In an era when Kenyan strikers rarely hit the net, former Harambee Stars top marksman Maurice Sunguti is working round the clock to ensure the country is not short of potent strikers in the coming years.
A directionless ball swirls out of the field of play but before it drops to the other side of the muddy pitch, its journey is brought to an abrupt end with some deft touch of former Kenyan international Maurice Sunguti; clearly, he has shed a few years but not the technique.
He’s spent the best part of the morning on the training pitch, delivering instructions to his young troops, this being part of the team’s preparations ahead of a trip to Barcelona slated for December 2018. “It (bringing the balls back into the field of play) is something I’m used to. They are still young boys and they do make a lot of mistakes but this is where I want to be at this time of my life,” Sunguti opens up on his adventure in Syokimau, on the outskirts of Nairobi.
After hanging his boots in 2010, Sunguti who had terrorised defenders during his playing days is doing all he can to hone the future footballers in the country; the former AFC Leopards striker being the brain behind the Syokimau Soccer Academy, home to players as young as seven all the way to 15 years old.
Unlike most of his peers and former internationals, Sunguti prefers to stay off the limelight, largely also due to the fact former internationals don’t get much appreciation after hanging boots.
“The problem of being in the limelight is everyone wants to paint you in a bad picture. You have seen the stories they have said about Oliech (Dennis) and other former heroes. I decided to go about my business silently and I’m not surprised that many people do not recognize me even when I join them in games. For a fact, I’m known more in Uganda than here at home. The people of Uganda just like Europe recognize their heroes, no matter how much you hide. The federations too take good care of them and they have easy access to their former clubs. That lacks in Kenya,” Sunguti opines.
Born on 6th October forty-one years ago, Sunguti wasn’t meant to grace the football world. Born and raised in a staunch Roman Catholic family, the senior Sunguti had hoped that his son was to serve in the pulpit. Against his wish, he was enrolled in a seminary school in 1992 – the Kiserian Junior Seminary – a move he says wasn’t his cup of tea and had to do everything to defy his parents’ wishes and he got just that as he moved to the famous Kakamega High School the next year in his bid to hone his footballing skills.
“Imagine Maurice as a pastor,” he says this with a big laugh. “Actually my parents had been singing this tune from when I was young. I think they did name me Maurice with some plan in mind. They were determined to give me to the church. Telling my parents that I didn’t want to be a priest and instead was angling at making a career out of football was not only a shocker for them but a little bit disrespectful. I had never defied their orders since I was born and it was a surprise when I told them that Kakamega High School had approached me and was going to join them the next year,” Sunguti adds.
Sunguti’s urge to join Kakamega High School was fuelled by Coach Chris Makokha, who at that time had just arrived from a coaching course in Brazil and had a unique football philosophy that attracted the best talents in the country. The fact that he was going to join some of the best talents in the country and given the kind of players the school has produced over years, it was also too good to turn down.
“Coach Makokha had a unique way of playing football and he had been following my progress from primary school but joining Kiserian had disarrayed his plans because he wanted me to join his team immediately after finishing my primary school. At that time in the seminary, I closely followed his team and had seen the players that had joined him, there was no way I was going to continue at Kiserian.
“We had Mike Amwayi, Reginald Asibwa, Joseph Moreno Atitwa, Dennis Munyendo, Martin Musisi, Mike Kisaghi, Patrick Omar Bongo Shilasi, Eliud Omukuya, Mike Wambani (Computer), Simon Mulama, Japhary Oyando, Bonaventure Maruti, Sebastian Owino, Mohammed Fwaya; these were names that dominated the local soccer scene then. Apart from the talent on show, competition in this team was at the top. You had to be at your best to make it to the first team, it wasn’t a ride in the park,” Sunguti says.
“In fact in my last year at the school, I featured for the Ministry of Works (MOW) FC while still a student. Other students had represented other clubs too; we were that good,” Sunguti adds.
Following in tradition, it was only a matter of time before the son of the Luhya community joined the region’s most-followed club; AFC Leopards SC. But that had to come two years later after a brief spell with Re-Union.
As a Leopards player, one always looks up to the clash against their arch-rivals, Gor Mahia and Sunguti admits his first derby appearance against Gor in 1997 at the Nyayo National Stadium was a day that will live in his memory forever.
“Immediately after finishing school, I joined Re-Union which at that time was taking the league by storm. I was this young striker who didn’t want anything but goals for my team. Very ruthless, determined and would do everything to ensure that I was on the scoresheet. I worked with some of the best players too at Re-Union and it made my work easier as a striker. Sadly, I only took a year with them before joining AFC Leopards; it was only a matter of time.”
“By that time it was more like a norm for every talented Luhya player to join Leopards; it was a community club, just like Gor Mahia had Luo players and it was an interesting time for both teams in terms of bragging rights. I remember my first derby at the Nyayo Stadium in 1997. You would feel that this was not a normal game. In the changing room you would hear the stadium literally shake, the fans urge to just watch us take to the field of play was something out of this world.”
“In the game, I scored the opening goal and we had a chance to collect all the entire points but Bramwell Mwololo scored an equalizer late on for a share of spoils; it was hard for us to swallow after dominating the game but this is the type of games I enjoyed in my career,” Sunguti adds.
It is while representing AFC Leopards that Sunguti received his first national team call up under the then head coach Reinhardt Fabisch. Sunguti made the cut in the final team to Ouagadougou and although he knew that he was the second choice striker, he saw it as a chance to introduce himself to the world suppose he was given a chance.
The clash was against Burkina Faso in a World Cup Qualifier at the The Stade du 4 Août on 16th August 1997 and as predicted, Sunguti was to start from the bench but was introduced in the 67th minute for Francis Were who had scored the Stars second goal.
“At that time we didn’t have the luxury of league matches being broadcasted in televisions and the only way one could sell himself was through the national team more so in the away matches so it was important that if a chance came by, you had to give a good show.
“I remember well when I received my first call up; I was just 20 then so you can imagine the pressure I had at that stage. I had prayed for this day and was determined to prove a point and Fabisch gave me my debut in that game against Burkina Faso after we had taken a 2-0 lead. Were (Francis) had scored and it was now upon me to prove to the coach that I was ready to fill in for the striker when needed.
“My debut couldn’t have gotten better; I scored within three minutes of my debut and added a second five minutes later, you can imagine the feeling,” Sunguti says with a smile. “We won the game 4-2 and not only did I feel I had done what was expected of me by the coach, but I had also announced myself to the world in a special way. Here was just a form of self-satisfaction after that show,” Sunguti opines.
Sunguti leading training at his academy situated in Syokimau
Despite the show, his European bow was nowhere in the proximity and the striker crossed to neighbouring Uganda, with Express FC acquiring his services in 1998; a place he was to spend three years in before crossing to arch-rivals, SC Villa Jogoo.
Sunguti describes it as a risky but a stint he felt was justified.
“I went to Uganda in 1998 at a time Express was dominating the Uganda soccer scene. Being a foreigner, they catered for everything I needed, and at that time I felt they treated us better. When I tell people that I’m more recognized in Uganda than Kenya they think it’s a joke. Express had won the UPL (Uganda Premier League) in 1993, 1995 and 1996 and had lost the title in 97 so in their bid to reclaim the title they felt I could help and I obliged. I won the golden boot in my debut season but lost the title to SC Villa at a time I felt there was a power shift; they were just good during my time in Uganda and that’s why I decided to join them in 2001.
“My dream of winning the UPL was realized with Villa as we won two consecutive titles in my two years with them. Crossing to join them elicited mixed reactions from the media and fans and I had seen the same for the few players who had dared to cross between AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia back at home so it was something I had prepared for mentally,” Sunguti opines.
Sunguti with countrymate Boniface Ambani during their time at Yanga (Pic: Courtesy)
Despite his prowess in front of goal everywhere he went, Sunguti had to wait until 2003 to play professional football. Sweden was to be his destination with Friska Viljor FC handing him a three –year contract. The club formed in February 1994 had been causing shockwaves in the Swedish football scene and as from 1995 to 1998 they had progressed through the league system from Division 6 to Division 2.
In his debut season with the club, Sunguti was the club’s top scorer with 16 goals, and his performance ensured the club got promoted to the Superettan (Sweden First Division). Unfortunately, the team failed to cope and was relegated after just one season.
“Just like any other player, I went to work with a dream that one day I was to go pro. Friska offered me this chance and I can attribute this to my good performances with the national team. Everything there was different, from the weather, the food and the culture but as someone who had longed for this chance, I said to myself that it was the only opportunity to give my best. I emerged the club top scorer in my debut season with them to help them get promoted to the Superettan (that’s like the National Super League here in Kenya) and I was relieved, knowing I did my best in helping the team.
Part of the kids being coached by Sunguti
“The Superettan is no child’s play and the levels are high. We tried to give our best but were unlucky to go down the following year. I was devastated because none of the teams I was in had been relegated my entire life. We tried to give it a go for another year in 2005 but we fell short. After two years with them, I made the switch to Vietnam,” Sunguti adds.
The move to Vietnam was about playing in the top-flight league. When Nam Dinh FC showed interest in his services, he couldn’t turn it down as it was another opportunity to prove his worth in a top division league.
Sunguti says despite the culture shock and everything, he adapted so quickly in Vietnam compared to Sweden and had all things set to give his best.
“I settled quickly in Vietnam and apart from their food, everything was perfect for me. It was another opportunity to test another league this time in a top-flight and embrace a new culture. All did not just work as I had expected and we were to finish ninth on the log. That wasn’t good enough. I always competed to be the best but what I realized overseas is that you can’t judge a team going by their concluded campaign. There is a lot of work done by all the teams to ensure they compete with the rest and this at times brings a lot of changes so every team has to play according to what the season throws to them.
“My debut season with Nam wasn’t the best but the following season I would go on to help them lift the Vietnamese Cup, a feat that saw the team qualify for the 2008 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League. Sadly, I wasn’t available then to represent them in the competition I had longed to feature,” Sunguti says.
After stints in Sweden and Vietnam, Sunguti became homesick and Tanzanian heavyweights Yanga were ready waiting in the flanks, offering him a two-year contract before his former employers Friska Viljor FC reached out for him to return and help in the promotion push.
“I felt like coming close home and Yanga offered an opportunity. It was a different league too with different demands but being closer to my people was one thing that guided my decision to join them,” he adds.
Viljor hadn’t made much progress after Sunguti’s departure and the Swedish side had to seek his charm. He had fond memories of the team and a decision to rejoin the team was a no brainer.
“All this time after leaving Sweden, Friska had been in contact and when they felt they were not making much progress, they convinced me to go back for a second time in 2010. They were willing to incorporate me into their management plan and due to the fact that my best years were slowly getting behind me, it was a project that I had to take. I can’t say it was the best of times for the club and I called it a day with football the same year and returned home,” Sunguti says.
Sunguti had unfortunately played his last for the national team in the disastrous campaign in the 2004 African Cup of Nations, featuring in the last group game against Burkina Faso, a team he had earned his debut against.
The former striker who holds a CAF C coaching badge and currently hones young talents in Syokimau hopes that the badges he has acquired will enable him to churn out future Kenyan internationals and hopes the government can come on board to support such initiatives in sports.
Sunguti had long planned for life after football but is still working to boost his credentials, though his cry, like most in the football industry in Kenya today, is that of poor infrastructure as a big hindrance to the development of players, especially at the early stages.
Sunguti issuing instruction in one of his sessions
“I am lucky enough that I got most of my badges during my playing days. It is mostly encouraged in European leagues for players who would like to go into coaching after hanging boots and today I look back to it as a bold decision. I acquired my instructor badge while playing in Sweden; I have a Basic Badge from KNVB and a CAF C badge and currently, I am in the process of receiving my CAF B.
“The challenge we have here at Syokimau is the lack of a proper training ground; we have to divide these children into groups for them to share the limited facilities. The government should rein on developers who grab pieces set aside for player development because when we lack such facilities it becomes hard to convince parents that their children can eke a living out of football someday
“I am lucky to have supportive parents as they cater for everything in this academy. We have no sponsors and this is work solely done by the parents whose kids I coach here. It is hard but I enjoy the challenge knowing that one day these children will be household names.
“Our broad ambition is to register this club to a league in the coming years and hopefully see it go all the way to the KPL.
“Since establishment in 2010, we have made trips to Arusha in neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda and this December we will be going to Barcelona for some tournament we have been invited in,” Sunguti adds.
Apart from coaching the youngsters and generally engaging in football activities, Sunguti is a family man. Spending time with his two children ranks as his topmost role but he also has time for his former employers and mates back in Uganda, where he calls his second home and farms ginger there, with his wife managing the project.
1993-95: Kakamega High School
1995: Ministry of Works (MOW) FC
1996: Re Union
1997: AFC Leopards SC
1998-2000: Express FC (Uganda)
2001-2002: SC Villa (Uganda)
2003- 2005: Friska Viljor FC (Sweden)
2006-2007: Nam Dinh FC (Vietnam)
2008-2009: Yanga SC (Tanazania)
2010: Friska Viljor FC
1998 Uganda Premier League (UPL) Golden Boot winner
2003: Top Scorer with 16 goals in the Swedish Division One
Division Two Winner
2006/07: Nam Dinh FC top scorer with 13 goals
Vietnamese Cup Winner
Harambee Stars: 1997-2004