NAIROBI, Kenya, January 16 – The Barack Obama story has inspired millions, his rise to the most powerful seat on the planet-the United States presidency-from humble background resonating even more among those with African roots living abroad.
“He is more of an academic and I am in sports so I cannot say that I will reach similar heights but I believe I can make a big difference in the game I love-football.”
Taiwo Opiyo Atieno, 23, hopes that using Obama’s model as inspiration he can fulfil his dreams of making a significant impact in Kenyan football, both on and off the pitch.
Like Obama, Taiwo was born of a Kenyan father of Luo origin but in his case, his mother was English.
He was born in London to Bridget Mary Glaisher from Kent and Muossa Awounda a prominent journalist from Ahero, Kisumu on August 6, 1985.
“I never grew up with my father and I did not know of my Kenyan heritage until I was nine. He left us when I was two years-old to Sweden after completing his scholarship,” he says.
His mother, an African culture co-ordinator involved in exporting the continent’s culture to the UK allowed Taiwo’s father to bring him to Kenya for his first visit in 1995, a year after he was told of his heritage.
“I met my grandmother and great grandmother then. It was a great educational trip for me and I came to love Kenya then after not knowing my heritage for long,” the striker added.
He was named Taiwo Opiyo Atieno since his godfather, a Nigerian, chose his first name, Opiyo the middle refers to ‘one of the twins’ in Dhuluo and Atieno is his grandmother’s name.
His twin brother, Kande Obongo Atieno plays college basketball in the US where he is hoping to make it to the NBA.
Enrolled for his General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)’s at Brickston South, Taiwo had by then realised that books would not make his career.
“It was not easy for me to have the discipline and willpower to learn. My passion was in football and although I did my GCSE, I had already turned professional at 15.”
In 2003, he had already started playing in the Sunday League where his coach, Babs Kandola, also a scout for League 1 (second division) side Walsall convinced the side to snap his signature for their youth team in 2000.
“I was dedicated to being a pro footballer and when the chance to join Walsall youth side came, I took it. Bob inspired me a lot and made me aware that I could be a footballer,” Taiwo explains.
Tragedy struck him in 2002 when his mother passed away.
“Losing my mum was a difficult period for me but I concentrated on my game, made me get over it. I was selected for the reserve team where I scored 19 in 27 starts,” he said.
He remained in the youth team until 2004 when the club, then under former Arsenal forward, Paul Merson gave him a two-year deal.
“I learned a lot from the ‘Great’ Merson, one of England’s best footballers. His knowledge of the game was immense as well as his presence in light of what he achieved.”
At Walsall, he made five appearances in the senior side but did not manage to score.
He was loaned out to Rochdale, Chester, Kidderminster Harriers, Darlington, Dagenham and Redbridge making a total of 44 appearances that brought eight goals.
At the end of his Walsall deal Taiwo moved on. “I did not settle in Walsall well and at the end of my deal, they wanted to sign me again but I decided against it. The club had fired three managers in one season and things were unstable at Bescot Stadium.”
He moved to Conference side, Tamworth in 2006 where he enjoyed his most successful spell in England, netting 12 times in 39 appearances.
The following year his agent, Paul Taylor, convinced him to move to the United States in 2007 and he landed a two-year contract with the Puerto Rico Islanders who play in the United States League (USL) first division. The competition rivals the Major League Soccer (MLS).
“Like all footballers, I aspired to play in the English premier league but career opportunities are limited for various reasons one of them being the league is constitutionally racist.”
He adds: “America is more progressive and the game is developing there as opposed to the English game that is becoming more of a franchise.”
At the Islanders, Taiwo helped the team reach the Concacaf Champions League (the North America’s version of UEFA Champions League) quarterfinals where they face Mexico’s Atlante in March and win the league last year.
Taiwo however, called his time with them after his contract expired. “I feel I have achieved all what I can with Islanders and now I want to move on to the either the MLS or back to England.”
During his time there, he scored 12 goals in 39 appearances equalling his record at Tamworth.
Taiwo has declared his intention to play for Harambee Stars and he is waiting to gauge his prospects before deciding his next move.
“The American game involves passing, better technique on the ball and patient build-up while the English prefer mobility, strength and speed in their football,” he explains adding, “Harambee Stars are moulded more on the English football and if given a chance to play for them, I would then sign with an English club. If not, then I will move to the MLS.”
He said the Islanders, had moderate ambitions that did not suit his desires and MLS sides, Washington DC, Colombus Crew and Seattle Supersonics have expressed interest in his services.
Taiwo wants to don the national team jersey because inspired by Obama; he believes he can offer Kenyan football a lift by improving the country’s ties with England and US.
“Apart from making money, I want to get involved more with the game even after I retire. I want to help that kid with a dream similar to mine but did not get an opportunity,” he says.
“I am not intending to come here to become a superstar or to steal anyone’s place in the team. I want to be here for the good of the team.”
Kimanzi, are you reading?
Full name: Taiwo Leo Atieno
Date of birth: 6 August 1985 (age 23)
Place of birth: Brixton, London, England
Height: 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m)
Playing position: Striker
Current club: Puerto Rico Islanders
Squad Number: 14
2004- Rochdale (loan)
2005- Chester City (loan)
2005- Kidderminster Harriers (loan)
2005- Darlington (loan)
2006-Dagenham & Redbridge
2007-2008 Puerto Rico Islanders