What you need to know:
- His first match in Tunisia was played under harsh conditions.
- This year’s edition was unique not only for Chirchir but also for Kelibia; the club finished a remarkable fourth after a 17-year hiatus at the continental stage while that was also his best ever ranking in the competition.
“One day you will give a story if you maintain your discipline in the game of volleyball,” Henry “Muruto” Rotich recalls telling a young Abiud Chirchir a decade ago at Chepnoet Primary School.
And on Wednesday, Rotich’s words came to pass when Chirchir became the first Kenyan male player to play in France when he joined Ligue B side Grand Nancy.
“It’s a good move and it has come at the right time. It’s a new challenge for me and an opportunity to compete at a high level. It’s not going to be easy but with determination and commitment I believe I’m going to make it,” an elated Chirchir told Nation Sport.
Growing up in the remote village of Sirsiron in Kabiyet deep in Nandi County located in Kenya’s Rift Valley region, it never occurred to Chirchir that he would work ever with one of the best volleyball coaches in the world, Frenchman Eric N'Gapeth.
N'Gapeth, father of France star outside hitter Earvin and current Nancy coach, is a former French international who has won five Ligue A titles, four French Cups and one European Super Cup as a coach.
As a kid, Chirchir loved playing netball, his height definitely an added advantage over his tiny opponents in primary school whenever he went for the ring.
In fact, it was not until 2012 that Chirchir settled on volleyball as his preferred sport while a Standard Eight pupil at Chepnoet. It took a lot of convincing from his coach then, Rotich for him to ditch the white ball for the blue and yellow Mikasa ball.
“I spotted him when I was teaching at Chepnoet. He was very tall and at his age you could easily tell that he will grow taller. He could just serve the ball but he could not receive, block or spike. I felt with time he was going to improve so I made sure he made our sub county team."
“That same year he made it to the team that represented Rift Valley in the national primary schools volleyball competition played in Mombasa. By the time we were going for nationals, he could receive well and he was a good spiker. Luckily, Malava Boys coach (Shadrack) Tovoko was scouting for players and spotted him,” said Rotich of Abiud’s breakthrough moment.
“I convinced him to play volleyball instead of netball because I knew there were more opportunities in volleyball,” remembers Rotich, himself a former player who turned out for local teams KCB, Eldoret Telkom, Nairobi Posta and Eldoret Stima before retiring to concentrate on his teaching career.
That decision is clearly one that Chirchir has never regretted as his career has taken him from Chepnoet to Malava Boys High School where he studied on scholarship.
His strong foundation at Malava earned him his first professional stint at only 19 in Rwanda at University of Kibungo (UNIK), formerly Institute of Agriculture, Technology and Education of Kibungo (INATEK) in December 2016.
He then crossed over to record Kenyan champions General Service Unit (GSU) in May 2017 where he won three consecutive league titles.
His consistency will now take him to another continent, Europe, where he will be playing for Nancy coached by French volleyball legend N'Gapeth starting next season.
Chirchir joined Nancy from a club he holds so dearly in his heart, Tunisian side Club Olympique de Kelibia. There is a moment during our interview, at his house in Kelibia, that sums up the wholesome transformation he has undergone over the last two years at CO Kelibia.
“I came here with only two weapons - block and attack. But now I have five – I can block, attack against three blockers, jump serve effectively, receive free balls and defend well when I’m in the back court,” says a beaming Chirchir.
It’s 6.45pm on Friday, April 30 and darkness has already started setting in as we leave the Aissa Ben Nasr Hall, Kelibia’s home ground, for Chirchir’s house which is just 10 minutes away.
Around an hour ago, Kenya Prisons had blanked Customs of Nigeria 3-0 at this arena to seal third place at the Africa Women Volleyball Clubs Championship.
Facebook role in Kelibia move
The well-tarmacked roads are deserted as Kelibia residents throng mosques for evening prayers ahead of Iftar, this being the Holy month of Ramadhan.
Chirchir leads the way as we go upstairs into his apartment on second floor. The chilly weather on the outside paves way for a fairly warmer interior that has comfort written all over it.
An L-shaped brown seat with pink covers and another two-seater directly opposite occupying most of the space in the well-lit living room. There is a brown square coffee table right in the middle sitting on top of a rectangular carpet of Arabic make which covers around a third of the tiled floor.
Then directly opposite the door is a white dining table complete with a set of six white chairs. Three chairs are on the table while another three are lined up along the wall where his television is mounted and overlooking the large window on the other end. Dangling from the white ceiling is a white bulb housed in a circular ring that spreads the light equally around the room.
“Welcome, this is where I come to relax,” says Chirchir as he shuts the door and rushes to the kitchen. He returns with two small bottles of yoghurt, chocolate cake and a plate of bananas.
“I cannot do without these in the house. They are very important for my recovery because I always have a hectic schedule when the season is on,” explains Chirchir, as he rests on the two-seater.
“We play two matches a week, on Wednesday and weekends, so you have to rest well to be fresh for training and match days. An opposite player is very important and is fully utilised at professional level.”
Chirchir arrived in Kelibia, Tunisia in December 2019 days after been named Most Valuable Player (MVP) in Kenya’s national league having guided General Service Unit (GSU) to a record-extending 13th title. The move was borne from a Facebook chat with a friend (who he had never met in person before moving to Tunisia) and within a week he was on the plane to Tunisia.
“I met (Mourad) Gara on Facebook. He was a mutual friend to some of my former teammates in Rwanda. As we were starting the 2019 play-offs he sent me a private message saying he was looking for an opposite and asked me to recommend some Kenyan players."
“Luckily, the play-offs were being televised live that year so I just sent him the link and asked him to watch the matches and choose for himself. After two days, he called me and said I had impressed him and offered me the opportunity to play in Kelibia,” said a beaming Chirchir.
Top scorer against Esperance
His first match in Tunisia was played under harsh conditions and he had little time to prepare, taking to the court against Etoile du Sahel just two weeks after his arrival.
“It was very difficult for me since I came here during winter. It was so cold and I couldn’t even warm up well. In my first game, I had to play the long balls I was used to in Kenya and luckily we won. It was a very important match which showed me exactly what was expected of me,” revealed Chirchir.
In his first season at the club, they finished third in the league and booked a slot at the Africa Clubs Championship held in Tunis this year. It was Chirchir’s fourth appearance at the Club Championships having finished ninth with UNIK in 2017, fifth and ninth with GSU in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
But this year’s edition was unique not only for Chirchir but also for Kelibia; the club finished a remarkable fourth after a 17-year hiatus at the continental stage while that was also his best ever ranking in the competition.
He singles out their semi-final clash against eventual champions Esperance as his most memorable match. Despite losing 3-0 (25-13, 25-21, 25-20), Chirchir emerged as the top scorer with 36 points.
“Esperance has majority of Tunisian national team players who will be playing in the Olympics this year. The second best scorer in that game had 17 points so that performance is an indication of how I’ve grown as a player,” noted Chirchir, now a key player in Kenya men’s national team, the Mfalme Spikers.
Inevitably, his performance in this year’s Clubs Championship has attracted suitors from Europe just like in 2018 when Turkish giants Fenerbahce wanted to sign him from GSU after they finished fifth.
“The deal (to Fenerbahce) fell through but I think it was not the right time (to go to Europe). The last two years here in Kelibia have shown me that I wasn’t ready. Perhaps I would have struggled in Turkey because I was still green in volleyball.
“I’m grateful to GSU since they kept their word and allowed me to join Kelibia where I have really polished my game. Volleyball is all about statistics and that is something I have come to learn here in Kelibia,” said Chirchir, before revealing another side of Kelibia famed for grooming young players.
“At Kelibia, it’s about taking risks even in crucial moments. Everyone here is a jump server and you’re encouraged to jump serve even when the scores are at 24-24. I think it’s something we should adopt in Kenya because I feel we’re too cautious in our approach. The coaches also do a lot of research and video analysis on the opponents so by the time you are playing the game you have a lot of information. The game is just like a rehearsal of what you have done in training all week.”
As he prepares to join his new club Nancy, Chirchir is confident his two-year stint at Kelibia places him in good stead of making an impact in France.
“The system in Tunisia is similar to Europe because it’s all about speed and tactics based on statistical and video analysis of the opponent,” observes Chirchir.
“Professional volleyball is the same everywhere because there is always pressure to deliver. As an opposite you have to convert all balls that are set to you and mostly you come into the picture when playing out of system against three blocks. It’s not easy since you start playing when the scores are at 18 and this is the most crucial stage of the game. Any mistake and the set is gone which simply means you are not effective,” added the 24-year-old.
Chirchir is already flattered by the prospect of working with the legendary N'Gapeth as he looks to place Kenya in the global men’s volleyball map.
“He is a good coach and I’ve heard a lot of good things about him. I’m already looking forward to working with him to lift the standards of Nancy which will definitely improve my game. I’m thankful to GSU since it’s a good chance to learn new things with some national team assignments coming up,” said Chirchir, who lists Italian Ivan Zaytsev as his role model.
In September, Kenya’s Mfalme Spikers will play at Africa Cup of Nations seeking a ticket to 2022 FIVB World Championships in Russia. But to achieve this, they must first reach the final since only the top two teams will qualify for the global event.
Another opportunity for Chirchir to tell a volleyball story, being part of Kenya’s first men’s team to feature in a global competition.