Kenya: How Former Kenyan Striker is Passing the Baton to Next Generation of Players

22 November 2020
opinion

Tales involving former footballers and their struggles upon retirement are a constant fixture in Kenya though Maurice Sunguti is working hard to become an exception.

In his prime, the ex-Kenya international was a reliable forward who banged in goals for fun, even exporting his talents to Uganda, Tanzania, Sweden and Vietnam.

He was also among the 23-players selected by coach Jacob "Ghost" Mulee to represent Kenya at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Tunisia.

The highlight of his stellar career, he says, was teaming up with foreign imports Omar Banza, Hassan Sessay, Peter Kakonge, and James Kayimba to aid AFC Leopards win the 1998 Kenyan Premier League title.

It is the last league success win by the popular club to date.

"There was so much passion from the players, supporters, administrators, and corporate at the time. We all worked hard to bring success," recalls Sunguti.

"We were not paid much but fought for the badge and shed sweat for the country. The supporters were incredible and everybody on the pitch gave a hundred percent even when we lost."

With this background, the former Friska Vilijor (Sweden) and Nam Dinh (Vietnam) player is adamant Kenyan footballers have as much a chance of succeeding on the big stage as their counterparts in Europe, Asia, South America, and even North Africa.

But his assessment is in stark contrast to performances of Kenyan Premier League clubs in continental assignments and the national teams' returns at international assignments.

"Kenyans are among the best footballers I have played along. What we lack is the basics of playing football, and especially the decision making aspect. This should be taught at a young age," he tells Nation Sport.

"It is why we miss out because there is a lot of emphasis on education young players in Europe, Asia, South and North America. To some extent, (Michael) Olunga has become an exceptional footballer because he was at an academy at a young age and mentored by a great coach."

Sunguti, a father of three, also points to himself as an example.

It was not until he was 17 that he was discovered while playing at the Otti Father Cup, an off-season tournament in Nairobi's Jericho estate, by renowned coach Chris Makokha.

"He offered me a scholarship at Kakamega High School. He trained me for three hours a day, five days a week. He later helped me join the Ministry of Works (MOW) football team in Kakamega and my professional career progressed from there."

To further hammer home the point on talent development, Sunguti has founded the Syokimau Academy in Nairobi, where he concentrates on training 100 youngsters aged between 9 and 17.

"We have several young players who aspire to be professional players and I have taken time to mentor them."

"I offer an introductory training programme for kids aged six to 12, followed by basic, intermediate, and advance programmes.

"A player who is lucky to pass through these stages has a better chance of making it as a professional footballer.

"I was not lucky to go through these stages but I recommend this for all aspiring professional footballers."

Sunguti's academy has since featured at an international tournament in Spain and was primed to Austria for another exposure trip this year before the coronavirus struck.

"Our aim is to produce quality players for Kenyan Premier League clubs for a start," says Sunguti.

He pinpoints Emmanuel Kiprop and Abel Lomunokol as some of his standout players.

"I love playing football and aspire to be like Olunga. He is fast and very brace and celebrates his goals with a lot of happiness," explains 10-year-old Lomunokol.

Lomunokol's father Mark, the Kacheliba MP adds: "He's maintained a strong interest in sports. He attended a Taekwando course and tournament in Korea and won gold. We noticed his interest in football and enrolled him at the Syokimau Academy and coach Sunguti has been very impressed with his development. The plan is to relocate him to Europe to further his football education."

Kiprop, a student at Mother Teresa Academy, is also gunning to be the next big thing in Kenyan football.

"I want to play in Europe, preferably in the English Premier League. I want to be like (Portugal footballer) Cristiano Ronaldo. Coach Sunguti has taught me how to dribble, cross, when to make sideways or forward passes," says Kiprop.

Kiprop's father, former Nation journalist Julius Sigei adds: "We now live in a dynamic world and have to support the kids both in their education and sports. This gives them a better chance of making it in life."

The two players are hoping to follow in the footsteps of Sunguti, who also starred for Reunion in the Kenyan Premier League before joining Leopards. He later crossed the border and made a name for himself in the Ugandan league at bigwigs Express FC and Sports Club Villa.

"I was treated like a King in Uganda, and that made me so motivated to deliver," he says.

"At that time (between 2000 and 2004) Ugandan clubs offered me better terms and Kenyan players regularly crossed the border in search of greener pastures. I won two leagues titles and finished among the top scorers in the league."

The burly forward's transfer from Express to Villa was the talk of Kampala after Villa officials sneaked him out of his Kampala hotel at night and lured him to sign for their archrivals.

"I had my head turned by money," he concedes, adding: "moving to Europe thereafter was an eye opener. I experienced a different environment in training and while preparing for a match.

"This is what I plan to impact on these youngsters. I scored 27 goals in Sweden's second division over two seasons and moved to Vietnam which was a very good place and competitive league despite my initial fears over what I used to watch in the action movies."

"I also played for Tanzania's Young Africans in Tanzania. The league is about hype and immense support from fans, corporate and government. Administrators have taken time to invest in the game and the league is growing immensely."

Sunguti also vouches for his former coach Mulee to come good in his fifth stint at Harambee Stars and also offers gratitude to the Machakos County government for supporting his young talent initiative.

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