If Kenya is famous for any sport, it would be athletics. Kenya has left a mark in athletics at global sporting competitions such as the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) Games.
Kenya ranked number one at the 2015 IAAF competition. It has participated in all the IAAF championships since its inception in 1983. The country has won the highest number of gold medals after the United States and has the highest medal total after the US and Russia. There is no doubt that athletics has put Kenya on the map than any other sport.
However, football is yet to do for Kenya what athletics has done and McDonald Mariga Wanyama is setting the pace. He is changing the Kenyan sports discourse by being the first Kenyan to play in Italian Serie A, Spanish La Liga, the UEFA Champions League (UCL) and also becoming the first Kenyan to win a UCL.
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Wanyama was born in Nairobi, Kenya on April 4, 1987, to Noah Wanyama, a former player of the Harambee Stars (Kenya’s National Team). Following his father’s footsteps as a defensive midfielder for Harambee Stars, Wanyama started his football career at Ulinzi Stars in Nakuru before he moved to Tusker FC in 2003 and Pipeline FC, both in Nairobi. He debuted for the Harambee Stars in 2006.
His first international team was with a third division Swedish side, Enkopings SK in 2005. After spending one season at Enkopings, he moved to Helsingborg IF before the 2006 season where he scored 6 goals in 37 games for the side.
Portsmouth’s manager, Harry Redknapp expressed interest in signing Wanyama to play for the English team. However, issues regarding work permit did not allow this plan to materialize.
He was loaned to Parma in the 2007/2008 season where he was able to score 3 goals in 35 games during the season that propelled the team back to Serie A for the 2009/2010 season. The team finally signed him for $1.9 million in a four-year deal.
In January 2010, he was set to move to Manchester City at a fee of 2.7 million Euros. However, the process was halted because the FA rejected his work permit as his country was not in the top 70 FIFA rankings. Although former Prime Minister Raila Odinga worked to obtain the work permit for him, it was too late because the transfer window had closed. If he had moved to Manchester City, he would have been the first Kenyan to play in the league.
Following the failed attempt to move to Manchester City, he secured a deal at Internazionale (Inter Milan) on the last day of the transfer window on the basis of co-ownership. Inter Milan later paid 4.2 million Euros for him nullifying the co-ownership they had with Parma. He made his debut for the team in the 2009 Copa Italia semi-final against Fiorentina.
Wanyama, under the leadership of Jose Mourinho, played with Inter Milan and won the UEFA Champions League in 2010 making him the first Kenyan to win it. He also won the Serie A, Copa Italia (twice), Supercopa Italia and Club World Cup.
At the beginning of the 2011/12 season, he was loaned out to La Liga team Real Sociedad, albeit not the impressive forms of moves expected by a player, his time at the Spanish side made him the first Kenyan to play in the La Liga. He was again loaned out to Parma after his return to Inter Milan in 2014 but Parma’s bankruptcy coupled with a series of injuries he suffered saw him move to Italian Serie B team Latina.
During his time at Latina, he received a five-match Serie B ban in April 2016 when it was reported that he squeezed a referee’s hand till it drew blood after he was sent off during the second half of a game against Virtus Entella. Before leaving the pitch, he went to shake the referee’s hand but he squeezed too hard that it caused abrasions and drew blood. According to the Disciplinary Committee, he also hurled insults at the referee.
Wanyama’s career seems to have taken a nosedive since he left Inter Milan but he is going to ensure that he lights up the path for young Kenyans to realise their dreams of becoming footballers. He plans to build a football academy where young talents can be nurtured to help them achieve their dreams.