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Eric ‘Marcelo’ Ouma: Stars defender's rise from hardship in Kibera to life in Europe

FOOTBALL By Rodgers Eshitemi | April 19th 2020
Harambee Stars' Eric Ouma (Marcelo) during AFCON match against DRC Congo at Kasarani Stadium. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Kenyan international Eric ‘Marcelo’ Ouma has revealed that he almost quit playing while at FC Kolkheti Poti in Georgia after struggling to cope with a recurring hamstring injury in 2017.

Narrating his ‘grass to grace’ football journey to Standard Sports on phone from his base in Stockholm, Sweden, the 23-year-old left back, who recently inked a four-year deal with Swedish giants AIK Fotball from IF Vasalund, admitted that he once contemplated going for an early retirement from football.

Even as Kolkheti struggled to avoid relegation in the Georgian National League, the injury restricted the former Gor Mahia star to only seven months of action in his first professional stint abroad after he tore his hamstring on three different occasions.

Ouma had joined the club from Gor Mahia after a an impressive season that saw him claim the 2016 Kenyan Premier League young player award despite K’Ogalo relinquishing the title to Tusker.

The Kakamega High School alumnus then picked up a hamstring injury in May 2017 -- just five months into his contract with the Georgian side-but aggravated it by continuing to play until he finally decided to start his rehabilitation in September.

However, having been born and bred in hardship in Kibera slum where he is an inspiration to many young footballers, Ouma, who idolises Real Madrid and Brazil defender Marcelo, had to persevere the pain caused by the injury to realise his dream.

He believes his humble background helped him overcome the persistent injury that nearly put a premature end to his career.

“I think the hardest time in my career was in 2017 when I had a spate of hamstring injuries and stayed out of action for months. There is nothing bad in a footballer's career like suffering an injury. With the team fighting relegation, I had to play but had to be on painkillers but this aggravated the injury,” Ouma said.

“I got fed up with the third injury to an extent that I wanted to give up. It affected me both mentally and physically because I couldn’t do what I loved most. I was in much pain that I never saw myself kicking the ball again. I almost quit playing football but I had to think about my background and all those people who considered me their hero."

But from playing barefoot on hard surfaces to wearing shredded boots and training without jerseys for Future FC at DC and Woodley Grounds in Kibera, Ouma appears not to have forgotten what it was like growing up in the slums.

“Just like most footballers, I had a lot of challenges growing up. I stayed in Kibera for over 19 years and the hustle was real. But I had to defy all odds to become what I wanted to be in life. We lacked a lot of basic materials and good facilities, but we had to use what we had in order to achieve our dreams,” he said.

“My parents did everything, but due to their financial state they couldn't buy me everything I wanted. We didn’t have boots, uniforms and cones.  I played barefoot for nearly three years before I got some completely shredded boots. But that didn’t stop us from playing. We were driven by passion for football and even used stones as ‘cones’.”

However, he feels that had it not been for Benjamin Kipruto, his childhood coach at Future FC and Kakamega High School (Green Commandos) where he studied on scholarship, he may never have fulfilled his potential as a footballer.

Even though Kakamega High gave him a platform to develop his talent, it is Kipruto who had assured him that he would manage to earn a living through football.

“Of course it is Kakamega High who made me to be man enough, but I still feel indebted to my childhood coach (Benjamin Kipruto).

"With the difficulties in the slum, it is him who told me to focus on football because it will change my life. He’s a driving factor,” Ouma said.

“But I’m more grateful to Kakamega for the scholarship and moulding me into the person I’m today. They played a big role in my career development. I started playing in front of huge crowds and getting used to pressure at a young stage. So, by the time I was joining Gor Mahia in 2015, I was mentally and physically prepared for the big stage.”

Ouma’s rise to stardom over the last four years has been nothing short of phenomenal as he has established himself in the national team Harambee Stars. He was one of the impressive players at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Egypt.

“It was not only a dream come true to play at the 2019 Afcon finals but also be part of the historic squad that ended Kenya’s 15-year absence at the tournament,” he said.

Though he is already living his dream in Europe after completing a move to AIK, he is still optimistic of joining major European leagues.

“My childhood dream was to be a professional footballer and play beyond Kenya. I envied their lifestyle and how they were treated. Yes, I’m now living my dream, but I’m still working hard to be a better player and reach my potential,” he said.

“Signing for AIK was one of the greatest moments in my career. This is a big club here in Sweden. So joining AIK has given me the motivation to work extra hard with an aim of moving to bigger leagues in Europe.

“Most scouts in Europe either come to watch AIK matches or follow them on television, so I believe this is a great opportunity for me to prove my worth and make it.”

Prior to his move to the 12-time Swedish champions, he had featured for Swedish third-tier side IF Vasalund and Albania’s KS Kastrioti.

But Ouma recalls how he experienced a culture shock when he left Gor Mahia for Kolkheti.

“Honestly, I had a culture shock when I moved to Georgia; the food, language and the general lifestyle. But I think it was a good experience because it taught me a lot of things like being independent,” he said.

Honestly, football has completely changed my life and status in the society. My family has also benefited a lot and I’m like the ‘father’ of the family. Everybody in the family is happy with my career progress.”

Though he didn’t win a KPL title with K’Ogalo, Ouma who made his league debut in the 2-1 victory against Nairobi City Stars in July 2016 doesn’t regret leaving the Green Army for greener pastures.

“I might not have won a KPL title with Gor Mahia, but I don’t regret leaving them. It was somehow a blessing in disguise. Sometimes in life, you need to take such risks and challenge yourself a bit.

"If you fail, you will learn the lessons and gain experience to prepare you for the next challenge. Gor exposed me to the world and they will always have a special place in my heart. I wouldn’t be where I’m right now without them,” he said.

“But I was in dilemma; to choose between going abroad and committing my future to Gor. I had received a scholarship from USA six months before my initial contract expired, but I decided to sign another six-month deal as I weighed other options. I didn’t want to make a rushed decision because I was still inexperienced.”

Brendan Mwinamo, his high school coach, is not surprised by his rise to fame. He recruited Ouma at Kakamega High in 2011 on recommendation of former Kenyan international Nicholas Muyoti.

According to Mwinamo, who has since then been transferred to Musingu High School, Ouma’s humility, determination and hard work helped him to achieve greatness with the Green Commandos.

He was considered a major factor alongside Joseph Okumu (IF Elfsborg), Timothy Odhiambo (Ulinzi Stars), Apollo Otieno (Tusker), Harun Nyakha (Ushuru) and Alfred Wekesa (former AFC Leopards player) in Green Commandos’ 2014 national school games football title triumph as well as their qualification to the FKF Division One League.  

But his endearing qualities and impressive performance at the national finals didn’t go unnoticed as they earned him a deal at Gor Mahia after he sat Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination in 2014.

Mwinamo revealed that Ouma was nicknamed ‘Marcelo’ while at Green Commandos after his role model due to their similar playing style.

“From the first time I saw him training, I knew he had a lot of potential. I vividly remember how we admitted him on scholarship after he impressed in trials on Muyoti’s recommendation.

He had equally performed well in KCPE, but he had come for admission with only ten thousand shillings,” Mwinamo recalls.

“He’s an intelligent and disciplined player both on and off the pitch. He’s a quite student who did his talking on the pitch.

"He hit the ground running from the day I gave him the chance. Since that day, he cemented himself in the first team and went on to inspire the team to many silver wares."

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