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Inter prospect breaks new ground

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Piers Edwards | 16:28 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Amid the hullabaloo surrounding Jose Mourinho's return to Chelsea on Tuesday, there was one player at Stamford Bridge who also has claims to be a 'special one'.

The moment may have gone unnoticed in London but not in Nairobi where McDonald Mariga's mum was blowing, yes, a vuvuzela as her son became the first Kenya - and the first East African - to play in the Champions League.

Matilda Mariga, whose husband Noah is a former Kenya international, was at home in their apartment (paid for by the Inter Milan player) as 15-20 friends and neighbours squeezed in to watch one of the building's few satelliteTVs.

And just five minutes from time, they were all jumping around when Mariga, 22, finally made his appearnace as a substitute for the excellent Wesley Sneijder.

"People are so excited here. On Tuesday, fans were rushing to watch the match as if they were Inter fans and every day now, you see Inter's news in our papers even though English football is far more popular," said John Nene, a Nairobi-based sports reporter for the BBC

"Mariga's mum can't wait to meet Mourinho - she thinks he's a great coach - and she's heading to Milan soon."

McDonald Mariga playing against NapoliMariga challenges Napoli's Hugo Campagnaro during a recent Serie A match - photo: Getty

Matilda and Noah, a winger who banged in the goals for the Harambee Stars in the 70s and 80s, are understandably excited to see their son become the first Kenyan playing in one of Europe's top leagues.

There is also huge interest in neighbouring, and equally football-mad, Uganda because real hopes exist that a player from Africa's footballing eastern backwaters can spearhead a change, which one former Kenya coach - contrary to conventional wisdom - believes is possible.

"There are many Marigas in Kenya," says Jacob 'Ghost' Mulee. "We were just waiting for someone to break the ice and show we can be known for something other than running."

When you talk about Kenyan sports stars, athletes like Kip Keino, John Ngugi and Paul Tergat understandably hog the limelight.

But Mariga is breaking the ice is doing so in spectacular style, having joined Inter from Parma in a four-year deal after work permit complications prevented a move to mega-rich Manchester City.

So impressive were the tall midfielder's displays for a yo-yo'ing Parma side that he was also linked with City's neighbours Man Utd and AC Milan before signing for Inter.

"Mariga's a very interesting player," said president Massimo Moratti. "He's young and can do very well. It's the best thing that could have happened to us in the winter transfer market."

So, just who is Mariga? Well, after playing for some of Kenya's top sides while in his mid-teens, he made it to Parma via Sweden where he shone for Helsingborgs - despite winter training in sub-zero temperatures.

By all accounts, he's incredibly down-to-earth and humble, a contrast to his fellow Africans at Inter, Samuel Eto'o and Sulley Muntari - but his shyness turns to steely single-mindedness on the field.

Like many Africans signed by European clubs, the names of Michael Essien, Mahamadou Diarra, Yaya Toure and John Mikel Obi immediately spring to mind, Mariga is a defensive midfielder.

He was reportedly bought to replace Patrick Vieira, the Senegal-born Frenth international, abnd certainly shares Vieira's physique at 6ft 2ins tall. But if he is to start regularly for Inter, he must force his way into a midfield containing Sneijder, Esteban Cambiasso, Sulley Muntari, Thiago Motta and Dejan Stankovic.

Mariga training during his spell with ParmaMariga's rangy athleticism enables him to cover plenty of ground and break up attacks

Mariga is a competent tackler, has a good engine and covers plenty of ground with his long lolloping stride, but when I saw him in the flesh six months ago, playing for Kenya as they lost a World Cup qualifier in Mozambique, he looked a bit raw.

"Even though he's at Inter, I still think he's got a bit of a way to go," says Finland's English manager Stuart Baxter, who coached Mariga at Helsingborgs.

"I do see similarities with Vieira because 'Macca' has a very powerful game, looks marvellous when moving forward with the ball, is difficult to knock off the ball and for a big lad he has both good passing and balance.

"But he's got to decide whether he wants to be a box-to-box player like Vieira or whether to focus on breaking up the play so that he can knock Cambiasso out of the side."

Either way, he's in the right place, being guided by Mourinho and backed by his team-mates, and having warmed the bench throughout the first leg against Chelsea in the San Siro, he was delighted to get his chance as Inter completed a 3-1 aggregate victory in London.

"What began as a dream has become reality. This is the world's biggest club competition and making a Champions League debut against a top side like Chelsea is wonderful - I really enjoyed myself," Mariga told Kenyan media.

"I was a bit nervous about being the new boy in the squad but everyone made me feel at home. This is just a starting point - all I think about is doing better in each game and hoping to get more playing minutes."

The whole of East Africa also hopes he does, with Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper stating: "Mariga ... somehow manages to bring hope to many a person in a land brimming with talent but bedevilled with greed - the latter always thwarting the former."

If that sounds negative, it's because it's impossible to overstate the depths of underachievement from this oft-ignored corner of African football - one which seldom hits the headlines.

No East African nation has ever contested a World Cup, only three countries have travelled to the biennial Africa Cup of Nations in the last 18 years - and in nearly a half-century, only two East African sides have ever won a CAF club title.

In addition, Kenyan football has chronic administrative issues - with two bodies claiming to run the game - and is cash-strapped.

But Mulee believes Mariga's success could be the catalyst for change - and an increasing number of scouts are now being drawn to Kenya.

"When he nearly joined Man City, parents were telling their kids to play football and now he's turning out for Inter that interest is doubling," he said.

"Kenyans are beginning to realise that you can make a living through football, and Mariga is inspiring many to play in Europe - as there's now the belief that if he can make it, then others can surely follow."


  • Comment number 1.

    I am a Nigerian but lived in Kenya most of my life, and I am incredibly proud of Mariga! Kenyans are one of the most hospitable and humble people, and you can easily see that in Marigas' face! I wish him all the best.

  • Comment number 2.

    a was pretty shocked to realize mariga was kenyan ,as i hail from tanzania most of our players go abroad only to return after a few weeks after failing to get a contract after their trials and personally i think this is because our structure has flaws which need to be fixed before we even think abt a tanzanian playing for sam champions league for mariga and kenya all i can say is congratulations! n a hope 2 c him play a more significant part at inter!

  • Comment number 3.

    Mariga is an inspiration to millions of us in Kenya. Moreso to the current crop of footballers and the young boys and girls who now can see the fruits of hard work, perseverance and belief in one self. I was proud when the cameras swung to show Mourinho prepping him to go in... me an my mates went crazy in the pub.. sad it was only for like 7 minutes.. but nonetheless... he has broken the glass ceiling without the assistance of our "no-clue" football administrators.

    Go for it Mariga!!!

  • Comment number 4.

    I watched Mariga play for Harambee stars against Nigeria and was very impressed. I knew that it was a matter of time before he moves to a big club. I thought Arsenal would get him during the winter transfer window but that did not happen.

    Kenyans deserve to have something to cheer about in football because it is presently in the doldrums.

    Good luck to Mariga and Jose will make him a star if he stays at Inter.

  • Comment number 5.

    I've read about Mariga's meteoric rise from Kenya Pipeline FC to his current club, Inter Milan, over the last few years. Though many Kenyans seem to be plying their trade in the various Scandinavian leagues, Mariga seems to be one of the few, if not the only one, to have used this platform to springboard to pastures new. I am personally delighted that he has made it thus far and can imagine that other Kenyans alike will be equally joyous. Who knows? Maybe this might herald a new awakening for the self-deprecating Harambee Stars. Well done, Mariga. You've done your country immensely proud.

  • Comment number 6.

    Lest I forget, kudos to you, Piers, for shedding light on a football-crazy region which has been devoid of much to boast of its own for a while.

  • Comment number 7.

    Kenyans, just like fellow peoples the world over, are let down by politicians. It is poor politics that has led a warm, hospitable, down-to-earth people to almost give up on their talent. While debatable regarding if a Barack Obama would have succeeded in his motherland, I'm glad that Mariga keeps Kenya firmly in the limelight and I hope he never loses his humility.

    Despite incessant wrangles, Kenyan soccer is flourishing and if only our federation would put greed aside and look at the grass root game. All such levels, the world over, is where sports is played with the enthusiasm and heart that only amateurs can conjure. The high school game is beautiful to watch in this nation, just like non-professional leagues.

    Despite all the positives from this article, the one disturbing thing for me remains where everyone, except home, gets to appreciate such talent as Mariga. We waste our own but they're invaluable out there. It's all too commmon and a pity.

    Congrats though to McDonald Mariga for flying our flag proud.

  • Comment number 8.

    I enjoyed reading this piece. Many thanks Piers for profiling this young and upcoming talent. One truly hopes he inspires a generation of East Africans to actively participate in football.

  • Comment number 9.

    I grew up in West and Southern Africa - it never occurred to me that East Africa was a footballing bhundu. The first time I realized it was a couple of days ago when looking at the wikipedia page for the Inter squad and seeing a Kenyan flag against Mariga's name. I was surprised, because I'd just realized that I couldn't think of any other Kenyans - or Ugandans or Tanzanians - who'd played for a prominent European club.

    I was therefore incredibly pleased to find this article to get more details on this fella. Gracias!

  • Comment number 10.

    in the recent time, i do think that African football players are increasing drastically and talent they show on pitch is very mouth watering. Players like Michel Essien, Drogba, Eto, etc and now young players like Mariga. it's awesome to watch goals score by African players. and i hope many talent players immerse from African and entertain the world of football.

    go Mariga go!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Comment number 11.

    For those 17 minutes that Mariga still played, the whole nation stood to watch their son. Although most of us support EPL teams and are slowly trooping back to our stadiums Mariga's carries our hope that one day the politicians will get something else to mess up and leave he beautiful game to the fans and players.
    Thank you Piers for highlighting what would otherwise been buried under tons of discussion on "Special one's' tactics, Drogba's red card or Chelsea's stumble.

  • Comment number 12.

    As a Tanzanian, I also cheered when Mariga was been readied to enter the fray. I predicted he would play anyways if Inter would be leading, coz he would have to shut up shop in the middle.

    It has always amazed me why this region of East Africa is so devoid of players in the big leagues despite having a big population and football-mad people. But it's nice to see Oliech, Obua and now Mariga playing for the best teams in the world.

    Now, it's a Tanzanian's turn to grace the top leagues. It won't come very soon, but slowly does it...

    And hopefully this translates to international success for our national sides!

    All the best to Mariga.

  • Comment number 13.

    Why such condescension while writing about Africa? To mention that Mariga paid for his mother's apartment. Or that he is humble compared to other African players of Inter. Why not all players? Is Africa some monolithic single entity?

  • Comment number 14.

    Thanks for an excellent article!

    A few years back, I watched Dennis Oliech impress for the Harambee Stars at the African Nations Cup, and had great hopes of him becoming a trailblazer for Kenyan/East-African football, proving that players from this region can succeed at the highest level.

    For whatever reason, he's failed to fulfil his potential: let's hope and believe Mariga will fare so much better

    #13: I detest condescending views on Africa as much as the next guy, but I don't think this article is guilty of any such thing. Mariga is a wealthy young man currently living in one of Europe's fashion and nightlife capitals. There are many ways in which he could spend his money. The fact that he chooses to support his family is testament to his good character. Nothing more and nothing less than that.

  • Comment number 15.

    I am happy that we have a Kenyan running his game in Series A. Kudos our guy. We are happy to have you where you are and we know you are going places. Cheers to you and all who try there best to be top notch.

  • Comment number 16.

    Talent has always been there IMO. It is a shame that the creme de la creme did not make it to the big time leagues! Kenya dominated the region at national and club level in eighties with players like Murila, Masiga, Abas,Mulamba, Magongo to name but a few. Unless politics is divorced from soccer fans/players will continue to suffer as the administrators use the positions for their stomachs only....with an eye to Parliament.
    Bravo MacDonald 'Maka' Mariga! hope it is a gateway for many more talents around...

  • Comment number 17.

    Great story.Was on Milan's radar but of course we have the geriatrics Gattuso and Ambrosini.Congrats to my fellow African even though he plays for the enemy!

  • Comment number 18.

    Mr. Piers Edwards, Thanks for the article and we happy as East Africans to hear such postive news of our football crop. We have so much talent within this region but we been let down by our football administrations, governments and CAF.

    Point of correction, Mariga, is not the first E. African to play in the Champions League as stated in your article. Ibrahim Ssekagya (Uganda's captain) of Salzburg FC did it earlier.


  • Comment number 19.

    Patrick is French not Frenth. If Mariga can have self believe that he can do the box to box thing, then I'll be more inclined to Inter, more than I am now.

  • Comment number 20.

    Was amazed to see my guy get some running against chelsi. Hope he will make it to the final n meet the player of the moment Wazza.

  • Comment number 21.

    Piers cudnt av put it any beta.......well done Mariga

  • Comment number 22.

    I am an Ethiopian and as an Eastern African I am happy for Mariga and Kenya!!! Keep going Mariga!!!!

  • Comment number 23.

    This is good news for the East African region.

    Worth noting that most Kenyans had been disappointed when Mariga earlier this year failed to get a work permit so as to join Man City, however, it seems to have been a blessing in disguise as Mariga may now be able to play in some of the most famous football fields in the world sooner than later ... san siro; stamford bridge; del alpi (juve); olympic stadium (roma; lazio) and God forbid if Inter goes on a good run in the Champions league .... Nou Camp; and probably even Bernabue!

    Funny how things change fast! ... now all Kenyans are big supporters of the 'special one'!

    Go Mariga Go!!

  • Comment number 24.

    Kudos Piers....I have been a keen reader of your blog. But I didn't expect you to write about my homeboy Mariga. I didn't think Mourinho would play him in the Chelsea game because Wesley was playing really well and he would have created another goal. I guess Jose thought to go defensive by giving Mariga his debut in the world's most prestigious club competition. Kudos to Mariga lets see how he will perform in Moscow.

  • Comment number 25.

    For Kenyan Chelsea fans it was great to have Stamford bridge as the place to have him make his champions league debut. We are happy for him and hopes he can learn from the more experienced colleagues like Thiago Motta and Wesley Snainjer. All the best 'omwana wefwe'

  • Comment number 26.

    he has broken the glass ceiling



    a glass ceiling is an artifical constraint put on someone prevernting them reaching a higher level. There is NO glass ceiling here, just a bunch of players from East Africa who for whatever reason were just not good enough. There will be no sudden influx of players from this region at all.

  • Comment number 27.

    I am very proud of Mariga and he has a whole future before him. What we want is to see him play more so that he can prove his skills. I hope Mourinho will play him regularly. UEFA and Premier League coaches need to visit Kenya more to scout for fresh talent; we got undiscovered talent here!

  • Comment number 28.

    I was travelling at midnight from Nairobi to Mombasa and was following the game on BBC Live text and suddenly there were people shouting all over in the middle of the night at a remote town called Mtito Andei. I thought it was another goal scored only to look on my mobile and see why. I felt like crying;it was a great feeling for my country. From That moment i did the unthinkable,'like Mourinho'

  • Comment number 29.

    Macdonald Marrrrrrrrriga that is how i shouted to aworker mate i present with a sports show on one of the radio stations in uganda.And for those who thougth there is no football in East africa should now think twice,i always knew it was a matter of time before players from this region would play at a high level, because the talent is there,the problem was lack of exposure.
    The jinx has been broken, mark my word you are going to witness an inflax of talented players from East africa. Go macca go the special one.

  • Comment number 30.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 31.

    Piers, I enjoyed reading your article! You are officially my favorite blogger on BBC. As a Kenyan, it was a proud moment watching Macca make his European debut even if only for a few minutes. Hopefully, this is the start of a great spell for himself as indeed footballers from our country.


    13. At 06:45am on 19 Mar 2010, Luca wrote:

    Why such condescension while writing about Africa? To mention that Mariga paid for his mother's apartment. Or that he is humble compared to other African players of Inter. Why not all players? Is Africa some monolithic single entity?

    There was hardly any condescension in this article. If anything, the blogger has done well to give a clear view of the state of football in our country and East Africa as a whole but hasn't dwelt on the negative throughout the blog. Or were you reading something else? Mr. Pierce was merely stating fact. The point about Macca buying his mother a house was purely meant to illustrate the appreciation Macca has for his parents. But you probably don't know much about Mariga's past, no wonder you are ignorant about it all.


    26. At 1:39pm on 19 Mar 2010, hackerjack wrote:

    he has broken the glass ceiling



    a glass ceiling is an artifical constraint put on someone prevernting them reaching a higher level. There is NO glass ceiling here, just a bunch of players from East Africa who for whatever reason were just not good enough. There will be no sudden influx of players from this region at all.


    Is it likely you are an unhappy Chelsov fan taking out your frustration of getting knocked out of the CL? One would think a know-it-all fella like you would at least get your spelling right! And as regards influx of players from this region, well, we'll have to wait and see. I'm sure you are not the first person to skewed thinking!

  • Comment number 32.

    I noticed you wrote that Mariga was the first East African to play in Champions League. Do you know of Ibrahim Sekagya a Ugandan who plies his trade in Austria? I think he has been there, done that

  • Comment number 33.

    i agree with #26, theres no a glass ceiling , rather a concrete one , that prevents alot of untapped , hidden talent from Kenya and Africa as a whole from showcasing their skills at the world stage. This is largely due to the poor administration of football , politics et al in our countries. Mariga is just a tip of the ice berg and pretty soon the deluge from East Africa is bound to follow .

  • Comment number 34.

    @ #32. Actually Ibrahim Sekagya has played in the champions league qualifiers, upto the 2nd qualifiers to be precise. Unfortunately Salzburg didn't progress further and dropped to the Europa league.

  • Comment number 35.

    invariably,you are an ignorant informer,Zaire has gone to the world cup in the 70's-i think 78.if you dont have command of your information and you are informing people then you spread your ignorance

  • Comment number 36.

    How can you say there is a lot of talent in Kenya when all they play is eachother in a region with no footballing history worth mentioning. If they were to play teams from other countries, wehther they are friendlies or not, and then showed some promise I would agree. If there was so much talent in Kenya then surely they would perform better in the African Cup of Nations or at club level at the African equivalent of the CL???

  • Comment number 37.

    Thank you for reporting this story.
    As a Man City fan I was really hoping Mariga would join the club. I think it's time for the FA rules on work permits to change so that UK teams do not miss out on top talent.
    Protectionism in internatational trade only hurts the competitiveness of the local econonmy in the long run.

  • Comment number 38.

    While I was happy to see Mariga get into the game and am happy we have this young talent, I am disappointed that an Italian player like Mario Balotelli (who is also black) does not have his head screwed on right like this young Kenyan does. Perhaps if Balotelli had not grown up in a wealthy family and had not been spoiled (best schools, best football training etc.), as it appears he has been, he would be less of a hard head.

  • Comment number 39.

    Thanks you the writer for spotting African talents, most African footballer are playing their trademark in Europe and all over the world. Not to mention the Career professionals African doing the same.It is time we African show the westerners and the world that we can do just what they too can do and I must say WORLD CUP 2010 will be the best ever. We going to host YOU, did you have to mention that Mariga is the one paying her Mum's bills. We African work and pay tax and our bills the same way you do.

  • Comment number 40.

    Once again, many thanks for all your comments and I'm glad this article has struck a chord with so many of you - and I love the image generated by kimothomsa (#28) as he drove through the Kenyan night on Tuesday.

    Firstly, Ibrahim Sekagya has played in the Champions League, in the qualifying stage of both the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 competitions, but never in the tournament proper as it were - a feat only Mariga has ever achieved from E Africa. Apologies for the confusion, and thank you Aggrey and Amwine for pointing out.

    Moving on, I think TrueBlue13 (#23) makes a good point because one of the silver linings to Mariga's Man City disappointment is of course that he is now being exposed to Champions League football far earlier. There's no knowing when City will get there, maybe this season maybe not, so this is a massive bonus for Mariga... I know many Kenyans back home hope he can pass on all that he's learning from training with some of the world's best and under one of the world's best when he joins up with the Harambee Stars in future (so furthering the pressure on this old-style footballing pioneer to raise up his homeland), and such CL experience can only help.

    It's also worth pointing out that Mariga's younger brother Victor - similar build, similar position - is also a professional footballer. Just 18 but already an international, he plays for Germinal Beerschot in Belgium but is reported to be equally as good as his bro and, according to Mulee, more skilful too.

    Oladiji (#35) - for the record, I consider Zaire/now DR Congo to be a Central African nation, rather than an Eastern one. As Zaire, it was 1974 they contested the World Cup.

    Just finally, East African football has never really taken off. Poor administration is certainly to blame but with such an East African response to this page, it would be interesting to know what other reasons people may have above the administrative failures. One line often bandied about is that the East African physique is unsuitable to football - is this rubbish or realistic?

  • Comment number 41.

    I'm from Eritrea Piers and while I can't speak for other East African states like Ethiopia, Somalia (and maybe Sudan) I can speak for Eritrea.

    I know that in terms of football Eritrea haven't had success (including administration problems that led us not competing in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers) and their problem is that at the start of games they go hurtling forward, eager to try and find that first goal or even two goals within 20-30 minute. Then they tired after 60 minutes and that's when teams punish them. I remember in the quarter finals of the 2008 CECAFA (East and Central African Championship) against Burundi the Eritreans raced into a 1-0 lead after a few minutes. But they slowly got pulled into playing deep and two quick goals in ten minutes deep into the second half meant Eritrea lost 2-1.

    The only success Eritrea really had recently was that they narrowly missed out in the 2008 African Cup of Nations. That was our finest hour in a tough group consisting of Angola, Kenya and Swaziland. We defeated Kenya away 2-1 and at home 1-0 and even managed to hold the Angolans at home in Asmara to a 1-1 draw. It was just our two goalless draws against Swaziland that put us in 2nd place with 9 points and just two points away from sealing that best runner up position and a trip to Ghana. If they had managed to qualify I would have done back flips down at the Emirates.

    But yeah East African football is on the wane. If Eritrea really picks themselves up, stop squabbling with Fifa and invest well then maybe in my lifetime I will get to watch Eritrea play in a major tournament. It doesn't matter if we get destroyed just seeing your country play in a big continental competition is just reward.

    Hope that helps Piers. Loving the blog.

  • Comment number 42.

    Piers, why is your blog so difficult to find on the BBC website?

  • Comment number 43.

    #42 - I didn't know it was, but basically after a few days it drops off the main football page as the various blogs 'recycle' and then sits where you probably found out: on the top right-hand corner of the African football page. Thanks for digging it out though! Any more questions, please just fire away...


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