Kenyan Premier League and National Super League clubs. They are dynamic and open to new ideas. We had the same coaches for many years being recycled in the clubs and that's why there's no progress,"

"Adel Amrouche saw my potential in just one game and drafted me into the national team. He didn't even know my name but saw my potential. This could never have happened with the caliber of local coaches we have. We need a shift in mentality in the local coaching scene. We need tacticians who value the hard work put in by players and judge them purely by merit," he concluded.

Amrouche, who is now the head coach of the Botswana National team, says Mark Odhiambo had the quality to make it to the top level in football.

"I think the Kenyan national team lost a great defender. As a person, he was a good man and very likable. He let his football do the talking on the pitch and I wish him the very best as he tries to make a comeback. I believe he still can play, his quality is unquestionable."

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