At the height of the promotion and survival race in the year 2016 in the National Super League (NSL), Nzoia Sugar, under former Kenyan international Bernard Mwalala arrived in Nakuru for a clash deemed easy for them after a 31 – match unbeaten run that placed a spot in the Kenyan Premier League, in the following season, in their hands.
Nakuru AllStars, their day’s opponents, were languishing at mid table and with no chance at all of securing a KPL spot, neither were they given a chance against the side from Bungoma, who took the lead in just the fourth minute through Patrick Kwitonda.
Nzoia were cruising, having gone to the match needing just six points from the 21 possible.
A 1 – 0 lead at the break meant they were ever close to a top flight slot; but that would change in the second half of the game as a star announced himself to the Kenyan football scene, with a virtuoso display that dismantled the visitors, crushed the unbeaten run and sent them back to the drawing board.
The man was Elvis Baranga Rupia, a diminutive, but very speedy and hardworking forward. Then a striker not so known out of his home town, Nakuru, but having bagged nine goals ahead of the game.
This was one game he was really looking forward to; the perfect chance to place his name high there for potential suitors as he sought to end his second stint at AllStars on a high.
“I had already made up my mind; I was leaving AllStars at the end of the season and I wanted to play in the premier league,” he says as he recalls that game at Afraha Stadium on Wednesday 2 November.
For Rupia, a spot at Ulinzi Stars, a team closer home, would be the perfect move but unknown to him, he had already been hooked by Nzoia Sugar coach Bernard Mwalala and a move to Bungoma would soon follow.
That was way after he had made a name; it was not always rosy for the man currently gunning for the KPL Golden Boot. His journey has been tough. He depended on well – wishers to get education. It was a rugged terrain before he finally got to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Born in 1995, Rupia’s raw talent came to the fore while at primary school.
Spotted by Muthomi
He was spotted during his days at Uhuru Primary School and handed a chance in the Rift Valley Copa Coca Cola team in 2007. It is here that he says he was spotted by Robert Muthomi, the current Football Kenya Federation (FKF) CEO.
Muthomi would be alerted to the fact that the boy was just completing his primary school and coming from a humble background, lacked the resources to take him through the next stage of his education. Muthomi swung in and the promising young forward would get a place at Roi Secondary School, in Lanet, Nakuru.
“I was not so keen on football but when I was selected for the Copa Coca Cola team, it was an eye opener. I started feeling like I could go a notch higher with this and my family too started believing in me.
“It is also here that Muthomi spotted me and came to speak with me then took me to school and before I knew it I was playing for his team, Nakuru AllStars,” Rupia notes with a reflective smile.
He would juggle soccer and education, playing officially for Nakuru AllStars in the national league but at his free time and in home town tournaments he would turn out for his local team, St. Josephs FC under coach Nicholas Mbogo.
As he completed high school studies in 2014, Rupia felt a sense of readiness to taste action not just in the top flight but out of his home town and his next stop would be in Kisumu County, where he joined Muhoroni Youth.
Playing for fun
“In those early days we were mostly playing for fun because there was very little we were being paid. At St Joseph for example, I was happy to play for my home team and the coach used to keep the fire in us burning with his motivational talks. “After finishing high school I got a chance to join Muhoroni Youth, and I took it,” he adds.
As it came to be, a move to Muhoroni Youth was not the best for him. Six months and three goals later, the striker was trooping back to his hometown, for a six month stint at St Joseph after financial constraints at Muhoroni Youth made his stay there unbearable.
He picked himself well at his home team and after six months switched to AllStars for another stint, securing a two - year contract at the start of 2016. Though the financial standing at his two home teams was not much better than at Muhoroni, he found it much easier playing closer home but was positioning himself for a bigger impact.
In his second stint at AllStars, he found the perfect mentor – the former Mumias Sugar FC forward Nick Yakhama who had taken charge as the head coach, and he had Peter Okidi as assistant coach, one man Rupia had grown fond of while at the team. He fitted in seamlessly and with the duo’s guidance, he could dare to dream again; “AllStars was not also so well financially, but learning every day from coach Yakhama and getting tips from coach Okidi was something to look forward to. A popular line from Yakhama was that one day things would get better and I am happy I never gave up,” he says.
The 2016 season proved to be his best then, as he ran defences ragged, managed 12 goals, to finish fourth among the best scorers in the National Super League even though his team was nowhere near the promotion slots.
His exploits in the season had caught the attention of many coaches in the top flight but it was Mwalala who would win the scramble for his signature and the 2017 season saw him not only make a return to the top flight but also move away from his home town and also reunite with one Masita Masuta, with whom he had played at Muhoroni Youth and had scored 18 goals in the previous season as Nzoia sealed promotion.
Rupia and Masuta had scored a combined 30 goals in the NSL the previous season and here they were supposed to form a formidable forward line, and both carrying top flight experience, Mwalala was looking forward to a fine season
“I had played twice against Rupia and one thing I saw in him, was his work rate. He disturbed my defence throughout and after the second leg game at Afraha, I said to myself this is the player I want in my team.
“A striker who gets 12 goals in the NSL is a good player and Rupia was definitely a cut above his peers,” Mwalala says.
Nakuru town is so dear to Rupia, having grown there, and a goal on his KPL debut for Nzoia, as the new boys hammered Tusker 5 – 2 at Afraha Stadium in Nakuru in the first game of the 2017 season was the perfect way to announce himself.
Things would however take a turn for the worst thereafter. The tough start to life outside Nakuru, when at Muhoroni Youth, replayed itself at Nzoia when after just a few weeks, the striker would break his arm in training.
“To score my first goal for Nzoia in Nakuru, against the defending champions was something!” Rupia says as he recounts the moment. “It was just what I wanted – to score in front of my home fans.
“It was however not so good for me thereafter as I landed badly in training and broke my arm so I had to sit out for like seven weeks before getting to kick the ball again.”
His resolve was clear; that he’d see out the injury and get back to the pitch and the support from his team mates, coaches and medical team was crucial, he says. Though unable to train with his mates, Rupia says he never missed a training session, just to watch his team mates.
Upon return from injury, the striker would feature for a few matches before suffering another horrific injury, this time a leg break and he was confined to the sidelines again.
The psychological weight of being out there was too much and the striker says he contemplated quitting the game.
“I used to think the hardest thing for a striker was to fail to score but the leg injury showed me something else. I wanted to quit the game altogether; there was a sense that this is not my portion and I thought I should just get something else to do, away from football.”
Mwalala saw the resignation in Rupia and took it upon himself to lift him from the situation.
“Rupia was giving up. You could see it. But we didn’t allow him to get there. I personally had to step in and talk to him, at some point harshly, because this was a player with huge potential throwing away all that just because of an injury that was being managed.
“I mean people have suffered worse injuries than a leg break and have come back. To me that was just a hiatus to bigger things ahead and you see, he recovered and when Masita left for Ulinzi Stars he inherited his boots,” Mwalala states with conviction. Rupia returned in the final stretch of the season, and much as he managed to convince Mwalala to hand him game time, he lacked the precision he had before the injury and at the end of the campaign, had scored just three goals.
The 2018 season was a new dawn for the striker but it was not always a good start for him as the team lost each of the opening four matches. The positive note in the losses though, is that Rupia got his first goal of the season against Tusker again and from then it was up and up for the speedy forward.
With 15 goals from 22 matches, the striker was believed to be a good fit for the Kenya national team, Harambee Stars, and he indeed got a call up as the team for the Intercontinental Cup was picked. However, he didn’t make the final cut.
He is however not giving up on soon getting his first cap; “I habor no hard feelings. My job is to play and score; it is the coach’s job to watch me play and see if I can fit in his team. If I am not picked I will support whoever is there because I know for sure one day that call up will come and I will want the same support,” a confident Rupia states.
Mwalala, who has since switched work places to Bandari FC, is also confident Rupia will get to don the national team jersey.
“It is the coach’s decision. Every coach has a philosophy and (Sebastien) Migne knows what he wants in the team and I can’t fault him for not picking Rupia. What I am sure of is that Rupia will play for the national team someday.
“He has a few areas to improve on before he can be ready and I shared the same with him and told him to first target getting to the 18 – man squad now that he has already attracted a call up. After that he can focus on getting capped.”
A fourth born in a family of five, Rupia is set to start reaping big from his talent with offers flying across both from Kenya and in the continent. The man who has been looked at for provision by his family could soon be able to take the role with a move to Power Dynamos in the offing.
While Rupia himself doesn’t want to give much about the offer, his former coach, Mwalala feels he should have run out the 2018 season at home before making the move.
“I honestly feel he should have stayed here a little longer, at least see off this season, take his Golden Boot and vital lessons before making the move to Zambia. Nonetheless, it is a good move for him and he has had his fair share of troubles in this game so from the bottom of my heart I wish him the best,” Mwalala adds.
For the man well known as Machapo for his love for chapati in high school, this may be his final season in the KPL, at least for now.
He says the well being of his family will always be crucial to the decisions he makes.
*This story originally appeared in the 13th Edition of the Soka Magazine