LONDON, England- He is the man who famously reduced Rod Stewart to tears and has broken records throughout his fledgling career. Indeed, Victor Mugubi Wanyama is intent on becoming a big hit in his own right this season.
Sporting the number 67 on his shirt in tribute to the club’s Lisbon Lions, it was fitting that Wanyama triggered one of Celtic’s most famous European nights early last November when he scored the goal that teed up a 2-1 win over Barcelona’s all stars. How Celtic miss him now.
It prompted scenes of delirium rarely seen around Glasgow outside of Burns’ Night and New Year. Grown men, including celebrity fan Stewart, broke down and sobbed.
Minutes later, Stewart was celebrating with his heroes in the home dressing room. ‘That was a great night,’ recalls Wanyama, 22. ‘Rod was hugging us all. It was great to meet him. Celtic fans are special. It meant a lot to him, like it did to all of us. It was probably the highlight of my time at Celtic. To score against a team like that with Lionel Messi and everyone, and to win. I didn’t celebrate too hard but it was a good night.’
Despite being Southampton’s £12million summer signing, in true African style Wanyama does not like to overplay life.
He looks taller than his official 6ft 2in and as he stretches out his muscular physique, you question whether both legs were on the scales when he weighed in at 83kg.
He is a big man who likes a physical challenge but don’t be fooled, he can play too. Celtic manager Neil Lennon labelled him world-class.
Not that expectation troubles ‘Big Vic’ as he chills in his Southampton apartment. It seems as if everything is Mañana (tomorrow) in Wanyama’s world. Or as they say in Kenya, hakuna matata — no worries.
There, Wanyama is a national treasure. He is the first Kenyan to play in the Premier League after making his bow in the 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion last week and is the youngest player to figure for Kenya’s national side, making his debut against Nigeria at 15.
‘All of Kenya was watching that Barcelona game on the TVs in their homes, in the shops, in the pubs,’ he said. ‘I had many messages. My family was very proud. They’ll be watching the Premier League too now. It is everyone’s dream there to play in England, as it was mine.’ His success is of little surprise in his homeland where the Wanyama family’s sporting pedigree is well known.
Sharing a small shack in Nairobi — ‘It wasn’t easy but it was a good place, not a violent one,’ says Wanyama — his parents earned a crust with jobs on Kenya Railways but remained passionate about sport.
Noah, Victor’s father, played football for AFC Leopards, mother Mildred played netball, big brother McDonald Mariga is at Inter Milan, his sister Mercy is on a basketball scholarship in Chicago while their other siblings, Sylvester, Thomas and Harry, also play football. They have moved up to a grander house now with a Hummer and Cadillac parked outside.
Their rise caught the nation’s imagination so much that a film about them has just been released, titled More Than Brothers.
‘I’ve not seen it yet,’ says Wanyama. ‘It’s more about my brother Harry’s take on life, like a documentary.’
Documentaries aren’t really Wanyama’s cup of tea. In fact, you sense he has a yearning to be the Premier League’s next action hero. He likes to escape watching fast-paced films starring Jason Statham, Bruce Willis and Vin Diesel; The Expendables and Fast & Furious.
As a boy in Nairobi, the posters that adorned the wall above his bed were of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Patrick Vieira and Michael Essien. All combative but talented.
‘I like a physical challenge,’ he says. ‘But every week the Premier League will throw me a new challenge and that is to get better. It is the most competitive league and I’m excited about what I am getting into. I want to show I can make a big impact but not just by being physical. I think that by competing for Celtic in Europe against teams such as Barcelona, Benfica and Juventus I have shown there’s more to my game than that.’
Finding the right blend between silk and steel should come as second nature under the guidance of Southampton coach Mauricio Pochettino, a former Argentina defender.
‘He has been great,’ says Wanyama. ‘I have only been here a short time but already he has taught me a lot. He is a good motivator but knows when to pick out details that can change your game.’
Although Wanyama’s protracted move to Southampton was far from straightforward, with wrangles over fees and a rival bid from Cardiff, he feels at home already.
‘It’s nice here,’ he says. ‘My motto is always to do better and if I didn’t think I could achieve that I wouldn’t have come. I have belief that I can realise dreams here.’
It’s a far cry from the bouts of homesickness he suffered while starting his football pilgrimage as a teenager in Sweden with Helsingborgs. He speaks to his mum every day on the phone and she is planning a visit soon. He has eyes on a new place in a village not far from the River Itchen. ‘It’s peaceful. I like to watch the boats sailing out into the Channel…’
Can you feel a song coming on, Rod?
-By Simon Jones, Daily Mail