What you need to know:
- Muhanji’s heroics between the goalpost when Harambee Stars played a George Weah-led Liberia in a 1990 World Cup qualifier on August 12, 1989, is the stuff of legends
- He was in the technical bench of the Kenya Under-20 team that won the 1998 Cecafa title
- He feels all former internationals should be treated equally by the government, and rewarded for the work they did for the country
Washington Muhanji may have lived in the shadow of the more illustrious Mahmoud Abbas of Kenya, Ahmed Breik of Sudan, Paul Ssali of Uganda, but anyone who watched the former Kenya Defence Forces soldier playing in the 1980s and 1990s will agree that the 61-year-old retired international was one of the best goalkeepers Kenya has ever produced.
Muhanji played for Harambee Stars 86 times. He earned his first call-up in 1981 under coach Marshall Mulwa while playing for Scarlet FC, joining a Kenya squad that also had first-choice Abbas from AFC Leopards and Abedi Mjumbe of Thika-based Kenya Textile Mills FC as the other goalies in the team.
His love with football started in Nairobi at Avenue Primary School from 1973 when the star-struck player started turning out as a left-back for the school team that had other young stars, including John "Shoto" Lukoye who also played for AFC Leopards, and the national team.
“Like most boys, I kicked a ball around from a very young age in the streets of Nairobi, but my first contact with real, competitive football came when I joined Kakamega High School team under the tutelage of the late Chris Makokha,” he said.
Muhanji, who joined Kakamega High in 1977, actually started as a fullback before turning into a goalkeeper while in Form Three.
“We were training to face Musingu High School at Bukhungu Stadium in the 1979 school championships quarter-final when coach Makokha asked who would like to be the goalkeeper of the day after our first-choice goalie had been sent home for school fees. The goalie who used to assist him had broken his arm in training. I was fielded as a goalkeeper in that match, and we beat Musingu 3-1 to advance to the semis. I retained the Number One jersey and never looked back even when the regular goalkeepers returned.
“They could not dislodge me,” says Muhanji. He would later begin his international football career.
His wife Grace Akinyi played for the netball and volleyball national teams for over 10 years.
Muhanji hails from Kakamega County which has produced great footballers such as the late Elijah Lidonde, Jonathan Niva, David Asibwa, Livingtston Madegwa, Levi Khayati, Enock Wiraka, Anthony Mukabwa, Meshaka Luchendo, all who played for AFC Leopards and Harambee Stars.
“Nobody influenced me to start playing football. It’s just that I had a natural interest and passion to play. The talent was in me and following the football path was inevitable,” Muhanji says.
The retired goalie also played professionally in Oman for Salala-based Al Nasr FC and Al-Eni in UAE where he was picked the Most Valuable Player (MVP).
Popularly known as ‘Washy’, the former international shot-stopper was among players who both played for Motcom and Kakamega High School’s Green Commandos. Some of these players were Dennis Munyiendo, Dan Musuku, Patrick Shilasi, Peter Ouma, Mike Amwayi, Hudson Majimbo and Peter Lichungu.
“Kakamega High School dominated the Kenyan secondary schools football scene because its players, among them Ouma, the late Joseph Mukatia, Majimbo, and Santos Muhindi were all products of an Olympic Youth Centre based at the school.
The Olympic Centres were established in Kenya in the 1970s by the late German professional coach Bernhard Zgoll as nurseries to incubate Kenyan football talent,” said Muhanji.
The former Kenya goalie played for Kisumu Posta, Scarlet and AFC Leopards in the 80s and 90s.
As a player, Muhanji, who earned his Fifa coaching certificate in 2010 in South Africa, helped Harambee Stars clinch the East and Central Africa Senior Challenge Cup three times in a row between 1981 and 1983.
He was in the technical bench of the Kenya Under-20 team that won the 1998 Cecafa title.
He should be listened to when he gives his insights on the local game.
“Kenya has talented players who will only realize their dreams when they are put in the right condition, to be able to rival the best in the world. Poor leadership and social problems have prevented us from hitting our potential,” said Muhanji who is currently the coach of Musingu High School’s football team, also known as the Scorpions.
“When I was approached to coach the national youth team, I accepted, but not without conditions. But I still worked in difficult conditions. Our national teams lacked equipment they needed. When you speak out against this you are discarded from the national set-up. I would not accept any compromise.”
When he complained he was dismissed from the role.
Muhanji, was recently appointed to head the organising committee of the inaugural Elijah Lidonde Memorial Tournament that will be staged from July 9 and 19 in Kakamega.
The tournament, which will be held at Bukhungu Stadium, will feature AFC Leopards, Kakamega Homeboyz, Nzoia Sugar and Vihiga Bullets.
Retired internationals among them Alfred Imonje, Aggrey Litali, Tony Lidonde, Ngaira Esese, Nick Yakhama and Fred Serenge are part of the organising committee.
Muhanji looks at how many of his fellow former internationals have turned out and how current players are struggling in a game that has so much potential and has no kind words for past federation officials.
He says for a long time the federation has been run by dishonest people who are just looking out for personal gain and not the good of the game.
“So long as such practices remain, Kenyan football will continue to suffer.
“It’s a terrible blow, perhaps even a mortal one, for the Kenyan game. I feel especially bad for the players. It’s wrong to say that we don’t have players of the right quality, when the raw material is there. But this is the price we’ve paid for incompetence and dishonesty. We need to go back to the basics, make a fresh start, and put Kenyan football back to where it should be,” he said.
He also urged Kenyan players to be disciplined if they wanted to last and to go far in their careers.
Muhanji’s heroics between the goalpost when Harambee Stars played a George Weah-led Liberia in a 1990 World Cup qualifier on August 12, 1989, is the stuff of legends.
“George Weah had just been picked as the top player in Europe when I stopped him in both legs, first at Nyayo National Stadium, and then in Monorovia. He never scored against me. We drew 0-0 with them in Monrovia and beat them 1-0 in Nairobi. Weah, who is now the President of the West African nation, hugged me and congratulated me for the good game. I knew about his scoring exploits in Europe but I did not fear him. I just did my job.”
He says they felt proud playing for the national team then and without pay.
"We would play for the national team simply for the sake of shaking hands with the then head of state, Daniel Arap Moi, after we had won a trophy.
“And we were focused and disciplined. It is sad that most of the present crop of players’ drink and smoke, and as a result have problems with fitness.”
What is his take on the debate for and against hiring foreign coaches in Kenya? Muhanji says Kenyan coaches have good ideas, but they are not given the same support accorded to their foreigner counterparts.
“When we have a foreign coach the situation is different. When the late (Reinhard) Fabisch was around on two different occasions he succeeded because he was given plenty of support that enabled him make Harambee Stars a threat to big teams including Nigeria and Cameroon. Under Fabisch, Harambee Stars matched up to the feared West Africans.
“This is the attitude in most African countries, but it must change. Far too often, we don’t support our coaches and as a result they fail to deliver. If Kenya and other African nations gave adequate financial and material support to our local coaches, I’m sure they would succeed.”
On legends, Muhanji accused a few former colleagues in their association leadership for ignoring former players living upcountry.
He feels all former internationals should be treated equally by the government, and rewarded for the work they did for the country.
“People are using our names to eat, while most of us are suffering in the villages! This must stop immediately,” he said.
Would he be interested in the Harambee Stars job?
“Yes,” he simply says.