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Dennis the Menace is back

FOOTBALL By Jacqueline Mahugu | January 20th 2019

Gor Mahia FC's Dennis Oliech at Kasarani Stadium. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

At 17, Dennis Oliech was a good-looking boy and a little tall for his age. And despite the confidence in his purposeful stride, he harboured a weariness where his peers wore a happy-go-lucky demeanour. He was after all in a foreign land, alone and with nothing but dreams and determination. He was working his socks off; day and night for three months without pay and without a chance to get into a live match. After all, his parents back home in Kenya counted on him to succeed in Qatar and create a career that would support them. And he was good at his craft. So good indeed that he finally got his break.

“I was staying alone. I had to struggle to survive there because I knew my parents were waiting for the money. I could not go back home because we did not have money. Then one day, the sheikh said, ‘We can try this boy. He has been here for three months.’  And that was it; the birth of one of Kenya’s best footballers.

No Kenyan women for him

Fast forward to today. He sports a slightly receded hairline and is a more subdued, calmer version of the younger footballer of yesteryears who hit the social pages just as much as the sports pages. He is still a bachelor a bachelor though, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the ladies.

He sheepishly confirms that indeed, his relationship with TV personality Paula Mumia crashed and burned. Rumour mills were recently ablaze with news that he had been dumped for philandering.

“Paula and I have been close for about six years and the media has never written that story,” he says. “And again, if you are a footballer or a celebrity, women will always have problems with you. I have managed and handled it for the last 30 years, so I don’t mind about anything they write, as long as I am good on the pitch.”

And no ladies, he isn’t looking, and just for clarification, he is not particularly keen on Kenyan women.

“Unless they are from Mombasa. I am more interested in Tanzanian women. Or Nubian women,” he says.

Regrets

He has come full circle, playing local football after years in the international scene. And when I ask the lanky star what his one life’s regret is, he gives me a long look before responding. “I may be too old and I have not made it yet, which is to be the best player in Africa, to take Kenya to the World Cup and to play in England.” He pauses a little then reflectively continues. “I played in France, but I regret not playing in England, because I am good and my dream was to play there. Maybe our ranking was bad. According to FIFA rules, if you are not number 1 to 75 you cannot play in England, so that is what happened to us as Kenyan players,” he says.

He is only 33, a baby really, but in the football world, he may just be as old as dirt. Getting Dennis Oliech for a sit-down wasn’t easy. He was always either recovering from a match or practice or simply not picking up his calls. And apologetically, he explains away his elusiveness with a naughty smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“Look, people do not know that I am a stammerer. When I was young I used to stammer a lot, so it is difficult for me to do live interviews. I really struggled with them even when I was young. It affects me even now but I have outgrown some of it. TV interviews will be difficult because when I feel pressured, I panic and stammer a lot. That is why I do not do many interviews. It is not that I do not want to do them or that I do not know English or Swahili.”

Earlier last week (Wednesday, January 9), I had watched him in action. Having just joined the popular Gor Mahia team, he was a star attraction to the match against Posta Rangers. His masterful footwork on the pitch was evident, as was the adoration from his games. Even when he missed a shot, which happened a couple of times, they would clap for him, egging him on. And when he finally scored, they went into frenzy. Pretty soon, he was a trending topic on Twitter. Dennis the Menace, is back.

Down but not out

Sitting across me at the training pitch on Camp Toyoyo in Nairobi’s Eastlands, he exudes a calm air of confidence and self-assurance. He is clad in the green Gor Mahia garb, and the jersey stretches thin against his lean torso giving him the look of a man who spends a bit of time with the weights. But he insists that he could be fitter. There is also the little matter of his age that worried his fans.

He draws in breath as he admits what others have voiced out loud, “I am not 100 per cent fit since I have been outside for three years, but slowly I am getting there. I need at least four of five more games.”

He is a man under pressure to perform and luckily for him, he scored a goal at only his second game with Gor Mahia. “It was important to score now because of the pressure, since I have been out for a long time. When you join a new team, it is always important to score early, within the first one or two games.”

Did he think he would score? I prod.

“Well for me my job is to score, so I wanted to score in the first game but it was not easy because I came in in the last 20 minutes. So I aimed to do it in the next game.”

The Oliech today is a far cry from the overly confident man a few years ago. He was once an international star playing for international clubs like French Ligue 1 club, FC Nantes, Auxerre and AC Ajaccio. He then moved to the UAE to play in Al Nasr SC in 2015 but reportedly did not stay for more than six months. In March 2016, he announced his retirement from international football. At the time, he said it was to give way to the newer upcoming footballers, as he had served his time.

“I had not retired officially. I got into a contract with Betway to be their brand ambassador. That is why I had to stop for about two years, but I wasn’t done with football yet,“ he says.

My body can still go on for about three years. Footballers retire at 37, others even at 38, so I have three to four years to play.

While playing for Gor Mahia was admittedly his childhood dream, the same team his father played for decades ago, he was a little hesitant to relaunch his career with the team.

“I did not want to come to Gor. I wanted to go to a team where there is no pressure, but my friends told me if I wanted to make a comeback, I needed to go to a team in which there is pressure, so that I would be serious and get back to playing at my best. And they reminded me that not only is Gor the best club in Kenya, it is also the only club which can pay me.”

And after that second game, few doubt that he still has what it takes. However, for someone who has been playing for as long as he has, it would take a lot for him to lose it.

What next after his playing days are over?

“After three years I will decide what to do. I do not want to be a coach. I want to be one of the officials in KFF so that I can help football. My plans are to help Kenya while in the federation to run football well. If you are a coach and you so not get the funds and facilities it will not help you. I want to be there on the ground with the former players,” he says.

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