International weeks usually mean a nine-hour flight back to his hometown Nairobi, and a whole heap of national expectation on Victor Wanyama. This is, after all, the man who is captain of his national team at the age of 22 with 27 caps already, although this past week he stayed in Britain.
The Kenya side were due to play a friendly, Wanyama is pretty sure it was Oman, but the match was called off as part of the period of national mourning for the victims of the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. The death toll is currently 67, with a further 23 still listed as missing, and it is not surprising to hear Wanyama say that he knew people who were wounded in the hostage stand-off.
The Southampton midfielder has been through a lot already in his young life, in football and beyond, to the extent that when he walks out at Old Trafford today for the first time it is hard to imagine him being fazed by the experience. Nor should he be given the remarkable form that his club are in, fourth in the Premier League and having conceded just two league goals. It is the best defensive record in Europe, along with Roma in Serie A.
Speaking at St Mary’s this week, Wanyama, bought for £12.5m from Celtic in the summer, has adapted to life in the Premier League quickly – as results so far have demonstrated.
The most eye-catching victory of Southampton’s season so far was their 1-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield on 21 September, a day that was notable for another reason. It was also the day that the al-Shabaab terrorist group entered the Westgate shopping mall, thus beginning the four-day siege that dominated the news around the world.
Wanyama had returned to his room in the team hotel in Liverpool before the match when he took the first telephone call about it, from a friend in Nairobi. He and his family had been to the Westgate mall many times.
“My friend was telling me, ‘There are thieves in the mall and they have hostages’,” Wanyama says. “So I was thinking ‘What’s happening?’ After 20 minutes my cousin Chris called me. He told me, ‘They are not thieves, they are terrorists’. Then I was shocked. I asked him if everyone is OK back home and he said he was not in the city but that he was going to find out and let me know.
“As soon as he hung up I called back home and I found out that everyone in my family was OK. I didn’t have a chance to call my friends. I knew my immediate family were OK but I didn’t know about my friends because I didn’t have enough time to phone. I had to wait until the end of the game to ask about them. They were fine. Some of my friends had to escape. Some of them were wounded.
“I thought it was something small that was going to have ended by the time I finished the game [against Liverpool]. After the game I phoned again and they told me that there were people still inside. So it was crazy then. It was too much in my head. I could feel the pain the people were going through inside there in the mall.”
He admits that it might have changed the view people have of Kenya, although his faith in the country is unshakeable. “It is just one of those things that can happen, it can happen anywhere. It’s a very bad thing. We are all human and we should love each other. We should have peace, no matter who you are or any religion.”
It is a heavy conversation to be having with a young footballer, three days ahead of his first meeting with Manchester United when life really is, for Wanyama, pretty damn good. He is shaping up to be one of the Premier League signings of the season and is already a big star in Kenya to the extent that the press back home are absorbed by the suggestion that he is dating the Kenyan pop star Victoria Kimani.
Yet as with many footballers who have made the journey from Africa to the European leagues, Wanyama’s story has more to do with hard work and sacrifice. He left home twice as a child, once at the age of 12 to join the Helsingborgs academy in Sweden, where his brother McDonald Mariga was playing in the first team. Having returned, he went back to Europe again, at 16, to Anderlecht in Belgium.
His father, Noah, played for the leading Kenyan team AFC Leopards and was an international. His mother Mildred was a netball star. His sister Mercy played basketball to a good level and his two younger brothers Thomas and Harry play football. Mariga also has the Wanyama surname but chooses to go by his first names.
None of them, he laughs, are long-distance runners, which is the inevitable question when one considers Kenya’s traditional sporting pursuit. “There are a lot of kids playing football back home, it’s one of the biggest sports in Kenya. Everyone watches the Premier League and they follow football a lot. Where I was born it was just football. The runners come from the Rift Valley. Everyone from there is a great athlete!”
Going to Sweden at such a young age was tough, even though he had McDonald to look after him. When McDonald was signed by Parma, in 2007, it meant that Victor would be alone in Sweden. “When he left I said ‘No way I’m going to stay here on my own’. When I got to Sweden, I didn’t know I was going to stay long. They thought maybe I was going to play for three months and come back. But I stayed a year and a half.”
He went back and played at the JMJ academy in Nairobi before returning to Europe, to Anderlecht, at the age of 16 to take up a place in the academy. He found progress hard there and moved on to Beerschot in Antwerp but had to wait two years to play first-team football over what he says were work permit issues. As is often the case with young footballers who have moved a long way from home, the details of the legal wrangling are vague but the memories of the sacrifice are clear.
“I waited for two years, just playing in the second team. I just wanted to go home. But my dad and my brother were telling me, ‘No you have wasted a lot of time there, if you go home you start from zero. Just keep on working hard and you will get there.’ I fought hard and it paid off.”
Celtic signed him in the summer of 2011 and he wore the No 67 jersey there, in honour of Celtic’s 1967 European Cup-winning side. He was a key player in Neil Lennon’s team in the two games against Barcelona in the Champions League. Indeed, Wanyama scored in the famous victory over Barça at Parkhead last November.
“The first match [at the Nou Camp] was a good game and we worked hard. We knew we could do something at home. We lost 2-1 [away] but it was in the last minute. Coming to the second leg we were very confident that we could take some points.
“Playing for Celtic at home, you have massive support from your fans. You don’t want to be second best to any team. I just wanted to play my heart out and pay back the fans. It was my dream to play against the likes of Iniesta and Messi. Playing at Barcelona – it was just a dream and the dream came true. I was very happy to rub the shoulders with the big players.”
From Nairobi to Winchester, where he now lives, via Helsingborg, Brussels, Antwerp and Glasgow, his is another great African football story. Given all that, it is little wonder that Old Trafford today holds no fears for Kenya’s first Premier League footballer.
My other life
Crazy golf! I haven’t found anywhere here yet but I played it in Glasgow. You know where you have to play the ball through a door and get it into the hole? I played with my friends, it was amazing! The normal one [traditional golf] is so hard. I tried it and I couldn’t hit the ball.