As Narrated by Tiras Waiyaki
It was a case of food poisoning, you did good to come over, the doctor said to me. What a narrow escape we both concluded. On this material day that an ambulance rushed me to hospital, a moment I had begun working towards 15 years earlier was about to manifest itself.
Sweden were slated to take to the field against South Korea and my former trainee here in Kenya John Alberto Guidetti was part of the Swedish contingent, but the devil is never far off. Here was poor me fighting for my life, I missed the match.
That was not the first time food poisoning had got in the way. A few years earlier Guidetti, whom I call John, ate a chicken drumstick at his girlfriend’s birthday that led to food poisoning which developed into a mysterious virus that affected his central nervous system and affected his right led which became utterly numb, he could not stand on his right leg. The doctor said to him that he may never play football again. As his coach I once shared the scouting motto, ‘Always be prepared,’ with him having myself been reminded of the greatness these words bare by an elder who has since left the world. Fate brought him back, albeit after 8 painfully long months.
In 2013 he had a knee operation, a malleolar injury in 2016, a knee injury in 2017 and as a possible place for Sweden in the Russia 2018 World Cup drew ever closer, a collarbone fracture. This latter injury’s timing, especially, was not what we had trained, played, sacrificed, joked, laughed, cried and hoped for during our time together. The timing of its occurrence made our hearts skip a bit. He did recover after an operation and recuperation but lost his regular first eleven places with Sweden albeit secured a place on the bench. John and I had promised ourselves that he would light the world stage in his wake.
That promise was made in 2004 as we said our last good bye to one another, he hugged me so tightly and cried just like the sweet, innocent but very ambitious 12-year-old that he was.
Our fairytale begun in 2003 when I walked into the Swedish School, Nairobi and asked to coach students’ football. John’s father, who was teaching sports at the facility was promptly called, I made my pitch and he in turn summoned a little boy whom I got to learn was his son; the little lad’s dream was to become a professional footballer. Will you turn him into one asked the senior Guidetti and I dived into the opportunity head first with my zero-coaching experience.
In 2016 when the World Cup qualification pools were drawn, Sweden ended up in Group A with the Netherlands, France, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg. When the dust finally settled after one year of grueling encounters, France qualified and Sweden pipped the Dutch to second place on goal difference. Whereas the French were through to Russia, the Swedes had to play in playoffs as one of the best eight runners-up. Sweden had not been to the World Cup since 2006 and Italy had not missed out on a World Cup berth in 60 years. Italy were clear favorites!
In the run up to the first of two playoffs, Sweden had been written off by all but themselves although the respected French publication Nordisk interviewed me and then showered Guidetti with praise in a piece entitled, ‘From Kenya to Swedish international: The crazy story of John Guidetti.’ Sweden surprised everyone when they won the first leg at home.
Three nights later, Italy came out guns blazing, sang their national anthem admirably even David Beckham instantly sent the Azzuri team photo on his Instagram with the words, ‘That is how a national anthem ought to be sang!’ Hardly anyone fancied Sweden’s chances but they held on to their solitary goal to the very end. When the final whistle blew, I jumped out of bed, took to a knelt down, bowed my head and prayed. ‘My ‘baby’ is going to the World Cup,’ I posted on Facebook. Across the globe, the big news was not Sweden’s qualification but Italy’s absence from the big event. Perhaps this victory was a bag of mixed fortunes for John given that he has Italian roots on one side of the family just as he is of Brazilian lineage on other side of the family.
Days before the global event begun One Football payed glowing tribute to John in one of their many World Cup player profile stories under the title, ‘Sweden’s John Guidetti is anything but ordinary!’ Four days after my near brush with death, Sweden played Germany and I lay in bed watching. At the start of the second half just as Germany equalized, I dozed off but in somewhere between dream land and alertness I heard the commentator say, ‘Guidetti’ and just like that I was wide awake, my guy had come on. John did not play in Sweden’s first game but came on against the German’s in the 77th minute while I was asleep. Here he was, my ‘little boy’. He came close to scoring with the head but missed then just towards the end, the Germans won it, typical!
It now looked as though Sweden’s World Cup was over. The Scandinavians were level on points with Germany who had lost to Mexico, but there was no way the German’s were going to lose to South Korea and Mexico were red hot favorites against Sweden but in football miracles are known to happen.
It was around this time Finland’s Yle published a story of John and quoted me on there under a heading, ‘The striker from Kenyan slums who was supposed to become the new Zlatan of Sweden -a rampant cult footballer had been anointed with a super pledge whose career almost ended in mysterious illness’’ The sub heading followed, ‘Good hearted John Guidetti, may not be the star of the game but one of the most entertaining players in football.’
So in the final group games, the unthinkable happened, South Korea beat Germany 2-0 and Sweden humbled Mexico 3-0. I almost collapsed for joy. Meanwhile I was one of the pundits on the Kenya Television Network Russia 2018 World Cup show and I took so much pride in sharing our story with Kenyans. The show could not stop trending for hours on twitter. I have been through ten World Cups in my lifetime, I can’t remember events from the first one as I was a toddler but the rest, I do. Until Russia’s event the 2002 one was my favorite, I got to analyze that simultaneously on the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and the now defunct Metro TV and equally off air TV Africa owned STV. I hosted guests like former Harambee Stars coach the late Reinhard Fabisch and his successor Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee, who said to me, ‘Boss! Go into coaching, the things you are saying here are the same one’s we say to our players!’ Glad I listened. For the record Italia 90’ was lit.
Against all odds, one of the most written off teams before and during the World Cup had topped Group F, arguably the group of death. They were followed by Mexico, South Korea and unbelievably Germany were bottom of the pile.
Then came the round of 16 against Switzerland and again the Swedes were written off. The first half was end to end, both teams had their fair share and then Sweden scored a goal which they held on to pretty well to win. I was ecstatic and hugged a random waiter at a joint in which I watched the game. By now I was used to being in a state of permanent shock, this was a fairytale run of form! England were next in line in the quarter final. My ‘baby’ whom I used to train was now a World Cup quarter finalist. This life can shock one to death!
Meanwhile the highly influential Indian Express told the world our little story, ‘FIFA World Cup 2018: John Guidetti the main reason why Kenya is supporting Sweden,’ screamed the title of an article they wrote about John in which I was quoted. When I relayed this news to my ex classmate now a media practitioner in India, she exclaimed, ‘Wow! Tiras, Indian Express is one of the biggest publications in all of India. Congratulations!’ Of course Kenyan interest in Sweden was also because John’s team mate Martin Waikwa Olsson’s late mother was Kenyan.
After sizing each other up, against England in the opening minutes, Sweden appeared to change their style. From zonal defense to attacking soccer while England simply sat back and played on the counter. Sweden’s back of the net got hit twice in the first half. I was watching the game in a bar and restaurant in downtown Nairobi and almost screamed when the camera focused on John who was coming on. I wanted everyone to know our story. In the heat of the moment I quickly rushed to the gents and he was brought in, in the 62nd minute. Bearing in mind frail me had dozed off when he came on against the Germans, I am yet to savor that moment of him coming on at a World Cup game but at least I have watched my little lad play. John’s inclusion changed the match in Sweden’s favor, he created two chances for Marcus Berg who did not quite finish off the business but that is football. When the last whistle went, in spite England’s 2-0 victory, I went home a proud man. The little lad I once coached, had made my life on this earth worthwhile. When I get to heaven there will be a fairytale for me to tell.
Sadly Sweden have begun the new UEFA Nation’s League on a wrong footing, having lost to Turkey whom they led for most of the game. I remain excited by the next chapters prospects though.
John and I
They say every football team has a clown. John was the team’s clown, often churning rib cracking jokes that left us all in stitches. At times choosing to speak in broken Kikuyu, it was all mad fun! He also used the pit latrines at the Olympic Stadium in Kibera with such calm and played barefoot when need arose. John’s dream was to become a professional footballer and he demonstrated a hunger to work his way this, regardless. His diet, including drinking water, were all tailored towards his goal. He received all the support from his family who included his late grandmother and what is now his Alma Mater, The Swedish School, Nairobi.
“This period has been very important for my development both on and off the field. I played barefoot in the slums of Nairobi and got in touch with the local people and their culture. I still have a close connection with Kenya and every time I go back there, I always get a warm welcome!”
Working with John was such fun and a new experience altogether. We both eagerly- attimes reluctantly- woke up bright and early, in spite of my late night shifts analyzing forKenyan’s UEFA Champions League football on television up to 03:00 am. I would get to theSwedish School, change into my football kit, get the relevant equipment out, wake John up,we would pray, then ‘tuck in’ to some very serious training. Knowing that his age-mates inEurope were in the best soccer academies on earth and little John was depending on me,prayer came in handy.
Free kicks, penalty’s, through passes, perfect finishing, throw –in’s, anticipation, clearing balls off the line, rebounds, leadership, team-work, small target hitting to enhance accuracy and a very competitive game at the end of most sessions, through which John’s deep passion for winning always showed. At times he cried if he lost.
Through all these we found time to joke, laugh, sing, dance, talk, tease and high five each other. No matter the score of our competitive games, we closed our sessions with the customary prayer, the grace. John and I strongly believed in God.
John was talkative and quite opinionated, kind, loving, funny, a good dancer, charming, down to earth, focused, a very talented footballer who at that young age could bend the ball like Beckham. He was simply one of the lads.
I also had the enormous privilege of volunteering to be part time coach to John’s team Impala Brommapojkarna (Bromma Boys) which comprised of boys from the sprawling Kibera slum, in fact John was the only non-slum boy on the team. The team was an affiliate of IF Brommapojkarna of Sweden, the largest club in Europe in terms of the number of active teams of all ages it has registered. John naturally and most amazingly mingled with the boys from much more financially challenged backgrounds with relative ease. China based Harambee Stars player Ayub Timbe Masika whose story I recently wrote on these pages, was one of John’s team mates.
We won one tournament and lost in two finals. In one Kiko Cup Semi-Final we got to penalties, John missed a penalty in a shoot-out, that his team lost. It was all part of the learning curve. We kept on keeping on. Eventually John and I went separate ways; he to Sweden and I to England but I briefly kept in touch with his father.
John went on to play in various youth tournaments in Europe catching the eye of top European teams including Inter Milan, AS Roma, Sampdoria and Lazio. He was signed by Manchester City and has since played on loan for Feyenoord, Celtic where he won the League and Cup, scored a beautiful equalizer against Inter Milan in the UEFA Champions League at Celtic Park and had a spell with Stoke on loan. I took so much pride in watching him on the BBC’s Match of The Day, every week. It was surreal!
While at Feyenoord –where he is considered a true legend for his record setting exploits that included; becoming one of only two other players who have scored three consecutive home game hat tricks in the Dutch Eredivisie. The other two being; Cess Groot in 1963 and Ove Kindvall in the 1970’s. Not even mercurial names such as; Marco Van Barsten, Ruud Gullit, Kanu Nwankwo, Dennis Bergkamp or Ruud Van Nistelrooy achieved this fate in Holland. He also became the first player to score three hat tricks in one season since Dirk Kuyt in 2004-05. All these he did barely at the age of twenty. That indelible image of elated Feyenoord fans carrying John shoulder high, singing ‘Feyenoord Till I Die,’ says it all.
UEFA EURO Under 21
For all his achievements Sweden’s victory in the UEFA European Under 21 final back in 2015, was the icing on the yet to be fully baked cake. Players born on or after 1 st January, 1992 were eligible to play in the tournament.
Tournament under-dogs, Sweden eliminated then defending champions Spain in the qualifiers and fought hard to get out of the group stages and into the final. After a desperately difficult battle dominated by Portugal, the game ended in a barren draw. Then came the usual nail biting shoot-out.
The fact that John was Sweden’s first penalty kicker speaks volumes of the young man’s courage, loyalty, patriotism, life experiences, preparedness and highly competitive nature. In a shoot-out, that is the most important kick. The first one! He stepped forward, with the eye of a tiger and buried that ball into the net with all the strength a man is born with. At which point he punched the air, thumped his chest and kissed the badge on his jersey. That kiss reminded me of when as a boy John saw me dressed in a Swedish national team jersey. He screamed, ran and hugged me. Finally, all that training and sacrifice had paid off in bucket loads. That missed penalty in the Kiko Cup Semi-Final notwithstanding. The memories flooded in of the running, sweating, dribbling and the pep talks in which I often reminded him that one day, his team’s success will boil down to his boot.
Even though he has scored beautiful goals that we both worked on together, like that solo run against Barcelona in January, that one he scored against Italy when he deliberately slid and guided the ball into the net was my favorite of all his goals. We worked on that move together years earlier. Mind you I still send him tips and he listens. Coaching is like parenthood, it never ends.
After the highly successful EURO U21, The Local - Sweden’s largest English online newspaper interviewed me and carried a story under the banner, ‘Swedish soccer star keeps slum hearts warm,’ about John and his Kenyan tale. In his honor, Swedish music band, Badpojken, released the hit song John Guidetti which topped the Swedish charts that summer.
Having gone into the Under 21 tournament club-less after running through his contract with Manchester City, he caught the eye of Celta Vigo of Spain who signed him on. Soon he made a name for himself for being ‘a giant killer’ after felling both Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Before long I was interviewed by La Voz de Galicia -The Voice of Galicia- who wrote a piece on John’s childhood entitled, ‘A genius who played with his heart!’ In his second season with Vigo he helped take the team to the UEFA Europa League Semi Final where they lost on aggregate to Manchester United. In the game’s very last second John received an unexpected pass in front of a half empty goal mouth but missed the chance to seal victory and it was game over. He held his head, knelt and cried. It was painful to watch but such is football; proper highs and gobsmacked lows. Mid way through the next season he joined Deportivo Alaves on loan. They were to sign him on if he saved them from relegation. That he did and signed with them in July.
John Guidetti Foundation
Indeed years later, John’s love for Kenya is unquestionable he has formed The John Guidetti Foundation which engages young people in Kibera and elsewhere in sport as a way of keeping them away from organized crime and hard drugs. In fact the foundation’s logo captures a younger John and his team-mates from Kibera all bare-chested, simply indicating how much of a ‘son of the soil,’ he actually is. His foundation also does similar work in Stockholm.
John’s Kenyan chapter continues to excite huge interest in his media interviews. John Guidetti: The Golden Year 2012 on you tube is a good watch. Ayub and John continue to write their own scripts. They will be great footballers of their time, as John’s singing in front of twenty thousand welcoming fans in Stockholm after their Under 21 exploits and his Bronze Boot Award at the tournament illustrate. I remember how John reportedly literally cried for his father to do everything possible to take Ayub to Europe to play football. No doubt John’s Kenyan experience shapes his world view. He carries a heavy load on his young shoulders. John plays for his team mates from Kibera and Mathare. He plays for the common man from these two slums and others whose favorite past time after a hard week’s shift in the factories and building sites is cheering on raw talent that will never make the big leagues, battle it out on the dusty and at times muddy pitches of the ghetto just like they cheered John and Ayub in those early days.
Finally, a certain incident I have never shared with anyone stands out at the back of my mind. One afternoon I walked into the Swedish School for a game of soccer with John and the rest of the school. I found John coaching a group of what looked like six-year-old Swedish boys. He was generously passing on, what I had taught him. It touched me immensely to see this.
After their session they held one another and prayed; I joined in at this point. Maybe he will become a football coach when eventually his boots are hang and as thus our little story that became a fairy tale will continue