What you need to know:
- In an exclusive interview with Daily Nation’s Samuel Gacharira, Harambee Stars defender Joseph Okumu explains why he opted to go to USA in a bid to regain his confidence and fall back in love with playing football.
- 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, Arsenal and Atalanta. Here is Part 2 of the story.
Carefully plotting his next move, Okumu and his handlers settled for United States of America with his first stop at semi-professional side AFC Ann Arbor in April 2018. A move to Real Monarchs, the reserve team of Major League Soccer (MLS) side Real Salt Lake, followed and he made 12 appearances during the 2018-19 season.
“It didn’t look right but it was the best thing to do. I had lost interest in football and if I went to a top team or one that is demanding, I could either crumble or come back to the (required) level. And if I don’t catch up immediately then I’m going down the drain,” explained Okumu matter-of-factly.
“I chose to go to USA because it is a place where I would be playing without pressure. The level was kind of low but I was playing every week. I had game time, was having fun and regaining confidence. I fell back in love with playing football,” said Okumu whose performances at Real Monarchs earned him a place in Kenya’s team to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations – a real breakthrough this time round.
Initially drafted into the team to add depth, Okumu soon realised he would be fully involved following injuries to Mandela and Joash Onyango in the run-up to the tournament.
“After my debut, I never played a single match for the national team until the time of Afcon. From 2016 to 2019 I was part of the group but I wasn’t playing. I was just excited to be part of the group since we were making history (returning to Afcon after 15 years). My chances of playing were slim because I did not feature in the qualifiers.
“When we were playing Madagascar (in a pre-Afcon friendly) I was on the bench with Joash. Musa (Mohammed) got an injury and I thought Joash would definitely play but I was told to warm up. I was like, What? Me? You feel the pressure at first but you have to keep calm and grab the chance to seal your position.
“Before we started Afcon, I talked to Brian (Mandela). He told me ‘This is the chance you have been waiting for three years. You are not just playing for yourself, you have to play for me as well.’ That was the only pressure I had, I wanted to make him proud. He is my friend, we are so close and he can’t be on the pitch. He was passing the responsibility to me to represent him. He could do nothing but I could do it for him,” Okumu told Nation Sport.
‘Most difficult’ transfer
Okumu played the full 90 minutes in all the group matches against eventual champions Algeria, runners-up Senegal and Tanzania as Kenya bowed out at the first hurdle. Inevitably, European clubs came calling but it’s Swedish top tier side IF Elfsborg who tabled an offer.
“When I made the decision to start playing again, I already made the choice that I have the mentality, courage and confidence to play football so when the offer came I wanted to take the chance and go and compete. There was a lot of interest but Elfsborg were the first to make an offer. That made my decision easier,” said Okumu who was signed at a fee of £165,000 (Sh23 million).
He impressed during his two seasons with the club, making 34 appearances. After leading Elfsborg to second place in the Allsvenskan in 2020, he joined current side Gent for €3.5m (Sh427 million) in June 2021, a transfer he terms as the “most difficult” to pull off in his career so far.
“There was lots of interest and teams tabling offers, it dragged until the last day I signed for Gent. Every team was competing but my handlers and I were looking at the bigger picture, not just the figures. Many things needed to be considered, like play time and development. If I went to France I would have had a bigger pay cheque but I wouldn’t have had the chance to play in European competitions which Gent was offering,” said Okumu who impressed for Gent in Europa Conference League where they were knocked out by Greek outfit PAOK in the round of 16.
His highs and lows in his first season in Belgium take in winning the domestic cup, Europa League qualification as well as a racist attack. Okumu credits Cameroonian centre back Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui, with whom he formed a solid partnership in defence, for his seamless transition to the Jupiler Pro League. Gent only conceded 30 goals in 34 matches played during the regular season, second only to Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (27). Okumu was also listed in the Team of the Season by Football statistic website WhoScored.com topping out as the second-highest rated Centre Back throughout the season, with an average match rating of 7 (out of 10).
“I think the break I took helped me because wherever I go I have to adjust as quickly as possible no matter how difficult it is. I have learnt that you can’t prolong the time you need to fit in the team. Ngadeu has played several seasons in Belgium. Playing alongside him has been helpful because he has the experience having won the Afcon (in 2017) and played several top games,” Okumu sang Ngadeu’s praises.
The anti-climax of what was a successful debut season for Okumu in Belgium arrived on May 10 during their Conference group end-of-season play-off match against KV Mechelen when a female fan was captured on camera spitting on him. He however shrugged off the incident and continued with his business on the pitch.
“If I reacted in a terrible way then the blame would have been on me. I think I have just grown not to be bothered by such stuff. As long as it does not interfere with my career then it doesn’t bother me. Directly it does not bother me but indirectly it does because if my siblings or parents see it they get devastated and I also get devastated as a result,” laments a deeply concerned Okumu.
The Kenyan international believes racism has no place in modern football world over. However, he insists that black players have to “grow a thick skin” until a lasting solution is found.
“It’s something that is real as much as you won’t see it directly. Indirectly it’s there and you just have to cope with it. I wish there was equality but if you are realistic I don’t think it’s something that will stop any time soon. We have seen it happen to top players, not once, twice but several times. Even if they complain through hashtags it only goes for a (short) period and disappears but the thing (racism) stays. It will keep happening so we just need to grow a thick skin and try to rubbish it off for it not to affect us,” said Okumu whose future is subject to speculation this summer despite having three years left on his contract.
His football journey could take him to Germany or United Kingdom depending on where he decides to play next season with Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and Celtic all showing interest.
Black and yellow
“I don’t want just to move for the sake of moving, it depends with the project. I want to make progress, develop and grow to my maximum. The finances matter but it is not just about the finances. I have to get playing time and the surrounding has to be conducive,” said Okumu who is can comfortably play centre back in a back three or back four.
It was put to him that he has enjoyed considerable success whenever he has donned a black and yellow jersey - firstly at Chemelil Sugar (first national team cap and first move abroad) and secondly at Elfsborg (highest finish in a league, second in 2020).
He laughs hysterically before settling in his seat, “For sure all the teams I have represented in the same colours (black and yellow) I have had amazing seasons so yeah…maybe. Probably I should think about it,” he says amid a chuckle, perhaps acknowledging Dortmund’s interest.
A move to the Emirates is also a possibility, not least because his management, Elite Project group also represents Arsenal duo of Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah. It could also help Okumu - a longtime admirer of Chelsea’s Thiago Silva - tick a box when he plays in the London Derby.
“I grew up looking up to Calabar (David Owino), Mandela, (Kalidou) Koulibaly and Thiago Silva. I have been fortunate to play with or against all of them, apart from Thiago Silva. There is only one box left to tick so hopefully it happens soon,” says a beaming Okumu.
Wherever Okumu plays next season, they will be assured of getting a brave fighter, a tackler with the heart of a lion and most importantly a player who now loves the game.
“I am so proud of him because he managed to recover (from depression) and come this far. It says a lot about how strong he is mentally,” says Ouma of his son who according to Transfermarkt.com, is currently valued at €4.50m (Sh550 million).
Edin Terzic (Dortmund) and Mikel Arteta (Arsenal) will certainly be prouder if they land such a gem at that price – a transfer coup for a modern 25-year-old centre back.