The tale of Kenyan trio’s sojourn in Sweden

Although it is every footballer’s ultimate dream to play in the top European leagues and rub shoulders with the best players in the world, women footballers in Kenya have for a long time utilized football as a means of enjoyment as opposed to employment. Most ambitious and talented players you interact with, would dream of earning a decent pay from their football career but that has not been the case for the women footballers in Kenya.

However, this belief system is slowly changing, with indicators such as the world’s football governing body FIFA grants trickling down to the domestic leagues including; the Women Premier League (WPL) and the National Division One league.

Significant raise

Another notable development is the recent announcement from FIFA that the prize money for the upcoming women’s World Cup will be significantly raised. In 2015 for instance, the United States Women’s team received $2 Million for winning the tournament, while France men’s team received $38 Million for winning the same tournament.

In the Kenyan context, it has been observed that, ever since Harambee Starlets qualified for the Africa Women Cup of Nations for the first time in 2016 the team’s participation in competitions has been consistent. It does not necessarily mean that the league has monetary value attached to it, or that the players earn sustainable amounts of money at club level but the will to support women football is evident.

Initially, only two players; Doreen Nabwire and Martha Karimi who have since transitioned into coaching and football management respectively had professional stints a few years back. The former featured in the German League for Werder Bremen and Cologne, she also turned out for Zwolle FC in Netherland’s Eredivise Women’s league in 2010 together with Martha.

In their footsteps

Following into their footsteps in the most recent past have been Nabwire’s sister Christine Nafula formerly of Kenya Women Premier League (KWPL) side Makolanders, Harambee Starlets forward Mary Kinuthia and Vihiga Queens forward Terry Engesha all who landed short-term contracts in Sweden at Division two side FC Dalhem, specifically to aid the side survive relegation.

They grabbed the chance and their contribution was evident when Dalhem stayed afloat after winning six out of the eight matches the trio featured in.

“The three players are naturally talented, they only need a good training schedule and we will all watch them turn into the greatest players of all time. They say talent beats hard work, but I can assure you that when everyone steps up, the God given ability makes the difference,” comments former Harambee Starlets skipper Florence Adhiambo.

They grabbed the chance and their contribution was evident when Dalhem stayed afloat after winning six out of the eight matches the trio featured in.

It will go down memory lane that as the Kenya women national team qualified for the 2016 AWCON, Nafula provided the assist after squaring a pass to Cheris Avilia to score the goal that saw Kenya make its maiden appearance in the tournament. She went on to cement her place in the team, scoring key goals, including against Cameroon in a friendly match that preceded the continental showpiece in a match Kenya lost 2-1.

The attacking midfielder does not take the opportunity lightly. She terms the chance to play abroad a huge step for her career development. Having started playing football at the age of eight, the mother of one reveals that following her sister around as she went for training and games at GSU grounds in Mathare North is what built her interest in playing football.

How it started

“Their coach at the time, George Nange would sometimes teach me and a few boys some basic skills and before I knew it, I was an Otto Benecker U12 player under coach Boniface Viyuka, then playing in the MYSA junior league. That is how I began my football career,” Nafula says, explaining how it all started.

The deal in Sweden, which also doubled up as a trial period for the three, was a chance to prove they had what it takes to ply their trade abroad. Former Harambee Stars skipper Robert Mambo who is a member of the Dalhem coaching staff, engineered the whole process as a way of trying to open up doors for women footballers in Kenya, who for a long time have had the potential, but lack a platform to show what they are capable of.

I have never experienced such kind of reception in my life. They were so happy and had already named us in the line-up

The players’ life abroad would start with a warm welcome which 19-year old Engesha describes as the best reception she has ever had, as she narrated her story of playing abroad for the first time in her club career. The expectations were so high that they were drafted in the matchday squad even before their arrival at Visby airport.

“I have never experienced such kind of reception in my life. They were so happy and had already named us in the line-up before we even got there and on reaching the airport, they were there all waiting. Those were arguably the kindest people on earth,” she states.

Mixed emotions took over in the short trip to Dalhem which is about 10 Kilometres from Visby.

Kinuthia who has previously played across the border for Ugandan Christian College (UCC) FC in Uganda, was not only excited of the new challenge, but also anxious to see the new teammates and make her debut.

Perfect start

The Kenyans’ debut was a perfect one though far from expectation as they bagged a whopping 8-2 win over Hällbybrunn, a day after arrival in Sweden. Performing well in the opening game was key for the players as they wanted to settle in as quickly as possible in the new league.

In this particular game, Engesha netted a hat-trick while Kinuthia put her name in the scoresheet with four goals. Meanwhile, Nafula’s presence was felt in midfield with four assists.

“My perception of playing abroad and especially in Europe has always been that the competition there is stiff. What was amazing for me is the fact that we were actually making headlines in a foreign country. I just saw a picture with the three of us in the newspaper and the fact that I could not make sense of it because of the language used did not even matter to me. All I knew at the time, is something positive was written about us,” Kinuthia explains with a wry smile.

Most importance

Often times, joining a new club can be a challenge with one probably starting off on the bench which was not the case with the three. Two straight wins in their first two games kept alive hopes of avoiding the chop, but losses in their third and sixth matches in the league threw the survival race to the wire.

The final match of the season bore the most importance as with it the team’s hopes for survival lay. The Kenyan trio didn’t disappoint. Nafula bagged a brace, Engesha scored four and Kinuthia one goal to lead the team to a 9-0 win, just what they needed to maintain their second-tier status. According to Nafula, securing survival came through team effort, and at a personal level, it gave her vital lessons in football and life generally, as regards optimism, team work and self-belief.

“It was a great achievement for the whole team, we did it together and we deserved to stay in the league after fighting so hard.  Above all we are grateful to God for He made it possible. As a result, I have learnt to always be positive and fight up to the last minute,” Nafula states.

WPL advantage

Among the lessons picked there is that, after all, Kenyan players are not any less talented. It was a short and sweet experience, and apart from having superior equipment and structures, Engesha feels consistency and high tempo is what sets apart the Kenyan league and foreign leagues. The developed countries have the well planned structures from the youth to the senior teams, equipment and well-maintained facilities. If all that is given to the female footballer in Kenya, it would be a different tale, Engesha says.

“I would say consistency and high tempo in their league is the only difference but with the tempo it would be very easy for WPL players to adapt,” explains the lethal forward.

Kinuthia’s diminutive physique has been a topic of discussion at some point, with most citing that she cannot play professional football as very few coaches would opt for a player who does not rely on their physical strength.

However, what she lacks in physique, she has in technique – what in the game is called a football brain. The left-footed forward has been judged before setting foot in the pitch but she is glad her coaches at Dalhem believed in her and handed her the chance to play in all matches throughout her stay.

The final day of the season was awesome.  After the win, the whole team went into celebration and party mode and we enjoyed every slice of it.

“A perfect example is when various scouts kept telling me that I had impressed at the AWCON but my tiny stature was an obstacle, and that I could not fit in competitive leagues. I always knew my time would come, though the opportunity to play in Sweden came when I was almost giving up on football and had even started doing odd jobs,” she reminisces.

Surviving relegation might not be an important aspect to a footballer, who has known nothing but victory during the better part of her career. Kinuthia and Nafula have won the WPL at Mathare United, Matuu Ladies and Thika Queens, while Engesha has also had a taste of WPL glory with Vihiga Queens. Being in a position to fight for survival was a huge and unique moment for them.

“The final day of the season was awesome.  After the win, the whole team went into celebration and party mode and we enjoyed every slice of it. We had not won the league, but we were victorious in our own little way. I would argue that we had fun with it more than the league winners did, because in life happiness is not a destination but a journey, we start with ourselves,” Kinuthia says.

Having watched Engesha’s growth as a player, her coach at Vihiga Queens, Alex Alumira, is full of praise for her after the short stay in Sweden. With the right guidance, he says Engesha can easily be one of the first female footballers in Kenya to play in the Champions League in the near future.

“She came back from Sweden more mature and tactically sound. Her understanding of the game has improved and, in my opinion, it will not take three years before she plays in the Champions League,” he opines.

Long-term plan

By aiding the team survive, they did their job and having made their case in the short stint in Sweden, the trio is now crossing fingers for long-term deals when the league resumes.

Mambo, who also spent a good number of years playing in the Swedish league, and was instrumental in the trio’s move to the country, is glad the players didn’t disappoint. His profile will for sure rise after this.

“Their presence was felt from the first game here. I am proud because they brought belief to the team and pushed all the others to get to their best. They scored so many goals just to make sure the team got the points we were chasing for, and for that reason they are liked by all, including players, officials, the board, fans and the whole of Dalhem’s football family,” Mambo remarks.

Harambee Starlets

The three are part of the Harambee Starlets team which is set to take part in the AWCON tournament in Ghana, and they will be hoping to replicate the good form there. Nafula and Kinuthia have been conspicuously missing from the Harambee Starlets squad for over a year. Maybe it was their performance in the Swedish second tier that gave them a direct ticket to Ghana.

Meanwhile Mambo can only hope that Dalhem will still be their home in the upcoming season.

 “We are working to see that they stay with the team next season in a long-term perspective. They liked and enjoyed their stay here, so we are praying that all goes right for them. They believe they can grow more with this team and take it far and as for bigger goals, we hope to see them do wonders again for Dalhem. We got other few offers which came knocking for them so we will wait and see what the future holds for them,” Mambo concludes.

NOTE: This piece originally appeared in the Soka Magazine Edition 15