Dennis Oliech: Football hero that Kenya denied a befitting farewell
What if Dennis ‘The Menace’ Oguta Oliech was an Englishman, Brazilian or South African and announced that he had retired from football?
Those and many other football-loving countries would be gripped by ‘Oliech-mania’ to toast the career of great player.
We can imagine how local media would be awash with stories about Oliech. A slew of pundits, former and current Harambee Stars players, coaches, bloggers and the likes would be fawning about one of the most talented players. To some, he would be one of the most flawed players the country has ever seen.
It’s sad that Kenya’s heroes are celebrated in their prime only to be discarded as soon as their stay at the top is over.
Since announcing his decision to retire from football just over a week ago, only a few column inches in newspapers/websites and personal tributes on social media about his exit.
Perhaps the height of his fame predated the social media era when his exploits and antics would have trended for days on end.
By the time of writing this piece, there is no known plan to offer him a testimonial to mark a glittering career that saw the former Mathare United FC prodigy lead Kenya for over a decade. In other climes, that would have been the case.
There has been no statement- even from the social media savvy government- thanking him for his service.
The last mention of Oliech in Football Kenya Federation’s website, footballkenya.org, was on April 10, 2019 when his then team Gor Mahia were knocked out of the domestic cup by Bandari.
What is certain is that Oliech will always remain a big a chapter in Kenya’s football history- an episode mirroring the exact state of the local game where the spectacular and the insane are joined at the hip.
Just like Kenyan football, Oliech enjoyed incredible highs and crushing lows summed by his limp exit from the game that has largely been received as a footnote, not the end of an era.
Opinion is, however, sharply divided on how history will remember one of the country’s finest and most famous players.
Curtains came down on his career as an unwanted player in the Kenyan Premier League (KPL), the domestic top flight where he sought a last hooray.
It is difficult to countenance that Oliech transitioned from being rated as one of the top five explosive football talents to watch out for in the early 2000s to finishing his career as a KPL outcast.
His contemporaries on the other hand are enjoying bright career sunsets at their respective leagues. This is a player whose Qatari club, Al-Arabi turned down USD10m (over Sh100m) from French giants, AS Monaco to sign him in 2005.
Oliech played against the likes of Argentina legendary goal machine, Gabriel Batistuta and retired Germany midfield stalwart, Stefan Effenberg at Al-Arabi where he plundered 12 goals in 17 appearances.
Following his adventure in the Gulf where he shook up the local scene with his seemingly bottomless pockets, Oliech enjoyed a purple patch career in France.
He played with former Ligue 1 champions Nantes Atlantique and Auxerre before winding his French outing at Ajaccio. His return to the Middle East with Dubai CSC ended in dispute, and he left the team in 2015 without an appearance to his name.
Despite his notoriety, Oliech is a darling of Kenyan football faithful. In his international career spanning from 2002 to 2016, he netted 34 times in 74 appearances.
At the height of his glory from 2002 and 2006, Oliech led the team to the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations. His winning wonder goal in the 84th minute against Cape Verde on July 5, 2003 sent Kenya back to the continental showpiece for the first time since 1992.
But just as his name was fading off the football radar, Oliech stunned the nation in January 2019 when he announced he had signed for Gor Mahia in what was sold as the return of a prodigal son.
Soon, Oliech was sending the Green Army supporters into ecstasy, particularly when he scored the fourth goal in their 4-2 mauling of Egyptian giants, Zamalek FC in Nairobi during a CAF Confederations Cup in Nairobi.
He endeared himself to his adoring supporters when he dedicated his goal to another Gor stalwart and his late brother, Steve Okumu, who scored against Zamalek in 1998.
His influence on the team was only growing as he became an inspirational figure in the dressing room as Gor stormed into the Confed Cup semis and on course to extend their KPL-winning record to 18 when he fractured his arm in May.
The injury came as a crushing blow, with the clamour to bring him back to Stars reaching a crescendo when Kenya prepared to return to the AFCON for the first time since Oliech led the team to Tunisia in 2004.
The exit of Gor’s Turkish head coach, Hassan Oktay, saw Oliech elevated to the role of assistant coach ahead of the new season but his marriage with the KPL champions ended in bitter divorce.
On September 9, 2019 Oliech said through his lawyers that he was suing Gor for over Sh6m for wrongful dismissal but the matter was later settled.
His spell Harambee Stars also ended in controversy as he was accused of staying away from team camp and leading player revolts and setting a bad example to younger players by Belgian head coach Adel Amrouche.
Risking the wrath of a nation, Amrouche stripped him of the captaincy in 2016, a row that precluded his international retirement.
For over a decade, successive Stars head coaches had been compelled to bend to his antics, owing largely to the fact that as a goal scorer, none of his teammates could touch him.
But the emergence of Michael Olunga in 2015 hastened his exit as the de facto spearhead of Kenya’s attack. Olunga, now with Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol, has 17 goals in 36 appearances for Stars.
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