It took the highest transfer fee ever seen in Scottish football to tempt Celtic into selling defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama. Southampton smashed the club's transfer record in the process and the south coast outfit's faith has since been rewarded, with the Kenya captain a key element in their early-season success.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when Celtic paid Belgium club Beerschot £900,000 (USD 1.6 million) for Wanyama, who was just 20 years old at the time, they could not have imagined the rapid progress he would make. In two seasons in Scotland's top flight, Wanyama not only became a fan's favourite, but won two league championships and a Scottish Cup. With almost 50 appearances for the Glasgow giants, he was voted the SPL's Young Player of the Year for the 2012/13 season.
But it was in the UEFA Champions League that Wanyama became a household name with football fans worldwide, putting in a string of impressive performances last season as Celtic managed to come through a group comprised of Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow. Wanyama, in fact, became the first Kenyan player to score a Champions League goal when he opened the scoring in the Hoops' stunning 2-1 victory over Barcelona.
"It was brilliant playing in the Champions League," he told FIFA.com. "The atmosphere was terrific and I feel proud that I was a part of the Celtic team that did so well."
His move to Southampton, for a fee reportedly in the region of £12.5 million (USD 20 million), means he is unlikely to feature at the Champions League level again in the near future. Nonetheless, Wanyama believes his team can improve on their current spot in ninth. "Southampton is a very ambitious club," he said. "If we continue developing, there is no reason why European football should not be on the cards in the near future."
Wanyama has been relishing the challenge of the more demanding English Premier League, with the only cloud on his horizon a leg injury that will sideline him for a month. The 22-year-old had started in Southampton's first 14 league matches as the club enjoyed their best-ever start to a season in the top flight. "It is just such a huge league," he enthused. "The stadiums are packed and the atmosphere is electrifying. It was always my dream to play in England. I knew it would be a challenge, but I am happy to take on the challenges and develop further.”
It's in the genes
Wanyama's journey towards professional football began at an early age, when he first watched his father Noah play for Kenyan club AFC Leopards, with whom he won the league. Noah also played for the Kenyan national team, as does Victor's brother McDonald Mariga, another family member with Champions League experience - for Inter Milan - and a player who has been linked with a possible move to Southampton. Two more brothers, Thomas and Sylvester, play in the Kenyan top flight, while sister Mercy is an accomplished basketball player, who has played professionally.
“Watching my father play always inspired me because I wanted to be as successful as he was," Wanyama admitted.
The stadiums are packed and the atmosphere is electrifying. It was always my dream to play in England.
Before settling with Beerschot, a teenage Wanyama moved to Sweden in 2007, where he played youth football for Helsingborg. He then briefly returned to Kenya when McDonald joined Serie A club Parma. "Moving to Europe as a youngster was not easy. I missed my family and my country and there were many challenges I faced.
"My family has always been very influential in my life. They have helped me and, without them, I am sure I would not be where I am now." Although he does not have relatives living with him in Southampton, he receives regular visitors from home. "My brothers and sister and cousins have come and stayed with me. I enjoy having them here."
A country of almost 50 million people, Kenya and its football fans have been waiting for national team success for many years. The last time the east African country qualified for the finals of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations was in 2004, when they were knocked out in the first round, which has been their fate in all five of their continental finals. They have not been ranked in the top 100 of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking since January of 2010, and they are currently 33rd in Africa.
However, Wanyama, who debuted as a 15-year-old in a high-profile friendly against Nigeria, believes a run up the table could be on the cards for the Harambee Stars. They recently held the Super Eagles to a 1-1 draw in Calabar in a 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier and the midfielder is confident that more will be heard from their up-and-coming side. "We have a number of good players and if we play to the best of our ability, we can go places. We will be trying to qualify for the next Cup of Nations and, from there, we will see what happens."
With Wanyama emerging as one of the best Kenyan players in memory, McDonald Mariga returning after a lengthy injury, and their brother Thomas also in the international mix, it could well be that the Wanyama siblings are the men to bring that long-awaited success to the Harambee Stars.