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The rise and rise of pro footballer Michael Olunga

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Harambee Stars captain Michael Olunga's name is on the lips of many football fans worldwide amid speculation he might move to the English Premier League during the current transfer season, which ends at 11pm on September 11.

After leaving Gor Mahia, Olunga had a one-year stint in Europe with Sweden's Djurgårdens IF though he had joined on a four-year contract before moving to Asia where he has starred since save for a loan spell with Spain's Girona from China's Guizhou Zhicheng, which he joined in 2017.

Currently, Olunga, who emerged top scorer in the Qatar league, is being linked by football pundits to various clubs in Europe, including England's Everton, Scotland's Rangers, Netherlands' FC Utrecht and Turkey's Fenerbahçe SK. Another club he has not been associated with Brazil's Corinthians.

However, Olunga has been non-committal on the prospect of him leaving Al-Duhail, where he is their hottest property having scored 22 goals in 22 league matches last season.

While Olunga said he aware of any offer, he did not rule out the possibility his services will be needed elsewhere.

“With big performances that’s what you expect. When you do a good season, the best will always come. Let’s see what happens. I don’t want to speculate anything but at the end of the day it feels amazing when these clubs are on your radar. It means you are doing an amazing thing,” Olunga told a local news outlet. 

His brother, however, denied reports he is now a free agent, adding he does not see him moving to Europe. 

"He is not out of contract, he has like three years on his contract in Qatar and I think it is going to be difficult to get him out of Qatar. The club trusts him. But again in football, you cannot rule out anything," Ogada said in an interview Tuchapiane show.

While a move by Olunga to the EPL will be good for him and the country, some say he may not qualify for a direct transfer since he has Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) points score of 10, which is less than the required 15.

But it is not the first time Olunga has shown interest in playing in the elite EPL. In 2016, he famously recorded a video in which he tried to impress then-Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger to snap him up, describing himself as the best talent in Kenya. 

In a past interview, he also revealed that the first offer to play in Europe was made to him while in Europe. 

"I was offered an opportunity to move to France and join Monaco's academy. I was still a teenager and had this dream of being a pilot. My mother did not entertain the idea. Looking back at how my career has panned out, I do not regret it," he told a TV show. 

Though Olunga is now in demand, it was not an easy path to the top.

When he first walked to Gor Mahia’s training ground one morning in 2015, no one knew what he could offer to the club and what the future held for him. He was not a famous name. 

First to dismiss him was the then Gor Mahia coach Frank Nuttall – he didn’t know him and of course, he never heard of him before. 

It took the efforts of Chairman Ambrose Rachier and the then Team Manager Jolawi Obondo to convince Nuttall to let Olunga stay – so that he can at least study him before giving him a nod to be part of his squad for the season. 

Well, not even many fans were aware of what Olunga could offer – to them, he was just another random local player who was lucky to join K’Ogalo – this went with the assumption that the club’s scouts were just on their usual business of signing average players with undercut deals as the main aim. 

A few fans had a clue of what the lanky striker would offer – those who had a picture of his time at Thika United and Tusker FC. And perhaps those who knew of his exploits while he was still at Upper Hill School before moving to Liberty Sports Academy in the Nairobi County League – where he scored 32 goals for the side during the 2012 season.

In the few off-season friendly matches and training sessions, Olunga was slowly winning confidence of Nuttall.

Come mid-February season kick-off, Gor Mahia started with a fixture against Mathare United at the historic City Stadium 

Eager to see what the newly assembled squad had for the 2015 season, Gor Mahia fans thronged City Stadium in the balmy afternoon and to make the day even more interesting, Michael Olunga was in the starting team to mark his debut for the club in a competitive match. 

 On this day, Olunga nailed a brace to give Gor Mahia a 4-2 win over the bogey team Mathare United in a closely contested fixture in the season opener – returnee Ali Abondo score the other two goals. 

 Netting a brace is not something many players would pull in their debut and this, worked well for Olunga as it marked his first chapter of success at Gor Mahia – head coach Frank Nuttall never looked back as Olunga became one of the key figures in his team all through the season.

 Olunga became a household name not just within Gor Mahia circle but within the football circles as he score goals week in and week out. 

 Popularly known as an engineer due to the geospatial engineering course he studied at the Technical University of Kenya and a Bachelor of Engineering degree, he became a darling to many football fans in Kenya after ending the famous invincible season on a high.  

 It was quite obvious to predict that Olunga was going to play all league matches as coach Nuttall was that coach who doesn’t change a winning team – he maintained his starting squad all through the season, the only time he could omit players was when there was an injury, which he hardly experienced during his time at the club and perhaps suspension. 

 Without a doubt, he finished the season as a big player – finishing the 2015 season as the club's top scorer with 19 goals to help the K’Ogalo win a record 15th league title without losing even a single match – who would think Gor Mahia would replicate the 1976 success by pulling the title unbeaten? Not even coach Nuttall who almost killed his dream at Gor Mahia even before he kicked a ball at the training. 

  Exploits in foreign leagues

After joining Djurgardens IF in 2016, Olunga went on to score 12 goals which earned him fifth place in the Allsvenskan top scorer table. It did not end there, he was nominated for Newcomer of the Year in Swedish football by a jury of Allsvenskan coaches and Swedish journalists as well as the coaches of the Swedish national teams.

Though he didn’t bag the awards that alone was a good statement on foreign land and an indication that he was headed for good things. 

Guizhou Zhicheng snapped him up because they offered a deal Djurgardens IF could not turn down. 

But the club loaned him to Girona FC where he will be remembered for scoring a hat-trick in the span of 22 minutes during a 6–0 win against Las Palmas - becoming both the first Kenyan player and the first Girona player to score a hat-trick in La Liga. 

Japan would be the next stop for Olunga in 2018 as he signed a deal at Japanese club Kashiwa Reysol.

 While in Japan, Olunga once made history by netting eight goals in a single match when his side walloped Kyoto Sanga 13-1.

 The same year, his side won the title – earning a promotion to first division league. His club didn’t just win the title but Olunga again was in the good books here as he finished the season with 27 goals. 

 He wasn’t going to stop doing his thing as he bagged the top scorer award with 28 goals in Japanese first division league in 2020 -  earning the Most Valuable Player of the league – becoming the first African player to win the J-league MVP award. 

 In 2021, the Arab world followed Olunga with some crazy offer that was hard to turn down, Al-Duhail of Qatar became his next home in a mega deal move that made be on the football transfer billboards of the Qatar. 

 Al-Duhail got it right by signing him as he finished as the top scorer of the 2021 AFC Champions League.  In May this year, Olunga helped his club secure the title of Qatar Stars League in 2022–23 season. 

 Giving back to the society

 Many may just know him on the pitch but Olunga has a lot to be talked about off the pitch. As part of his aim to support the upcoming talents, the striker is running a a local sports mentorship foundation called Michael Olunga Football Academy (MOFA).

 MOFA, which is situated in Olunga's home area of Othoro, and has a team in Football Kenya Federation (FKF)  Division 1,  trains and nurtures talent from U10 to U18. Also a step in the right direction, MOFA has formed a collaboration with a number of secondary schools in Nyanza region to mentor and develop future football stars.

 As part of the deal with MOFA, schools  will offer educational scholarships to students from the football academy to pursue their education as they continue to hone their football skills.

 MOFA also reentry partnered with FKF Homabay County coaches in skill empowerment drive for coaches through the Confederation of African Football (CAF) courses.