Is Mariga the Real Mccoy? after Becoming the First Kenyan to Feature in the UEFA Champions League, McDonald Mariga Is the East African Nation's New Football Icon. but Can the Inter Milan Midfielder Live Up to the Promise of His Potential? Eric Odanga Finds Out
Odanga, Eric, New African
Never in Kenyan football history has a player stoked the media furnace like this 23-year old.
With free-spending English Premiership side Manchester City and a slightly more cautious Inter Milan in a tussle over who was going to sign him, Kenyan football fans were delighted at the global attention finally being given to one of their own by the sport's fraternity.
Even Raila Odinga, Kenya's Prime Minister--and an avowed football fan--played a key part in the Mariga transfer drama.
"Man City", as Manchester United s city rivals are called, were at the front of the queue for the midfielder's signature but a nagging UK work permit issue unravelled the deal. Odinga rang Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, to ask for his help in resolving the problem.
Unfortunately for Manchester City, the arrival of the permit, at the end of the January transfer window, came too late, giving Inter the chance to snatch the player.
"They [the British Home Office] kept on asking so many questions about our national team. Everything else was in order but they needed out national team to be among the top nations (in order to qualify for a permit]," Mariga explained to African Football.
That, perhaps, was fate's way of ensuring the player created history at the Stamford Bridge ground on 17 March, as Inter manager Jose Mourinho sent him on to the pitch in their victorious UFFA Champions League knockout tie against Chelsea.
"This has been a lucky break for me and I will continue to work hard so that I can get a regular place at Inter," said Mariga.
"They have quality players and I am prepared to fight for a place in the line-up every week. I still have a lot to learn and it is hard to forget where you come from."
His unexpected rise from the less-than-exciting Kenyan Premier League reflects the long tale of untapped East African talent, often overlooked or ignored by European clubs. Until now, they had narrowed their search to the trodden paths of West and North Africa.
But Kenya's dilapidated infrastructure, incessant feuding between officials of the country's football federation, as well as the poor performance of the national team, the Harambee Stars, in international competitions, have also militated against the flow of talent to the European stage.
But with the local championship now having a pan-African television audience, courtesy of SuperSport, other Kenyan footballers desperately hope Mariga will live up to the promise of his potential and create a window of opportunity for a flood of Kenyan exports to Europe.
"There is a good chance that agents may cast their nets wider and look for players in Kenya. We already have a good sprinkling of players in Europe, which is a good starting point. But what we really need is a good structure for the abundant talent that abounds here."
Landimawe, an open ground in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, known for its rock-hard surface, is Mariga's football home.
He nostalgically gravitates towards the dusty empty space, surrounded by dilapidated buildings, whenever he is back on holiday. It has honed the skills of some of the country's most promising talent, including Dennis Oliech, who plays for French Ligue One side Auxerre.
Being one of four members of his family to have played competitive football, it is clear Mariga's talent has a genetic origin. Noah Wanyama, Mariga's father, played for AFC Leopards, previously one of Kenya's glamour clubs, while Victor Mugabe, his younger brother, is on the books of Belgian first division side Germinal Beerschot.
And Thomas Wanyama, an even younger sibling, plays for Sofapaka, winners of the national championship.
"My father was a soccer player and trainer. It is his success in the game that paved the way. We are a football family."
Although an open-air market has gobbled up much of the Landimawe ground, which also houses a terminus for Kenya's notorious minibuses, called matatus, the place still remains home for the Inter Milan man. …