Joseph Okumu: From depression to attracting interest from Europe's elite clubs

Joseph Okumu: From depression to arousing the interest of Europe’s elite clubs

What you need to know:

  • Sadly, Okumu’s rise coincided with Free State Stars’ skid on the league table. The team narrowly escaped relegation in the 2016-17 season on goal difference (-11), finishing 14th with 28 points level with Baroka (-17). And in July 2017, club and player parted ways on ‘mutual grounds’.
  • “We had a terrible season because we had like four coaches in one season. I came to Kenya for national team duty and when I returned, I found a new coach (Selaotse Mosala). I had played like eight matches but the (new) coach thought I couldn’t fit in his plans. I felt I had a chance in the team and wanted to stay and fight for a place.

Good. Struggling. Overwhelming. Terrible. Low. Calm. Okay. Fun. Confident. Love.

These 10 words aptly describe seven years of Joseph Okumu’s career as a professional football player.

His career is actually six-years-old with one year having been spent in a sorry state of depression that ultimately proved to be a blessing in disguise setting him on an excruciating path of redemption - the peak of which could arrive this summer with a move to Europe’s top five leagues, Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Atalanta among potential suitors.

Joseph Okumu

 KAA Gent Kenyan defender Joseph “Crouch” Okumu during the interview with Nation Sport at Nation Centre in Nairobi on June 11, 2022.

Photo credit: Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

When the tiny town of Chemelil, located deep in Muhoroni Constituency in Western Kenya’s sugar belt welcomed the birth of Okumu in 1997, little did they know a football star had been born.

In fact, it took an uneven sleeping pattern for Okumu’s parents to discover his love for football. While still a toddler, his father Hillary Ouma came up with a trick that solved Okumu’s poor sleeping habit much to the delight of his mother Janet.

Strangely, it involved ‘scoring goals’ something Okumu is today paid handsomely by Belgian club KAA Gent to prevent from happening.

“When he started walking by himself at around two years, I bought him a football. He used to enjoy kicking it around the house.

Harambee Stars defender Joseph Okumu displays a  KAA Gent after signing a four-year deal with the club on June 21, 2021.

Photo credit: Pool | KAA Gent

There was something strange though around this age, he would wake up in between his sleep and cry a lot. His mother always wondered why he kept on crying, but I finally came to realise that he wanted someone to play (football) with. 

“So I gave her instructions that whenever he shoots the ball, she could catch it or let it pass to show him that he had scored. Once he ‘scored’, he would happily run after the ball, pick it then sleep soundly with the ball by his side,” recalls Ouma, then turning out for Chemelil Sugar (now defunct) in the local topflight league.

From striker to defender

What began as a ‘sleeping pill’ for Okumu slowly turned into a hobby and finally a career that has taken the lanky defender from Chemelil to South Africa, United States of America, Sweden and now Belgium, where he turns out for KAA Gent.

While Okumu has excelled as a defender, his father insists that he had all the qualities of a lethal forward just like his paternal grandfather Joseph Ouma who turned out for Kenya’s national team in the 1960s.

“He had natural ball control from a young age, he could open up his body so well, turn comfortably with the ball and dribble with ease. He also had speed and an eye for goal just like his grandfather. He was always a step ahead of his age-mates, but I often avoided fielding him because people would think I am favouring him because he is my son,” reveals Ouma, who coached Okumu and other young children in Chemelil Sugar youth team, fondly referred to as Guza Guza FC, while still active as a player.

The switch from striker to defender was as spontaneous as it was successful. During the 2012 Kenya Secondary Schools Sports Association (KSSSA) Copa Coca-Cola Under-16 regional competition, Kakamega High School coach Hesbon Nyabinge realised he did not have a centre back available and decided to slot Okumu, who had just joined the school.

Enock Agwanda

Enock Agwanda of Gor Mahia (left) shoots towards the Chemelil FC goal as Joseph Okumu closes in during a KPL match at the Moi Stadium Kisumu on February 17, 2016.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“All our centre backs couldn’t play since they were past this age category. I had played with his father at Chemelil Sugar and remembered that he was a good defender. That is why I asked Okumu to play in central defence. Surprisingly, he did so well since we didn’t concede and that became his new position moving forward,” said Nyabinge who later reunited with Okumu in the National Under-20 team.

Nicknamed Crouch after former Liverpool striker Peter Crouch, Okumu slowly started making a name for himself as a defender and was signed by boyhood club Chemelil Sugar in January 2016 straight from secondary school.

After impressing in the local league, he made his senior national team debut on May 31 that year in a friendly match against Sudan in Nairobi. He played in central defence alongside Brian Mandela in the 1-1 draw.

With his stock rising, he would soon join his “role model” Mandela in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL) upon recommendation by former national team captain Musa Otieno.

In August, he signed for Free State Stars on a two-year deal. Moving to South Africa at 19 was meant to be Okumu’s breakthrough, but it didn’t end well despite impressing in his first few months in the PSL.

“At first it was kind of difficult because I was young and alone in a foreign land. Mandela (then playing for Maritzburg United) made it easy for me to settle in South Africa. He was in a different town but we used to talk a lot. He would give me heads up on what to do and we are still close friends to date because of that. The first few months were very good because I even made it to the first 11. It was exciting and challenging at the same time because the intensity and quality of players was different,” said Okumu of his early days in South Africa, normally a tough hunting ground for Kenyan players.

Depression

Sadly, Okumu’s rise coincided with Free State Stars’ skid on the league table. The team narrowly escaped relegation in the 2016-17 season on goal difference (-11), finishing 14th with 28 points level with Baroka (-17). And in July 2017, club and player parted ways on ‘mutual grounds’.

“We had a terrible season because we had like four coaches in one season. I came to Kenya for national team duty and when I returned, I found a new coach (Selaotse Mosala). I had played like eight matches but the (new) coach thought I couldn’t fit in his plans. I felt I had a chance in the team and wanted to stay and fight for a place.

“The club wanted to loan me out but I insisted that it has to be to the first division and if it’s the second division then it has to be a top team. They were offering me to a newly promoted second division team and I felt it was not worth it. That is how we decided on mutual termination,” said a visibly distraught Okumu, who shortly afterwards turned down offers to play in Zambia and South Africa.

“I just lost interest in football. Everything was just overwhelming, I could see I could play in the team but the club thought otherwise. Even if it is not the first team, I felt I could compete for a place but they were not giving me a chance. They had decided I had to go,” he reflects.

“I was really struggling because I was young and we had like four coaches in a season. By the time you are adjusting to catch up with the philosophy of this coach, he is gone then another one comes in. You have two games with him, you are trying to adjust then he is gone,” he puffs out his cheeks in exasperation. “It was a lot of ups and downs which made it difficult to fit in.”

Recovery path

Gutted, he returned to Kenya and quietly retreated to his hometown Kisumu where he spent close to a year away from the demanding world of professional football.

“I was like if you think I’m this terrible then let me just take a break. I was not in the right state of mind so I just decided to stay home and clear my head until I had interest to play again. I just felt calm because there is nobody putting pressure on you. You don’t have demands like you need to perform in training or fight for playing time. Everything was just okay because I was home with family, getting to see them every day after a year without them,” says the second-born in a family of four siblings - Laura (28), Judith (16) and Edwin (14), the latter two also footballers.

“The only pressure is at times you feel like time is moving and you need to resume working. You are also spending and you don’t know where the next income will come from,” he added.

His father Ouma describes this period as the “lowest” he has seen his son.

Harambee Stars

Harambee Stars defender Joseph Okumu (right) dribbles the ball past Mali forward Ibrahima Kone during their Qatar 2022 World Cup qualifying Group E match in Agadir, Morocco on October 7, 2021.

Photo credit: Pool |

“It was not easy for him, he was so low. At times, I could find him seated all by himself in deep thought. He used to isolate himself and did not want to talk to people. I had to encourage him and tell him that every player goes through such moments in his career,” vividly recollects Ouma.

“I also organised for some counseling through our local church bishops and slowly he started to train with Chemelil Sugar to keep fit.”

It wasn’t long before agents got wind of Okumu’s return to action and offers for the former Kenyan international started flowing in, something that irks his father to date.

“It’s a pity that when he was down people wrote him off but when he had recovered there were too many agents calling. It’s something that needs to change in professional football, agents need to be there for players at all times,” said Ouma.

Tomorrow: How a stint in the USA helped Okumu regain his confidence and fall back in love with the game. An Afcon tournament he wasn’t meant to play in finally proved to be the breakthrough to Europe and now he is attracting interest from Borussia Dortmund, Atalanta and Arsenal.

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