The kick-off happens in March 1995. One chilly day in Nyahururu town, a boy is born.
He is the second born son of John Kamau Ngatia, an accountant, and his wife Jane, a science and maths teacher working with an NGO.
They name him Bruce.
Years later, that name will give football commentators in Australia a reason to nickname him “Bruce Almighty” (after a character in a 2003 movie) whenever he does phenomenal things as a player on the pitch.
But in 1995, no one in that family living three kilometres away from Nyahururu town has the slightest idea that this baby will one day be a sensational footballer on the radar of top talent scouts across the world.
Troubles abound. John does not like the way life is panning out for his young family. Besides Bruce, there is Ian, the first-born, who is three years older.
“We felt that things were really not working well for us,” the 59-year-old father now recalls in an interview this week.
He longs for a chance to move abroad, hoping for a change in the family’s fortunes for the better. He has always fancied a chance to travel abroad ever since he watched a movie as a young boy of 11 or 12 years. Australia and Canada are the most viable options. But John and his wife Jane have doubts about Canada; they think it is too cold. The Kamaus get information about the process of migrating to Australia. John is excited.
“We felt that it would be good for our children,” says John. “The position then was: If we got there and it doesn’t work out, we just return to Kenya. We didn’t have anything to lose.”
The year is 1999. Kenya’s economy in the dying days of the Daniel Moi regime is in a shambles; in need of an urgent turnaround. For the Kamau family, this is a year of exodus. John and his wife’s applications to move to Australia as skilled immigrants have been successful.
Bruce is four and his elder brother is seven when they fly out. They reside in Adelaide, a city in the southern part of Australia. In the same year, Lucy Gichuhi, a friend of the Kamaus in Kenya, is also granted permission to move to Australia. She also settles in Adelaide with her family. In 2017, she becomes the first person of African descent to be a senator in Australia.
After moving, John doesn’t wait for long before he gets a job.
“I got a job as an accountant within three weeks, which was very fortunate,” says John.
They soon settle. The temperature is not too harsh for someone from Kenya. Two years later, the Kamau family is granted Australian citizenship.
Bruce and Ian are taken to the same school. As a pupil, Ian’s sporty side doesn’t take long to be noticed. Teachers agree that he has a unique gift that needs nurturing.
“They saw Ian play and they said, ‘This boy should not just play school soccer (football). He should also play club soccer’,” recalls John.
June 2002. It is World Cup month, and seven-year-old Bruce is keen on the action. He happens to watch Brazilian attacker Ronaldinho doing his footballing wizardry. He is spellbound. He loves the antics, the crowd reaction, the glitz and the glamour. He is now resolute; he wants to be a footballer. John, who believes that children should be allowed to pursue any career they fancy, decides to enrol Ian with a local club to further his talent.
“I had no clue or any idea about club soccer, but one gentleman pointed out a club that was close to where we were living. As a consequence of Ian joining, Bruce joined,” he says.
But somewhere in his mind at the time, John believes that his sons are destined for athletics as both are good with cross-country races. Bruce is at one time the champion in under-10 cross-country in the whole of Australia. The boys, however, love football.
And football they get — but the father ensures they pursue their studies up to Year 12, the prerequisite to joining university in Australia.
The enrolment of Ian and Bruce at a club as academy youngsters was the start of a journey. Today, Bruce Kamau is a 26-year-old professional footballer playing for Greek top-flight club OFI Crete and is considered a rising star in elite European football. He has also played for Australia’s under-23 national team. A video compilation of his outstanding skills has also gained popularity online.
At the time of writing this, OFI Crete is sixth on the log behind Olympiacos, AEK Athens, PAOK, Giannina and Panathinaikos.
“If you look at the table, we’re challenging for those top four positions. It is a goal we had at the start of the season,” Bruce tells Lifestyle.
Playing as a winger, he has been with OFI Crete since July 2021— wearing the number 11 jersey.
His elder brother, however, sustained an injury that was not diagnosed in time and consequently dimmed his footballing career prospects. Ian retired from football in 2019 after playing professionally and semi-professionally for clubs as far as Bangkok and Indonesia.
“I still feel that he has a very good football brain. Even in discussions about football, he is very good,” John says of his son Ian.
Monday January 10, 2022. We are having a video call at 6pm Nairobi time. It is 5pm in Crete, where Bruce is, and 2am in Adelaide, where his father John is.
Lifestyle has many questions for Bruce. For instance, how is he adapting in Greece, six months after moving from Australia’s A-League club Western Sydney Wanderers?
“So far, so good. I’m living on the island of Crete. It’s a small island that’s usually busy during the summer because it’s a very big tourist destination,” says Bruce.
“In terms of the language, it’s actually quite good because a majority of the people here speak English; so that transition hasn’t been too hard. In terms of the food and stuff, it’s nice. I’m not a big meat eater. Recently, I went vegetarian. So, I’ve not been eating as much meat as the Greeks like, but the food here is nice,” he says.
OFI Crete is a 97-year-old club whose home ground is the Theodoros Vardinogiannis Stadium. Bruce loves the fans and their passion.
“That’s one of the things I definitely noticed when I first came here: The fans and the passion,” he says. “Playing in front of those kinds of crowds is what you want as a footballer.”
A typical day for him entails training and bonding with team-mates.
“We have training at about 12 o’clock. So, I’ll wake up, have my breakfast, get myself ready and then go to training at about 10.30am,” he says. “After training, there’s the recovery; maybe going to get something to eat with some of my teammates or go home and eat there. After that, I’ll probably have a nap for maybe about 30 minutes and then for a majority of the rest of the day, I am free.”
On the days before matches, they spend the night in a hotel. The whole team gets booked in a hotel, whether it is a home or away game.
He is at OFI Crete on a three-year contract and the options are open on playing in another European club. It will be a dream-come-true if Bruce plays for his favourite teams— English Premier League club Arsenal or Spanish La Liga side Barcelona.
“I hope to do well here in the club and the league and then to, hopefully, move on to a bigger and better challenge for myself,” he says, adding that his focus at the moment is on his current club.
Between 2012 and 2016, he was at Adelaide United, starting off with the youth team, then the under-21 team and later the first team.
In July 2016, he left Adelaide United for Melbourne City, where he stayed for two years until July 2018 when he transferred to Western Sydney. It is from Western Sydney that he moved to OFI Crete.
Bruce has the distinction of winning every football trophy available in Australia — the premiership and the championship trophy with Adelaide in the 2016-17 season and the Football Federation Australia Cup with Melbourne City the following season.
How does he feel to have achieved that?
“To have won everything at that age (21) is something I’m proud of. I’m happy that I’ve done it. That kind of success fuels you for more.”
Transferring from Australia to Europe, he says, was an actualisation of his dreams: “I’ve always wanted to play football in Europe.”
He has always preferred playing in the attacking third of the field, and he says any position at the front — whether it is in the wings or as a central striker — works well for him.
In January 2018, Bruce was in the starting line-up of an under-23 squad that represented Australia in a 3-1 win over Syria’s under-23 team in China.
He says he is yearning for a call-up to Australia’s senior football team, the Socceroos.
“In the last 12 to 18 months, it’s something that has been a big focus of mine,” says Bruce.
There is still a chance he can turn out for Kenya’s Harambee Stars since he has not represented Australia at the senior level, but he is not keen on that.
“For a lot of diaspora residents, you find that the opportunity to play for their birth nation is something that would be a big honour. But the opportunities for the adopted nation generally tend to outweigh the ones with the native country,” he says.
He believes that for him to reach greater heights in football like playing in the World Cup, he needs to focus on playing for Australia.
“I think in terms of achieving those kinds of dreams, it really makes sense for me at this moment to be looking at playing for Australia,” says Bruce.
So, is there lack of talent in Kenya as some people have suggested? Bruce, who was in the country in 2019 to mentor young footballers in Nairobi, says there are many gifted players. The only thing that is lacking, he says, is the nurturing.
“The opportunities aren’t there to develop that talent to the best level,” he says. “I think if you look at the France national team, you see that a lot of their players have African heritage. In Africa as a whole, Kenya included, there is a lot of talent. It’s just about the infrastructure and being able to develop talent.”
Children start early
His father chimes in: “In Australia, the infrastructure is there. There are clubs all over the place. Children start playing very early. If that kind of infrastructure is available for Kenyans, you’ll be surprised.”
There are days when Bruce has a bad game; days he would rather forget. But dwelling on mistakes is not the lot of this family.
“In my world, there are no mistakes. There’s only feedback. You learn from whatever happens,” says John.
Bruce knows too well how much of a roller-coaster football is.
“They say the highs of football are very high and the lows are low. So, to be able to have that (family) support is good,” he says.
Besides Ian, there is his sister Makena who was born in Australia. Bruce’s mother was initially not the most knowledgeable at football but nowadays, John and Bruce say, she has mastered the game so much that she knows some things they don’t.
Father and son, without being specific, say Bruce is well-paid and that he is investing well.
“He is well remunerated. And he is diligent with whatever he does; his investments. I think we are quite personal in that regard. We like to be humble,” says John, who has also been president of the Kenya Association of South Australia.
“We live well. We are comfortable. We are lucky and fortunate that we are able to do that. So, I think for us it’s really to look at how we can make a difference in other people’s lives.”
The two are currently involved in an initiative that opens up education opportunities in Australia for foreign students, including Kenyans (see separate story).
Bruce notes: “Football has helped me to be financially independent, to be able to help family and to be able to look to help other Kenyans.”