Mention the name John Mo Muiruri to any avid Kenyan football fan of the yesteryears will smile with memories. His trickery on the ball won him many fans and changed his life forever. The former Harambee Stars midfielder is now based in Norway at third tier side Moss FK where he has been playing for the last 12 years.
The 38-year-old midfielder moved to Europe in 2001 from Tusker FC, joining Belgian side KAA Gent where he spent four seasons before crossing over to Germinal Beerschot in 2004 July. He moved to Norway just after a season, joining Moss FK, where he finally settled.
I sat down with the midfielder, capped 50 times by the Kenyan National team, for an extensive Q & A interview.
I am good and life has been good. I am happy and really enjoying life in Norway, it is where I call home now and my family likes it here.
How did you manage to move to Europe at a time when the local league had no TV coverage? Break down how the deal happened
I moved to Europe rather unexpectedly. It happened that there was a Belgian citizen and a businessman at the Coast who was following my progress mostly though National team games. He sent Robert Mambo to me with promises of taking me to Europe. He requested for my details; passport number, birth details and all that. I gave them to Mambo to take with him to the Coast. In January 2001 we were playing Gabon at home and he had invited a scout from Gent to Mombasa for a holiday and they watched the game together on TV. Two days later I was on a flight to Belgium for trials and was signed. Should mention I met that guy for the first time on the eve of traveling.
How was it like initially moving to Belgium? How did you settle down?
When I landed in Belgium I was not prepared in any way for what awaited me. Remember there was only one Kenyan footballer in Europe, and that was Mike Origi. I only met my agent in Mombasa the day before we travelled. We played Gabon in Nairobi in January 2001 and then the next day I travelled to Mombasa not wanting to say to anyone my plans not even my parents. One day later we traveled to Belgium on a chartered flight and I was really ill prepared for the winter! I had to train with the reserve team but raw as my talent was, I was head and shoulders above everyone. I lacked the basics, tactics, how to position myself, where to run and how to defend, but the moment I got the ball everything would change – that is the factor that made Gent keep me. Two months intense training and learning then I understood that in Kenya we never learned anything tactically. I remember those early days were really tough as nearly everyone spoke French in the team and I could not. They laugh so much at your mistakes, you are young and with no friends in the team. I used to see them play and knew they were not better than me and I waited until the day the coach called me in when we were losing 2-0 at home. I changed the game scored the first and third goals and earned my respect. From that point everyone loved me and for four years I was the best dribbler in the league. We once played Anderlecht and Kompany (Vincent) way the best new thing in Belgium. I was dribbling him so bad that he had to be taken off. Patience is key.
You were one of the best players at the National team under coach Fabisch, how would you describe him? Did he have any special effect on your game?
Fabisch, may he rest in peace. He was so intelligent. One simple reason he was successful is that he was a man manager, and by that I mean he never expected a uniformed performance from the team - he used a player’s strengths for the good of the team. It is always important to study people's struggles and try to understand them not boss them.
You've been playing football in Europe for nearly 17 years now, that's no mean feat. How have you managed to achieve this?
I have now been in Europe so long that so much passed me by. I just had to sit down and think critically what I really wanted. Having been raised up poor and on a one meal a day in my childhood, I got the chance of my life to change that. Moreover, I have always been in love with football so I needed not so much motivation to do what I loved most for money.
How would you describe your time at Utalii FC and how did you get to join the team?
Utalii FC was my first real club other than youth football. While at Kisii High School, we had a team to be proud of, the likes of Simon Mulama, Ramadan Balala, Sunday Eyenga, Geoffrey Jambe, the late Godfey Chibole, Abdul Akhonya, to mention but a few. In short we had a great team and we prided ourselves on the fact that no one could beat us at our own turf, premier league or whatever, so when Utalii came calling we lost 1-0 and they then lifted the league a month later. That's the game they spotted me and after my KCSE exam I went to play for them in the East and Central Club Championship in Zanzibar.
Who is the best local coach you worked with and why?
It would be so unfair to try and compare coaches in your career, they say even a fool teaches you how not to be one. In my hometown, Nakuru, we have really great coaches who helped me love the game. My first coach was coach was the late Ochilo. He taught me basics like positioning. Then Omar Matendechere, dad to Ramadhan Balala, yes we come from that far, he was instrumental in my career. Then came someone I respect so much, Sammy Nyongesa. We used to call him "The Brains" because he emphasized on using them. These were my pioneers but also Jacob Ghost Mulee, Christian Chukwu, Reinhard Fabisch harvested on what had been planted and also instilled great ideas on me as a player.
You scored a good goal while at Utalii against El Merreikh in Nakuru. How did it feel to score such a crucial goal in your home town?
Against El Merreikh of Sudan it was a home coming. My mom and dad had been invited to sit at the VIP with the Mayor and federation officials. They had never understood the power of football until that day and I was eager to give my hometown a thing to remember, a gift to what my manager at that stadium Mr Muraya termed as a home coming and it was very fulfilling.
During your days Harambee Stars used to perform very well and played an attractive style of football. That is not the case nowadays? What would you attribute the dip in performance to?
I have not had the privilege of watching most of our Harambee Stars matches but I remember we used to know what was expected of us individually and as a team. I remember always saying to the guys ; if you are a street sweeper, sweep it so clean that in your obituary it will state here lies the best street sweeper ever, in short do your job in every department and all will be well.
You recently started coaching. Do you harbor any ambitions of coaching the Kenyan National team in future?
Yes, I recently started coaching and it's a whole new different aspect of the game there is so much to learn still and I am so green in this. Maybe in future if it turns out well I can think of that but first I need to go up the ranks.
What are your best and worst memories as a young footballer in Kenya?
My best memories were always with the fans in the Kenyan League. The abuse I would get from fans as a 19-year-old made me strong. Many won't believe but I didn't know how I was feared until my friend told me all the fans insult you and your mom because they are scared; punish them. It was a game changer in my career. My worst memory was when we played Oserian Fastac and won 1-0 on the last day of the league. We were tied on points with Mumias Sugar FC and they needed to win 10-0 to win the league ahead of us, and they did just that for real!
What would be that precious advice you would give to any upcoming footballer in Kenya?
To those coming up, everyone knows there's greener pastures on the other side but in the meantime can you please work on sharpening what is lacking in your game? Is your left foot weak? Is your reaction slow? Is your leadership wanting? Analyse yourself and always make yourself better and believe me you won't have to look for clubs your performance will attract; better your best and keep on keeping on.
During your 18 years stay in Europe playing football, what is that one fundamental lesson you have learnt that you would really like to pass to the upcoming footballers in Kenya?
Modern football is big business. Most players in Kenya after a game they go out partying while in Europe their peers go for recovery training at the gym and analyze their mistakes with a personal trainer instead of using money on many women and other unnecessary stuff. You only have 20 years to be the best and secure your future, think and work smart.
This article initially appeared on the May - June Issue of Soka Magazine