Michael Olunga is the first Kenyan to play in the J.League
His time at Kashiwa Reysol has been nothing but a resounding success
He speaks about Qatar 2022 hopes & that record-breaking eight-goal game
Records seem to follow Michael Olunga wherever he goes. During his brief spell with Girona in La Liga, he became not only the club's first player to score a hat-trick in the division, but also the first Kenyan to do so.
The towering forward, affectionately known as 'The Engineer', moved to Kashiwa Reysol in 2018 and helped them to promotion to the J1 League and in the process he became the first Kenyan to play and to score in Japan's first division. His time with Kashiwa has been astonishingly successful, epitomised by an eight-goal performance on 24 November 2019 in a 13-1 victory against Kyoto Sanga.
"Now when anyone in Kenya hears about the J.League, he or she will have me in their minds," Olunga told FIFA.com. "That’s great because I’m also trying to work much harder to promote the J.League in general to the African continent, which is a positive for the growth of football in Japan."
Like the rest of the world, Olunga is staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to maintain some semblance of normality while training on his own. "Being at home so much you do discover that you can work in that kind of environment. You realise maybe if you don’t get to work on something out on the pitch, you can substitute some of the hard work at home. So maybe it’s a good time to help us work on aspects of our game that we don’t get to perfect on the pitch."
Olunga has scored a whopping 32 goals in just over 40 appearances playing for Reysol, so what does he put that down to?
"When I came to Japan in 2018 it was in the middle of Kashiwa Reysol’s season and they weren’t performing so well," he said. "I tried to fit in to the team, but I didn’t play so much and I only scored three goals, so it took me a little bit of time to adapt, but in my second year the new coach (Nelsinho Baptista) came and I started for the team in pre-season.
"I attribute the success to hard work, staying focused even when you think you are losing everything. At the end of the day, it’s about believing you are capable of achieving great things. There are many great players in the world, but with confidence, which I think is the most important aspect of a player, when you have it, you do wonders on the pitch."
In the last match of Kashiwa's 2019 season, Olunga produced an incredible eight goals, which is an all-time J2 League record, but more importantly he helped lift the club back into the top division just one year after being relegated.
"I had come back from playing for the national team and it was the last game of the season," he said. "Honestly, I didn’t expect to score eight goals in that game. My target was to score a hat-trick because I was fourth in the goalscoring chart with 19 goals. I knew I had to do something special, because scoring a hat-trick isn’t just any other thing that happens in football.
"I had already achieved my target in the first half and I knew I had 45 minutes to try something which seemed impossible. I went out there in the second half and gave it a good shot. I think it was the perfect way to end the 2019 season."
Olunga's adaptation to Japan has been aided by his willingness to interact with his team-mates and coaches and learn as much as he can about the culture. He has taken to Japanese food as well. His favourite dish is Unagi (Japanese freshwater eel). He speaks passionately about the level of Japanese football and talks glowingly of Japan's 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ campaign, where they nearly eliminated Belgium.
And it's that competition that he's desperately trying to lead Kenya to. The Harambee Stars have never qualified for the world finals. When qualification resumes, Kenya will compete in Group E in Round 2 where they will face the likes of Mali, Uganda and Rwanda.
"Every single player dreams of playing in the World Cup," said Olunga. "If you look at these teams, Uganda and Mali were at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, and they progressed to the Round of 16, too, while we were eliminated after the group stage. If you look at it that way, we are one of the weaker teams in the group.
"But football is changing and each and every one has the opportunity to play home and away, so you have the same advantages are your opponents in a sense. It’s all about trying to work hard, taking advantage of when you play your home games and finding ways to get results, and sometimes you need a little bit of luck. You can’t depend on luck. We will work hard and try to give it a good push."
Olunga is optimistic about the overall future of the development of Kenyan football, too.
"Kenyan football has really improved over the past few years," he said. "The last time (before 2019) that Kenya participated in the Africa Cup of Nations was in 2004. It took us 15 years to get back to the continental showpiece. There was a big gap.
"There has been a change of leadership and now the new regime is trying to bring in new ideas and train the coaches more and bringing in a new aspect of the game. I believe they have really transformed Kenyan football, even though we’re still not where we’d like to be by 2020. We can see positive growth. I believe we have a great future."
Olunga, who grew up watching and admiring fellow left-footer Robin van Persie, celebrated his 26th birthday during the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's very likely he will take this challenge in stride just as he has throughout his career. He made the leap to Europe with Djugardens in Sweden after a stunning season with Gor Mahia, but just as his time in Japan has shown, success did not come immediately.
"The first six months in Sweden were not so easy, coming from Africa to Sweden during the winter with the temperatures and overall culture shock – the tempo of the game was quite high. There were a lot of factors that weren’t working to my favour. These are situations you can find yourself in as a player. You try and adapt as quickly as possible because it’s a competition and sports are limited – only 11 can play. The experience there made me stronger."
That tough experience informed his approach to moving to Japan, and his hard work, keenness to embrace Japanese culture and on-pitch success have turned him into a cult hero among the Kashiwa Reysol faithful.
"My chant at Reysol is based off Boney M.’s 'Jambo-Hakuna Matata', a famous Swahili song," Olunga said. "They normally sing it for foreigners when they arrive in Kenya as a welcoming song. They sing to foreigners telling them that Kenya is a peaceful land. Hakuna Matata means there are no problems.
"When the fans made a chant for me they probably googled famous songs in Swahili and found this one! I heard them singing it one game and I liked it because it portrays my culture. Being sung in Swahili it makes me want to give more to the team because I feel the culture. This is why I love the chant."
And while Olunga grinds during his personal training each and every day, he knows that one day he will be reunited with his supporters and they will be able to sing together again.