Kenyan International Brian Mandela Onyango was the center of the big transfer speculations ahead of the 2017/18 season in the South African top flight, Premier Soccer League (PSL), with a number of big clubs, notably Mamelodi Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs eyeing him. At the time, Mamelodi were African champions and along with Chiefs, remain clubs worth mentioning among the African giants, this, a testament of the growth Mandela has had in just about five years.
As a teenager, Mandela played for Mbotela Kamaliza, in the low leagues that are normally followed only by estate loyalists and rarely get media space. Still his potential was spotted and he’d soon rise straight from the dusty fields to the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) where he featured for Posta Rangers, Tusker FC before heading to South Africa to join Cape Town Santos then Maritzburg United in the ABSA Premiership. His is a story of resilience, hard work and determination.
Mandela started his lower primary schooling at Dr Krapf in Mbotela Estate, Nairobi and this is where the team that would eventually give him a taste of competitive football in his youth used to train. The club earned Ksh 100,000 as development fee when he (Mandela) moved to Santos in 2012 and this was huge for a lower-tier side, explains Football Kenya Federation (FKF) Nairobi East Chairman George Onyango, who by then was the Mbotela Kamaliza Team Manager.
“Mandela is born and bred in Mbotela, Nairobi. He used to play for our youth team but officially joined the senior team after doing his final exams at Ofafa Jericho High School. He played in the County League and various tournaments before Kenyan Premier League (KPL) side Posta Rangers snapped him up in 2009,” Onyango tells Soka.
He played for just a season at Posta Rangers, impressed and Tusker FC signed him. It is at the Ruaraka-based side that he earned his first call up to the National team, Harambee Stars. He served the club for two seasons and joined Santos in South Africa.
“We got Ksh 100,000 as development fee and that was huge for us as a small community team back then. Looking back from the time he was a young boy at our club to where he is now I can confidently say that he stood out because of his discipline and hard work,” he adds.
Like a parent who provides environment for a child to grow, the Mbotela Kamaliza community is proud to watch their son’s continued growth in the game.
And Mandela has never forgotten his roots; with humility, he still goes to his childhood club to share not only his experiences but also skills and equipment.
“He is a good role model to upcoming stars in the team,” Onyango notes.
One comment that never misses in Mandela’s assessment from his current and former handlers is his discipline; added to his talent, his demeanor stands out as his springboard for success.
Eric Bob Otieno, who coached the defender during his early years at Mbotela Kamaliza spotted the star in the defender very early, before Mandela even made it to the senior team.
“I coached him from the youth team to the senior team at Mbotela Kamaliza and he was a much disciplined lad. He was focused and knew what he wanted to achieve from the onset. Little wonder he moved up the professional ranks quite quickly,” Otieno tells Soka.
Mandela’s story, like that of many other stars, is founded on humble beginnings, and he is another proof that from the grassroots come the best talents.
“We are still working hard to produce the next Brian Mandela. Players like Ezekiel Otuoma (Western Stima) and Derrick Onyango (Mathare United) are also from our factory. They have what it takes to make it and I am confident they will make us proud too,” he adds.
Mandela’s destiny in South Africa was shaped well before he even completed his high school studies, and that would come in the shape of former Kenyan international, Musa Otieno, the bridge with which Mandela would find his way out of the KPL to the PSL.
Musa Otieno remembers a phone call that would eventually change Mandela’s life for the better.
“I was a member of the Santos FC technical bench in 2011 and the club chairman and other officials were having the Annual General Meeting in Johannesburg and they somehow discussed about a promising Kenyan player they wanted to join the team. The chairman called me and requested me to find out more about the player – Brian Mandela.
“I had never heard about him to be very honest but apparently Mamelodi Sundowns scouts had flown to Kenya to watch him play against Malawi and Santos was eager to beat them in signing the player,” Musa reveals.
Mandela turned out to be a perfect chase for Santos as his contract at Tusker was set to end at the end of that season. At the next possible opportunity, the burly youngster was at Santos.
“I remember picking him at the airport and it was weird because he knew me so well but I had never seen him before. I was desperately trying to locate him in the waiting area when he came over to me and introduced himself.”
Unlike his mates, who have to struggle to adapt to life outside Kenya, Mandela was lucky to have Musa in South Africa. Settling was never a problem
“He was very lucky that I was still at Santos and having played professionally in South Africa, I helped him settle down. He was eager to learn from the onset and was disciplined. That is why he has managed to make it in South Africa where many Kenyans have failed.
“I still work with him at the National team and he is still the same young lad I met at the OR Tambo International Airport back them; always eager to learn, motivates fellow players and is naturally a leader. I’m very happy and proud to hear that some of the big clubs like Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns are now eager to sign him. His hard work has paid off and I can only wish him the very best,” Musa says.
While settling in was easy, Mandela says his stay in South Africa hasn’t been devoid of challenges. While he was picked out of Tusker, he still had to convince the club.
Not a bed of roses
He had to go for trials, convince the coaches before being handed a contract, but that would not be a guarantee for a first team place. It is even harder for a foreigner and each day of the last six years he has been working on bettering himself.
“I have been in South Africa for 6 years now and it hasn’t been a bed of roses. I went to Santos for trials, impressed and got a contract. I was a bit lucky I had Musa Otieno to guide me but I had to work extra hard to even break into the first 11. As a foreigner you’ve got to have something different from the locals. I train very hard from way back and that has always been my strength,” he adds.
His first year of the three-year deal he was handed was just fine but a meniscus tear cut his joy in the PSL and he spent eight months of his second season on the sidelines.
“This was a low moment for me as I also had contractual problems with the club but all these made me strong mentally,” he notes.
“After three wonderful years at Santos I felt I needed a fresh and bigger challenge and when I heard there was a chance to try out with Maritzburg United I jumped at it. It was a very big risk but looking at how it turned out in the end I think it was worth it. I featured in several pre-season friendlies for Martizburg and in the end they signed me. It was a great moment for me since I always wanted to play in the ABSA premiership.”
Several Kenyan players have gone to South Africa and failed trials while other like Ali Abondo (Ajax Capetown), Paul Were (Amazulu) and lately Joseph Okumu (Free State Stars) didn’t stay in their respective clubs for long. Mandela has been in South Africa for six years now and opines that mental strength is very crucial for foreigners.
He has built his career in South Africa on hard work and reckons comfort zones can only slow one down if not end your stay down there.
“As a foreigner you have to be on top of your game to make a living through football. You need to be exceptional. There are very many challenges and if you are not prepared mentally then it’s always tough. There are some things you have to give up on and focus totally on improving yourself. On my end I train very hard with the club and on my own.
“When you become a king in your comfort zone and your form dips then you give your employers a reason to drop you,” he adds.
Mandela remains a Maritzburg player after strong indications earlier in the season that he’d be heading out to join Sundowns, with Kaizer Chiefs also interested. He is however not giving up on another big move soon.
“The most concrete offer was from Mamelodi Sundowns but they never reached an agreement with my club and there’s nothing I could do about it. I’m still contracted to Maritzburg United and as long as I’m here I will always give my best. My target is to at least win silverware with the club and I know it’s very possible with the current crop of players we have who are all very dedicated,” he says,
“This season didn’t start so well for me as I tore my tendon while away on national team duty and I didn’t feature in the opening matches. I however hope to heal in good time and help my club achieve its targets this season.”
The dream for the defender who has made a name for himself in South Africa remains to continually grow as a player. He wants to win silverware with Maritzburg play in Europe at some point in his life.
“I really hope to win silverware with the team this season. I need to have something to show for the time I have spent in South Africa and in the coming years, just like any player from Africa, I’d like to play in Europe and I know it’s achievable,” he adds.
Football management in Kenya
For all his growth, Mandela would like to see Kenyan football breathe in the same beat. Just like he wants to win with his club, he wishes the same with the Kenya national team.
He believes Kenya can reach the high echelons in football if the government and football managers join hands with the sole aim of improving the game.
“If Kenya had good sports facilities and people committed to improving the game then we would be up there competing with the big fish in world football because we don’t lack talent, it is there in abundance but proper management and investment in infrastructure is what lets us down. The Government should be committed to sports and clubs should also have visionary leaders,” he concludes.
Name: Brian Mandela Onyango
Date of birth: 24 July 1994 (age 23)
Playing position: Defender (center-back)
Early development: Mbotela Kamaliza (Kenya)
January 2010 – December 2010: Posta Rangers (Kenya)
2011-2012: Tusker FC (Kenya)
2012-2015: Santos (South Africa)
2015 to date: Maritzburg United (South Africa)
National team caps: 29