Star of Africa: How a middle-aged mum of six helped develop the top flight’s first ever Kenyan

Star of Africa: How a middle-aged mum of six helped develop the top flight’s first ever Kenyan … the 100th country in our amazing League of Nations

wanyamma mum

Wonder woman: Sophie Makoba wearing a Celtic shirt given to her by former pupil Victor Wanyama

And he can thank a middle-aged mum of six, who has spent her working life as a sports mistress in the impoverished Nairobi school system, for making it possible.

Read:Saints new boy Victor Wanyama bosses the Baggies

Wanyama, 22, shot to international prominence last November when he opened the scoring for former club Celtic in their extraordinary 2-1 Champions League group stage win over Barcelona. 

Great moment: Victor Wanyama scores for Celtic against Barcelona

Great moment: Victor Wanyama scores for Celtic against Barcelona 

The powerful 6ft 2in defensive midfielder attracted interest from Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton among others but eventually signed for Southampton in a club record £12.5million deal earlier this summer.

Players from Albania to Zimbabwe and 98 other countries, aside from the four home nations, have graced England’s elite division in the 21 seasons since it became the Premier League in 1992 – but Wanyama will be the first from his country.

Where do Premier League players come from?

Where do Premier League players come from? 

And who do they play for?

And who do they play for?

Even at his age, he has been a globetrotter, attached to professional clubs in five countries, from AFC Leopards back home at 15, to Helsingborgs in Sweden at 16, Beerschot in Belgium at 17, Celtic in Scotland at 20 and now Southampton.

But without the remarkable vision and dedication of veteran PE teacher Sophie Makoba, 48, it is unlikely Wanyama would ever have realised his talent.

With her help, he has developed into an iconic figure now lauded in his East African nation of 44 million souls for being the first Kenyan in England’s top division.

‘The Premier League is by far the most popular league in Kenya and I’m sure that Southampton will have a lot of new fans here now that Victor has joined them,’ said Makoba in an exclusive interview last week.

‘Kenyan people are very excited for the start of the new season. A lot of people already watch matches, although most don’t have their own TV because it’s damned expensive.

‘The men mostly watch in the pub. There are also video stores that show games where you can pay to watch, from half a Kenyan shilling [less than half a pence] for a child.’

The young Wanyama had the good fortune to attend the state secondary school, Kamukunji High School, where Makoba was working.

‘He was not the best academically but he was a huge presence on the pitch, making the first team with kids three years older when he was 13,’ she says. 

Makoba was a promising gymnast as a child and tried netball and athletics before playing basketball at national level. She would have pursued a career in professional sport but her education came first, and when offered a rare chance to study at college, she took it.

‘When I left college in 1990, I was 25 and I took up my job at Kamukunji as the games mistress,’ she said. ‘I could see that there were students who were not so good academically who might achieve success through sport and it was from there we started what has become a tradition of developing sports talent.’

Kamukunji was no privileged environment. It was just another basic school in urban Kenya, where average household earnings barely reach £1,000 per year and the academic facilities are basic. 

Makoba has loved football for as long as she can remember. She supports Manchester United and waxes lyrical about George Best, Robin van Persie and her all-time favourite, Roy Keane.  

Her family are typical in being enthralled by the Premier League. Her husband is an Arsenal fan, as is one son.

Another son supports Chelsea. Her two other sons and both daughters are United fans.

Love of the game does not mean Kenyans have good facilities.

‘We had no pitch at Kamukunji so I would arrange practice for my teams in a borrowed field nearby,’ she said. ‘These fields would be used in the day so we had to use them early, before everyone else was up. We started at 5.30am and finished at 7am so the kids could get to school before 8am.’

Makoba’s dedication started to pay dividends about 15 years ago when Kamukunji began to develop promising teenage players who would move on to earn a living in Europe’s major leagues.

Kamukunji alumni, developed by Makoba, include Kenya internationals Dennis Oliech, 28, a striker with Ajaccio in France’s Ligue 1, fellow forward Patrick Oboya, 26, who has played in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and local heroes like Kevin Ochieng, a winger who has played for major Kenyan clubs. 

Without doubt, however, the major names in Kenyan football are Wanyama and his brother McDonald Mariga Wanyama, 26, a defensive midfielder with Inter Milan in Serie A and currently on loan at Parma.

Mariga would have become the first Kenyan in the Premier League in 2010, when Roberto Mancini tried to buy him for Manchester City, but for the Home Office who denied the player a work permit.

Even the personal intervention of Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, who spent hours on the phone to British PM Gordon Brown and officials, was to no avail. 

‘I always felt Victor would go far,’ said Makoba. ‘He was always humble, down to earth, very respectful. His mother, Mildred, and father, Noah, had menial jobs with Kenya Railways when Victor was young. They were poor, living with eight kids in a shack 10ft by 10ft. Mildred lives in a house now, in a nice part of town. They’ve got a Hummer and a Cadillac. We’re so happy with the boys’ success.’

Makoba moved last year from Kamakunji to an all-girls school, where her task is to develop basketball players and footballers.

‘We have no equipment, balls, goalposts or boots,’ she says. ‘But we’re determined.’

As Wanyama would testify, that’s a decent start. 




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