“Dad I don’t want anything to do with football because it wasted you. You could have been very successful were it not for football,” that is the standard response from Jesse, Zablon Amanaka’s first born child, whenever anything football related is mentioned at home.
“To some extent I understand my children because at my prime I hardly spent time with them when they were young since I was busy playing football. Many years after a long career nothing good came out of it and that is why they hate football with a passion,” opens up the former international amid gritted teeth as we settle down for our interview.
Spotting his trademark dreadlocks, a fitting yellow Tusker Wazee Adidas jersey, a black Adidas track suit as well as white Adidas sneakers; you would mistake him for an Adidas ambassador as he still walks with a spring in his step. He still walks like the man who was a rock at the back for Harambee Stars.
Standing at 6’ 6, the towering figure of Zablon Amanaka formed one of the most solid partnerships in the national team alongside Musa Otieno who is Kenya’s most capped player to date and also Harambee Stars assistant coach. In fact so good was their combination that it can be mentioned in the same breath as that of his mentor Mickey Weche and Bobby Ogolla who starred for Stars in the late 80s and early 90s.
Born in May 11 1976, Amanaka—the second born in a family of four—developed interest in football at the tender age of six while still growing up in Madiwa, Eastleigh. His love for the game went a notch higher when he enrolled at City Primary School where he met the likes of Sammy Pamzo Omollo and Richard Madegwa who were classes ahead of him and had successfully cultivated a culture of football in the school.
“I developed interest in the game by following the Bundesliga through television. I really kept a keen eye on the games and I believed that one day I will also become a professional player. I used to train in the estate but when I joined City Primary the likes of Pamzo and Madegwa really inspired me to take up football seriously,” recollects Amanaka.
After graduating from primary school, Amanaka joined Milimani High School as a 15 year old who still considered football as a hobby. Spotted by one Anthony Chole, a laboratory assistant who doubled up as head coach of the school team, playing in inter-classes competitions Amanaka was recruited to the school team while still in Form One.
“I did not join Milimani on football scholarship. It is my grades that took me there. I had no idea that Milimani also had a culture of playing football. I was actually surprised to find out that many students in the school were good in football. Honestly I did not realize that I had the talent so I was just playing football for fun in inter-classes competitions,” revealed the father of four (Jesee, Ashley, Blessing and Davies).
Interestingly they qualified for the national school games in his first year of study but his stock would rise in Form Two when he caught the eye of Kenya Pipeline coach Allan Thigo after they achieved the same feat.
“Amanaka was a very good defender and at that tender age he was really playing beyond his level. He was very good on the ball, intelligent and he could also read the game very well. His discipline was also top notch,” recalls Thigo who later coached him in the national team in 2006 as Mohammed Kheri’s assistant.
“It was really challenging for me to play for a top tier club when I was still in school because my family had relocated to Upper Hill and we used to train at Jogoo Road. Connecting from Milimani to Jogoo Road then later to Upper Hill was quite tough but I am happy that my coach was very understanding.
“He used to encourage me to concentrate on my studies because I still had the chance to play football even after school,” Amanaka recounts.
The collapse of Kenya Pipeline in 1993 cut short Amanaka’s experience of the demands of playing topflight football at a tender age but he carried with him invaluable experience that saw him star for Milimani in the final of the 1994 National school games against Ofafa Jericho played at the City Stadium.
“Playing against older players in Pipeline really hardened me because I was working hard to get to their level. It worked to my advantage because when I came back to school games I was miles ahead of my peers. It really helped me to mature.
“In the final against Ofafa Jericho which had the likes of Musa Otieno and Eric Omondi, I really impressed and that earned me an opportunity to join AFC Leopards the next year,” said Amanaka with a grin on his face.
Arguably the best club in the country, AFC Leopards under head coach Clement Malola (now deceased) was trying to pump new blood into the team and the quartet of Zablon Amanaka, Edward Karanja, Kevin Ateku and Charles Achia were some of the youngsters recruited for the 1995 season.
“Amanaka was very competitive and he worked very hard in training. He was up to the task and he played with a lot of passion. He was talented because he could initiate moves from the back. His physical presence also helped the team because he was very good in the air.
“At that time I was almost retiring because it was challenging for me to juggle employment and football. So Amanaka was the perfect replacement because he really showed great potential at his age,” AFC Leopards skipper then Reginald Asibwa told Soka.
Being a junior and largely inexperienced, it was going to take the prodigies some time to get going and Amanaka had to wait for the second leg to make his debut in Ingwe’s Rio Tinto.
“It was not easy to break into the first team because we had experienced players in defence like Asibwa who was like a father figure to me when I joined the team. He really used to motivate and encourage me because he wanted me to take up his position when he retired.
“I started getting playing time in the second leg after getting used to playing in the topflight. From there I went ahead to cement my place in the team and I became a regular in the team,” Amanaka told Soka.
Despite his bright start to life at the den, Amanaka had to cut his stay at the den short in June 1996 after wrangles within the management destabilized the team. His next stop was at Utalii FC where he won his first major trophy in the local topflight.
“After leaving school my aim was to join a good college and study a course that would help me get a good job even as I continued playing. So I started training with Utalii FC who were offering scholarship opportunities at Utalii College and they signed me up. We had a very good run in the 1997 season where we won the league title,” vividly recalls Amanaka.
With Utalii FC set to represent Kenya in the CAF Champions League, it was widely expected that they would maintain the bulk of their title winning side but that was not the case. Amanaka topped the list of the outbound transfers as he sealed a return to AFC Leopards alongside Tom Gazza Juma and Kevin Ateku for the 1998 season.
Back to Ingwe
“The scholarship opportunity did not come through at Utalii so I decided to leave the club because the salary they were offering was too low. Given that I was solely depending on football for a living I decided to go back to AFC Leopards who had put their house in order and were rebuilding their team after poor performance in the previous season,” said Amanaka who was now growing into a household name in local football circles.
The gods of the mighty Ingwe smiled for Amanaka that season despite finishing outside the top four in the league as he landed his first national team call up from Nigerian Christina Chukwu for a friendly match played in Djibouti.
Harambee Stars debut
“It was a very high moment in my career because I was doing very in the league at Utalii but my efforts did not go unnoticed this time. I played the full 90 minutes in that match against Djibouti,”
With his career set to take an upward trajectory after earning his maiden cameo for the national team, Amanaka suffered a major setback in his life when wrangles returned at the den and the side became cash strapped. A father of one at that moment, having being blessed by his first born Jesse, Amanaka had to fend for his young family and he made the tough decision to stay out of football for the entire 1999 season.
“There was no money at AFC Leopards yet I had a young family to feed. I used to train at Camp Toyoyo in the morning hours since it was just a walking distance from my home in Madiwa. Then in the evening I would do odd jobs just to sustain my family because my wife was unemployed and I had to provide the daily bread,” recalls Amanaka as he digs his hands into his dreadlocks.
After a yearlong struggle, a lifeline arrived the following campaign in the shape of a full time job at Securicor who signed him as part of concerted efforts to beef up their squad for the upcoming campaign.
“I signed for Securicor for the 2000 season and I was offered a job as a security guard. It was a big relief for me because I was now assured of a salary and that would allow me to concentrate on my football without worrying about meeting the needs of my family,” a relaxed Amanaka explains.
Amanaka turns pro
His stay at Securicor was however short lived as he ditched them for Oman side El Ittihad Salalah the next season in what was his first professional stint abroad.
“I got a chance to play in Oman and I actually had to borrow money from my mother to finance that move. I joined El Ittihad Salalah on a one year contract and won the Sultan Qabus Cup during my stint there. They used to pay well and their league was also very competitive because there were many players from different countries,” he said.
After his contract lapsed he returned to Kenya in 2002 where he joined Kenya Pipeline in June and won his second major trophy in local football—the Moi Golden Cup. Unfortunately the team was disbanded in early 2003 and Amanaka was once again rendered clubless.
Fortunately he got a second chance to play professional football in Seychelles where he turned out for St Michels and played for two seasons before coming back to Kenya in 2005. He received his second Harambee Stars call up under Twahir Muhiddin for the 2006 World Cup qualifiers where Kenya was pooled in the same group with Morocco, Tunisia, Guinea and Angola.
“After returning to Kenya, I used to train at Camp Toyoyo with a local estate team. We would organize friendly matches with top tier sides such as Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards. We once played against Harambee Stars and I impressed in that match. That is how I got my call up,” offers Amanaka.
Harambee Stars return
Under Twahir and later Mohammed Kheri he grew into a regular in the team where he played alongside Edwin Mkenya, Musa Otieno and Adam Shaban at the back. His inclusion into the first team was however the subject of criticism in local football circles since he was still unattached. As if to silence his critics, Amanaka landed a golden chance to play in Europe and after passing his trials he was signed up by Bosnia topflight side FK Zeljoniscar in January 2015.
“There was a European agent who was impressed by my performance when we played Guinea at the Nyayo Stadium and he got me a deal in Bosnia. I played there until June because there was war in the country and the league could not continue. The president of my club advised me to come back to Kenya because it was not safe to stay there,”
An on-song Amanaka moved to Ethiopia in July where he joined St George’s upon the recommendation of Twahir Muhiddin. He guided the club to the league title that year and played in the CAF Champions league the next season where they went all the way to the quarter final stage before being eliminated by Ghanaian giants Accra Hearts of Oak.
Arguably the best center half in the country at that time, Amanaka—a master of his trade—began rubbing shoulders the wrong way with Kenya Football Federation (FKF) officials as he was vocal about poor treatment of national team players; an act he never regrets to date.
“The mentality of many players was that captains used to liaise with federation officials to “eat” their allowances. I like telling the truth and that is why I wanted to stand out as a different captain. Many players feared raising such issues because they were afraid of being axed but I never feared to bring them up because at the end of the day it is the local based players that used to suffer.
“The previous captains of the national team (Musa Otieno and Mike Okoth) were very silent and never used to present the woes of the team to the federation. I am happy that it is out of my cries that the likes of Dennis Oliech, Macdonald Mariga and Victor Wanyama gained the confidence to defend the rights of players,” stated a buoyant Amanaka.
His outspoken nature also saw him fall out with Sofapaka president Elly Kalekwa in 2009 that saw him suspended from the team after he openly dismissed reports in the media that he was the highest paid player in the team.
“There were claims that I was the best paid player at Sofapaka yet we hardly received any salary. I came out to quash those rumors but I was wrongly accused of inciting the team and that landed me a two months suspension. However at that time we had already established a good gap at the top and they went on to win the league comfortably,” revealed Amanaka.
The twilight years of his career saw him return to Seychelles where he featured for Anse Re Union and La Passe; a period he describes as the highest moment in his career having won all domestic cups in the country during his three year stay. With no new challenge in Seychelles, Amanaka returned to Kenya where he joined second tier side Mahakama in 2012 before finally hanging his boots in 2013.
Hand to mouth
For all his globe-trotting and dedication to the game, Amanaka—who now lives from hand to mouth—has little to show. In fact he is often the subject of stick in Maji Mazuri, a suburb in the east side of Nairobi where he currently resides.
“After hanging my boots life became difficult because I no longer had a reliable source of income. I spent majority of my life outside Kenya so when I retired I finally came to terms with the tough life in Kenya. With such a long CV, people expect me to be leading a good life and they are always quick to judge me.
“The truth is that I was not earning a lot of money even during my professional stints. At that time it was very difficult for players to go abroad because you had to look for money to pay your air ticket, International Transfer Certificate (ITC) and other logistics. So the little salary I earned I could first repay the loans that I took to facilitate my moves then save a little for my needs and send the rest to my family in Nairobi.
“It hurts me when people say that I made a blunder in life but honestly I did not earn much abroad. My plan was to save some money and venture into business when I retired since I really looked up to my father who was a successful businessman,” says Amanaka with a withering voice.
The reality of life after his playing days seems to have hit Amanaka hard as he painfully admits despite spending majority of his life abroad playing football. He feels betrayed by the game despite dedicating his life to football. That notwithstanding he is willing to serve in any capacity in football just to lead a decent life once again.
“I think the federation should not forget the heroes of yesterday who fought so hard for the national team during their playing days. Even in Europe it is former footballers who run the federation but in Kenya that is not the case. Such opportunities are given to people with very little experience about football.
“Coaching courses are very expensive nowadays and it is impossible to enroll for them because I am actually struggling to survive. I believe if somebody really wants to help you then he should be willing to go out of his way to help you. I am willing to return to football even if it means working as a guard in the stadiums. I just want a job that will earn me a living,” says Amanaka as bitterness billows into his voice.
As he patiently waits for a breakthrough to arrive in football, Amanaka is content with working as a broker for farm produce, a driver, a gym instructor and a truck off-loader just to make ends meet.
“I assist my brothers in their businesses just to earn a living. I look for willing buyers to buy farm produce and also work as a gym instructor just to make sure that I survive. I also work as a part time taxi driver whenever I get the chance from some friends who are in this business.
“There are some days that I really lack money and I am forced to go to Industrial area where we offload containers from trucks. However I have not yet given up on returning to the game. I hope to coach young players in an academy and develop great talents for this country one day,” says a visibly determined Amanaka.
His long-time friend, Kevin Ateku, who played with him at AFC Leopards and also in Seychelles believes that Amanaka’s case is down to bad luck in life and believes the giant defender who is passionate about football has what it takes to bounce back if accorded the right support.
“Amanaka’s case is just an example of the normal up and downs of life. During our time we played out of passion because football did not really pay well. He was an outstanding player and he still has a lot to offer to the game. I think if he can be sponsored to take up a coaching course he will lead a decent life again because he cannot survive through hand-outs and odd jobs every day,” recommends Ateku who is now an IT guru.
Amanaka’s parting shot took in his unmatched achievements during his heydays and his current state in life. His advice to the current crop of players is brief and simple:
“Players should not entirely rely on football because it is a very short career. It would be wise of them to invest their earnings in a course that can earn them a living even after football because they have better salaries than we used to get,” Amanaka concludes.