Mary Kinuthia, the silent but ever smiling Starlet talks it out in an in depth interview with Soka
Mary Kinuthia: The Ever Smiling Starlet Unleashed
By Terry Ouko | Wed 06 Sep, 2017 07:00

Contrary to the societal general belief that chasing dreams and visions to the greatest depths and heights brings success; to her it was all about always giving the best and knowing when to step back. Getting used to a new environment, while living away from home for the first time, was far from easy. Moreover, moving to a foreign land to work as a delivery person in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was even tougher. As far-fetched as it looked, the time to try something new, and most certainly ditching her purest form of love-football was imminent. Little did she know that the National Anthem would be sang in her name five years later, in November 2016 in Cameroon, at the most prestigious continental showpiece; Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWCON). 

Dubai 

Unlike other forwards who use every ounce of their muscle frame to run down and bully defenders, 27 year old Mary Kinuthia fondly known as Toto has always banked on her uncanny ability to open up tight defenses in swift motion, while the ball never wants to be too far away from her gentle touch. She is a joy to watch; blending her craft and flair with unmatched work rate, expertly transitioning defense into attack when in possession. The aforementioned are the reasons why former Harambee Starlets Head Coach David Ouma preferred her as the field captain in most of the matches. When she came back from Dubai, she was struggling to get back to shape but either way was convinced by Soccer Queens Coach Amos Kimani to play for his team in the 2015 Kenya Women Premier League. Coincidentally, Ouma was selecting the National team for the Olympics Qualifiers and she would earn a call up due to her profound ball handling skills and that changed everything. 

“I had just come from Dubai and was on holiday having turned down a team called Al Hilal since I was not able to balance work and football. I had no intentions to play (In Dubai) since the Women’s league was not stable and had no sponsorship. I therefore decided to play for Soccer Queens during the break but when I got the national team call up, I decided not to go back. I honestly did not know that we would make it to the AWCON, but I stayed because I realized my passion for football was still intact,” 

“I turned down a team called Al Hilal (in Dubai) since I was not able to balance work and football.” 

Mary Kinuthia National team career Kinuthia first played for the National team in 2006 while still a form two student at Wiyeeta High School. This was during the Under 20 World Cup Qualifiers against Nigeria where Kenya lost 8-2 and 2-1 respectively. She then got to the senior team in 2012 while at the National Youth Talent Academy; playing in a friendly match against Ethiopia in Addis Ababa where Kenya lost 5-0. The team would then be assembled again in three years later and as the norm, she was among the most dependable players in the squad. Harambee Starlets edged Botswana 2-1 on aggregate in the first round of the Olympic qualifiers before going down 2-0 to South Africa in the second round. It was in the second leg match against Botswana that the winger showed sheer brilliance when she took matters into her own hands, left the entire defense for the dead, rounded the keeper before calmly netting the away goal that would ensure Kenya sailed through to the second round.

AWCON qualification

Another opportunity would crop up in form of the AWCON qualification and Kinuthia would be picked as captain for the crucial match. Coach Ouma strongly believes that her leadership qualities and the good relationship she maintains with her teammates, made her the best choice to lead on the pitch besides her football prowess. He also feels that she is one of the players from the Harambee Starlets squad that could have already been whisked to the World’s top leagues.

 “Her leadership qualities are unquestionable because she acts more and leads by example since she has always been the most consistent player on the team.” David Ouma says. 

 “Mary Kinuthia is the most intelligent player regardless of her tiny physical nature. She might not talk much, but the courage she portrays on the field of play and her good relationship with her teammates is why I mostly preferred her as my field captain. Her leadership qualities are unquestionable because she acts more and leads by example since she has always been the most consistent player on the team. I feel it’s unfair that she is not playing professional football in the top leagues in Europe or America. She has excellent technical and tactical abilities and that should not be overlooked because of her body size,” Ouma remarked. 

After a remarkable fete qualifying for the AWCON, 2016 was a year of many firsts and Kinuthia’s star kept shining in the International friendly matches as well the inaugural CECAFA tournament held in Jinja, Uganda. Her best goal was a right-foot thunderbolt against Burundi in the Group stage, one that lingers in her mind every time the tourney comes to mind. She however admits that the demise of her brother and football mentor just before the tournament affected her in some way. Kenya would lose 2-1 to Tanzania in a final match that everyone anticipated would go in Harambee Starlets favor. 

“CECAFA to me was a good experience but losing the final match crushed my spirits. It was around that time that my elder brother had passed on and I was going through a tough time since he always followed my progress. We all thought Ethiopia was the toughest team in the tournament so losing to Tanzania was shocking. We however had a good tournament generally and the team’s growth was visible,” 

“We all thought Ethiopia was the toughest team in the tournament so losing to Tanzania was shocking. We however had a good tournament generally and the team’s growth was visible.” 

 Harambee Starlets then went for the COTIF Tournament in Spain where they finished fourth. Winning two matches was commendable but producing the overall top scorer was amazing. Kinuthia probably did not enjoy the trip at some point especially when she missed a penalty that could have drawn Starlets level against Español FC. Later, a friendly against Cameroon would be the real test before AWCON began and Starlets lost by a slim 1-0 margin at home before losing 2-1 away in a two-legged fixture. Kenya did not get the debut they had anticipated in the African showpiece; losing all three matches in the group stage against Mali, Ghana and Nigeria but she was glad they made it to Limbe to begin with.

Early years

Born in a small tranquil hometown of Maili Saba in Kitale, Kinuthia started playing football at the tender age of six. She would play with her brothers as if to kill time little did she know that her moment of revelation would come sooner or later. There was no girls’ team so the magical left-footed forward joined Dream Sportiff later on, which was a boys’ team after being influenced by her brothers.

 “When I joined the team, I would play competitively against teams in the region without the opponents finding out that I was a girl. It was a well-kept secret by my teammates and the coach and I became a dependable member of the team. One day we went for a friendly match as usual and unfortunately the kits were of the same color so my team had to play topless. My teammates had already removed their jerseys when they remembered I couldn't remove mine, they quickly put them back on raising suspicion and that’s the day everyone found out I was a girl,” she said amidst uncontrollable laughter. 

In 2005, the budding youngster’s football would begin when she landed a four-year scholarship at Wiyeeta High School. Her father was somewhat adamant and the immense support from her brothers, met a stumbling block. He felt like she needed to go to a different school where studies preceded sports. Kinuthia was however determined to make her dream of playing for the football powerhouse come true; his youth development coach Justine Okring once again facilitating the process. 

“My father did not like the idea of me playing football very much. He even wanted me to turn down the scholarship but I stood my ground. I would sneak out for practice behind his back since he did not approve of it. I however persisted and one day while I was in class seven, Coach Okring took me to play in a friendly match for team to play against Wiyeeta Girls in a match we lost 4-1. It was a very tough match but I scored and that how I landed an early Secondary scholarship. The head teacher had to monitor my progress and two years later I joined the school,”

 “My father did not like the idea of me playing football very much. He even wanted me to turn down the scholarship but I stood my ground,” 

Around that period, School games were the hotbed of serious talent especially for the girls outside Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu since very few played club football. Her team for instance had the most lethal attacking duo of Caroline Wanjala and Francine -currently a renowned FIFA Referees. Her industrious and exuberant nature earned her a place in the first team. Her most memorable moment was when she burst into the scene at the National Kenya Secondary School Sports Association (KSSSA) ball games in Kakamega, where Wiyeeta played against Nyabigena Secondary School from Kisii in the final. Nyabigena known for their traditional long-balls, electrifying pace, peerless pressing and ruthless ambition in front of goal, met an opposition that believed in patient build up and passing out from the back but still relied on this slick winger with an ability to go toe to toe with defenders almost twice her size. The match ended 2-0 in favor of Wiyeeta, and the tiniest girl on the pitch was on the score sheet. That is how she earned her nickname “Toto” but opponents would underrate her at their own peril after the master class show. 

 “The National ball games at Kakamega was one of my best experiences, since it was my first real chance to compete at that level and make a name for myself. I never got the golden ball or the golden boot like in the following years, but the atmosphere was amazing. People there adore and love football and that was the first time I played in front of such a big crowd. The best part was that I was playing alongside the players I looked up to like Caroline Wanjala and that made me happy because we stroked a working partnership in the attacking third,” 

Club Career 

After getting a good football foundation from the Secondary level, it was really not an uphill task getting a club given that she had now relocated to Nairobi. In one of her random training sessions in Mathare area Kinuthia met True colors coach Austine Ajowi; impressed by her skills and technical ability he recruited her into her team right away. Like other players who played under Coach Ajowi, her best friend Christine Nafula with whom they have played together in five different clubs lauds her humility. The Harambee Starlets midfielder also termed Toto’s show on the pitch as artistic.

 “I think that the reason Mary has been able to maintain her form over the years is because of her discipline and humble nature. When she went to work in Dubai we were worried from time to time when she cut communication, but that’s just who she is, a very private person. What she does on the football pitch I can only describe in one word, “ART!” 

“I think that the reason Mary has been able to maintain her form over the years is because of her discipline and humble nature.”

Coincidentally, Ajowi would then coach her at the Mathare United Ladies in 2010 when they won the first ever Kenya Women Premier League. Success was certainly part of this team as they would a year later win the nationwide under-23 Safaricom Sakata Ball, bagging half a million shillings as prize money. Her solitary goal in the Nairobi regional final – against Kibera Soccer girls handed her team a berth in the national finals where they went on to beat Matuu Sports 3-0 on post-math penalties to bag the overall time. At both the regional and National levels Toto was picked as the most outstanding ultimately carrying home the Most Valuable Awards to carry home Kshs 25,000 and Kshs 50,000, respectively. 

It was priceless moments that get other players turning green with envy turned poisonous months later. In 2011, the Wiyeeta High School prodigy was hand-picked from the Sakata ball tournament- to join the National Youth Talent Academy (NYTA) in Karen as organized by UNICEF in conjunction with the relevant government Ministries including Education and Youth. A strong team was formed from the tournament and the players were not only at a residential camp while they trained, but also attended Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) and Life skills courses at the Marist University College. It might not have been the best Academy in the world, but it was the first of its kind in the country and being a pioneer was something to be proud of. 

“I was thrilled for having gotten the opportunity to be part of the playing unit in the Academy. The fact that I had maintained the best player’s award right from the County level was also amazing. I was however aware of the competition in camp, it was an assembly of the best players countrywide so I knew it was no walk in the park. We anticipated college scholarships abroad or even playing professional football abroad, since that is the general feeling when someone scouts you and houses you somewhere in the leafy suburbs of Karen.”

 National Youth Talent Academy (NYTA) Centre of excellence Matuu FC had just won the UNICEF-sponsored Kenya Women Premier League (KWPL) title in the 2012. The team lay in wait for the award that was promised, alongside other proceeds that were anticipated after winning the most coveted prize in the country as far as women football is concerned. However, nothing was forthcoming; crushing a disdained young girl’s spirit. As if that was not enough, her Scholarship prospect in the United States hit a snag. Curtains had come down on the Women’s league, and Kinuthia felt the need to turn a new leaf. 

Dubai calling 

While everyone else went back home, she was remained behind and started a fast food business with the little money she got from the playing for Matuu FC. Business was booming and she wanted to switch from selling door to door to securing a small restaurant for her customers. That is when the job opening in Dubai came knocking. 

“Coach (Bob) Okallo at NYTA had helped us apply for scholarships in the USA and it was promising but none went through. This was because of the Sakata ball cash awards that made me look like a professional while only amateur players were required for the slots. My name was all over the internet and that how I missed the chance to study in the United States through a football scholarship. After leaving the team, I decided to take the job since I felt like I had been playing for a long time but there was no breakthrough. Business was good in Matuu but I decided to take the job in Dubai so as to kill the urge of having to play. I knew if I stayed my friends would convince me to keep playing yet we got very little or nothing at all at the time,” The sensational midfielder also won the WPL title besides emerging the top goal scorer in the 2016 season; at Thika Queens says. 

Her contract with the two-time champions ended in May and is yet to move to a new club, which is a best kept secret. Her former coach at Thika Richard Kanyi however asserts that he strong believes that the talented Toto will play professional football in the near future.

 “I strongly believe that Kinuthia is immensely talented and will be soon playing professional football abroad. She has a silent will power and a determination that will soon pay off. Such are the players who work behind the scenes and it is sometimes hard to notice them unless you have a third eye,” Kanyi noted. 

“I strongly believe that Kinuthia is immensely talented and will be soon playing professional football abroad. She has a silent will power and a determination that will soon pay off.”

Community service 

Apart from playing football Kinuthia runs her business where she sews and sells floor mats and carpets. She is however keen on expanding it with time since it brings in good proceeds. She is also a member of a community based organization- Girls Unlimited, where she engages in coaching and organizing soccer clinics for young children through Sport for Development and capacity building. She is also a member of Otto Benecker football club, Mathare Zone which engages in community services such as clean ups in the slum.

 “I get so much joy when I work with kids and am hoping that one day I will run my own organization where I can be able to help children in need and enable them unearth their potential. Meanwhile I am hoping that doors will open so that women football can continue growing. 2016 was a good year for me and for the women football fraternity in Kenya. With continued support World Cup is never far-fetched,” she concluded.

This story initially appeared on the seventh issue of Soka Magazine

Terry Ouko
Terry Ouko
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