NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 23 – “Dandora made me who I am,” Harambee Stars midfielder Johanna Omolo, currently plying his trade in the Belgian top tier with Cercle Brugge says, casting a nostalgic eye on just how far he has come as a footballer.
Growing up around one of the biggest dumping sites in Africa, Omolo always had the dream of a child of making it and pulling himself out of the nostril-torturing smell to a life of milk and honey.
Almost a decade and a half later, he looks back at the dreams he harboured, making it as a professional footballer and feels a sense of achievement, trading the hardcore pitches of the ghetto for the plush and manicured lawns of Europe.
Out of a group of five that was taken to Belgium for trials 12 years ago, Omolo is the only one currently playing in the top-flight and he credits this to the lessons he picked up while growing up in his hood in Dandora.
“It is not an easy place to grow up in and the difficulties you go through as a kid prepare you for the life ahead. The things you see with gangs and all that makes you strong as a person. I was really determined to make it,” said Omolo who schooled at Tom Mboya Primary School in Dandora before joining Ofafa Jericho High School.
-Last born in a family of three
The last born in a family of three went through all the hustle growing up in an area characterized by high crime rates, but football saved him from the allure of falling into a trap that some of his friends drowned in.
What drove him to push his desire for a professional career in football was a trip he made to Norway with the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) at the age of 15, and the experience of seeing football in a professional view changed his mindset forever.
This was the second time he was selected to travel to Norway, but the first time he actually boarded the plane having been blocked from doing so by his mum just two years earlier.
As if his lucky star wasn’t done shining, Omolo was scouted from Dandora while playing his usual hood games by renowned scout Jean Marie who took him into his JMJ Academy, eventually shipping him and three others for trials in Belgium in 2008.
-JMJ airlift to Belgium
“He heard that I was in the Under-20 national team and out of interest came out to watch me in Dandora. At that time, we had a group of very talented players and there were so many people better than me.
“I felt lucky to be chosen to go into his academy and after a short while he took some of us for trials in Belgium,” he explained.
Also travelling with him to Europe for trials were former AFC Leopards duo of Sebastian Muchera and Samuel ‘Misse’ Mwangi as well as Edwin ‘Iddi’ Otieno who is still in Belgium and plays in the third tier.
The trials at lower tier side Vise were successful and Omolo alongside Otieno and Muchera were signed by the club while Mwangi went to another team in Belgium. They all signed two-year contracts.
After the contract expired, Omolo made a decision to go to Luxembourg where he signed another two-year deal with Fola Esch for the 2009 and 2010 seasons. However, this decision is one that the talented midfielder admits he regrets.
“I don’t think it was the right move for me. It wasn’t the best decision but again, it wasn’t the worst. I felt that if I had better people advising me, then I would have made a better decision to either remain in Belgium or head somewhere better,” Omolo said.
He says, the mistake he made is one that many Kenyan footballers who land in Europe make.
-Wrong decisions made
“Most players who come here, the first few years are really important for them. They need to have people who can help them make good decisions for their careers and that’s where most people are not strong; that makes the difference in the direction their career takes,” said the midfielder.
But, I decided to tick the wrongs and returned to Belgium in 2011 joining Germinal Beerschot, then home to Harambee Stars skipper Victor Wanyama. But they were only together for a few weeks in pre-season before the latter made the big move to Celtic.
Omolo stuck his boots in Beerschot, before he made subsequent moves to Lommel, Royal Antwerp and currently Cercle Brugge.
“It has been a long journey, with lots of ups and downs and many lessons to learn but generally I can say I am happy with how my career has progressed. It would have been better but at least I am not where I was before. I have learnt a lot and improved as a player and a person,” he underscored.
“When we started off in the beginning at Vise, it wasn’t easy. Food, weather, the language barrier, football culture and system of play were very different from what we were used to at home but we managed to adjust,” he noted.
He has just completed his third season with Brugge, having joined them in the second tier and are now in their second season in top flight.
“It was really great that in my first season we managed to win the second division and earn promotion. Our first season in the top flight was good because we managed to maintain in the top half despite being very young and with no experience.”
-The miraculous escape from relegation
“This season was tough for us and I can say it was a great miracle we escaped relegation. We struggled a lot but eventually, we did what we had to do. It was my first time ever to be involved in a relegation fight and I can say the experience has made me stronger mentally.
“Before the winter break, we were eight points behind safety, but when we resumed, after only seven games, we managed to catch up with the other teams and we got out and survived. It was a miracle,” he outlined.
The Belgian league has been called off with one round of matches left. City rivals Club Brugge have been declared champions while Omolo’s Cercle were comfortably perched up above the red zone.
He feels that the cancellation of the season was the right decision after the new novel coronavirus curtailed sports into a whirlwind with so much uncertainty around.
-Life in lock-down-
With Kenya closing down incoming passenger flights, Omolo has not been able to travel home as he always wishes after the season and he has had no choice than to stay at home with movements in Belgium also highly restricted.
However, he is pleased that his fiancée and two kids are at home with him.
“Definitely I feel a bit homesick but the best thing is that I have my family here. I spend the days playing with my boys, at least they keep me busy and also this is a great time to bond with family.
“I also have to keep training because we will have national team duty soon. I just go out to the gym and come back to the house. There is not so much ball work I can do because of the shutdown of sporting facilities.
“It has been tough because at first when all this started, one of the team doctors tested positive for coronavirus and we all had to go into a 14-day quarantine. All in all, I think it is even better if I have to stay here because that reduces the risk of transmitting the virus.”
-Lending helping hand back home-
Even as he remains at his home in Belgium, Omolo still has his roots in Dandora at heart and through his foundation has played his social responsibility role by helping out the community with foodstuff and sanitation materials.
“I started this four years ago with the sole purpose of focusing on sports and education. We want to get rid of the notion that sportsmen cannot be educated. I believe to succeed as a professional footballer, you must be well educated. The sharper you are the better you can play football,” said Omolo who is currently undertaking a Masters program in Sports Management.
“We have tried to push youngsters to take their education more seriously and we try follow up with them even from their performance in school.
“The other thing we are trying to work on is helping reduce period shame for our girls in the slums. I really feel that having your monthly period shouldn’t be a reason to miss school. We found out that girls miss up to 10 days of school every month because they cannot afford sanitary towels and we started programs to enable them access them for free,” explained Omolo.
He says they work with almost 70 girls every month to ensure they concentrate on school and don’t have to worry about sanitary pads. At the same time, he says they ensure they follow up on their performance in school to ensure they are progressive.
“We have noticed that since we started the program, the performance of the girls has improved drastically and that really makes me happy. Hopefully we can expand the program to ensure we reach out to more girls and at the moment, we are trying to get more sponsors on board.”
-FIFPro, SOYA awards –
For his efforts, Omolo has been twice awarded, one by the FIFPro Merit award and secondly the Community Award at the 2019 Sports Personality of the Year Awards (SOYA).
“Getting those two awards was a huge thing for me to be honest. It made me realize that people see what we are doing and I want to thank my committee for their unwavering hard work and commitment. The work they do behind the scenes is massive,” he noted.
Even as he continues to dream big for his foundation, Omolo is not done with his football ambitions and he hopes in the next five years, he will be able to move to one of the top leagues in either Spain, Italy, France or Germany.
“I believe I have gathered enough experience and I am ready to tackle some of the big leagues. I will keep working hard and hopefully a breakthrough can come soon.
“Victor (Wanyama) has shown the way for us by how he has worked hard to get where he is and play in the English Premier League and hopefully, we can get inspiration and move the same direction as well,” he revealed.
-Back to AFCON-
With the national team, the midfielder targets a consecutive Cup of Nations appearance in 2021, having made it into the squad that represented Kenya in Egypt 2019.
“It was a dream come true for us to play at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) and having known how it feels to be there, we want to qualify again. We hope to do much better and at the moment, our focus is to qualify again.”
“We stand a very good chance because if you look at how the group is, everyone has a chance. At the moment in Africa, there is no big or small team and everyone is capable of picking wins. We have huge potential because we have a very good group of talented players who are hungry to succeed,” he added.