The Kenya international tells KICK OFF about his disappointment at Tottenham Hotspur and his new challenge in Montreal.
Victor Wanyama represents arguably one of the most high-profile names in African football over the past decade, having become the first player from Kenya to score in the UEFA Champions League. KICK OFF’s Lorenz Köhler caught up with the 29-year-old captain of the Harambee Stars to find out about his future ambitions and why he left Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur for Major League Soccer outfit Montreal Impact.
KICK OFF: Some of Africa’s most successful footballers have roots in Europe and you didn’t have that advantage. How did your rise to prominence happen? Victor Wanyama:
Mine was a bit strange, my brother [McDonald Mariga] was playing in Sweden [for Helsingborgs IF]. I just went there to visit him and one day he spoke to the director who told him, ‘I’ve seen your brother, I can get him to train with the young ones so that he has something to do’. I went there and started training with the youth team. From there, they liked me and kept me. That’s quite interesting as you never shared the same shirt name with Mariga over your career. Why is that?
No, we are blood brothers, he used the name Mariga on his jersey, but we are blood brothers. I chose Wanyama because it has a meaning, it means animal. I chose it because I wanted it like that. With him, I never knew what he did because he’s a Wanyama, but you pick what you want.
You returned to Kenya and then swiftly to Belgium where you enjoyed your professional breakthrough with Beerschot? Why didn’t you stay in Sweden?
My brother left to join Parma and I was left there on my own. So, then I went on holiday and there was a guy named Jean Marie, he told me there’s an opportunity to go to Belgium, it’s a bit more advanced a lot of people speak English and then he convinced me to join his academy. When I joined the academy, we were in Kenya, I trained with the academy for four to five months and he took
us to Belgium. Beerschot was the place where Europe stood up and took notice, was it only Celtic that came in for your services in 2011? At that point you were already a senior Kenya international ...
No when I was at Beerschot there were a lot of clubs that were after me, there was Blackburn Rovers, Queens Park Rangers, Birmingham City and CSKA Moscow. But CSKA wasn’t the choice because my agent, Rob Moore, I’ve been with him since I started my career – he helped me and told me in football you have two paths: one is shorter for money and the other is to make a statement. He said to me if you want to just get the money go to Russia but if you want to enjoy the game and make history you can go to Celtic. I told him, ‘OK, I want the second option’ and from there we moved to Glasgow after one season. The CSKA offer was a lot of money, which was tempting but we didn’t do it because we are after a legacy as well – we wanted to win things.
“IN FOOTBALL YOU HAVE TWO PATHS: ONE IS SHORTER FOR MONEY AND THE OTHER IS TO MAKE A STATEMENT.”
You played with Virgil van Dijk? What did you think of him when you first trained with him?
I was there for two seasons, Virgil came in the third season, I did a full pre-season with him and few friendlies and then I left in the off-season. We spent like six weeks together, when he joined you could see he had potential, he was going to be a good
player, someone who would make the team better. You could see he was top quality. Two league titles and several stand-out displays in the UEFA Champions League – what made Southampton your next move? They weren’t as established in the Premier League as they are now.
That time they were fighting relegation but before I arrived there was Mauricio Pochettino and the director Nicola Cortese was also there. They wanted to change to a new philosophy with the Southampton way, a team that could perform, be in Europe and be known. So when I heard about the project, I was intrigued. Arsenal wanted me and some other clubs, but like I said before, with Rob [Moore], he was a good guy, he guided me. He said it would be easy for me to go to Arsenal but as a young player coming from a different league, you need more time, which I wouldn’t have got there in order to settle and show what I can do. At Southampton I was going to get my chance as they were building a new team that will fight for things and the manager liked me and really wanted me. From there I had a ladder to climb, step by step, to move to a bigger club. Moving to a bigger club too early and it doesn’t work out, then you might have to take a few steps down. Your goal against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League in 2012 made you the first Kenyan to score in the competition and you were the first from your country to play in the Premier League. How did that make you feel as a young footballer?
It looked like it was just a normal thing but to me it was a big deal. I’m grateful to have received those opportunities and to have performed at that level and get known. Not many can score against Barcelona, I will always remember that. At Celtic, it was a great team, it was like a family, the feeling that I had there, it was more than just club. The history and everything was huge! Over there I felt like I was home, but at the same time what I was doing was trying to become a better footballer. But obviously other top clubs came to look for me after these performances and it was not easy to leave them. At Southampton you emerged as one of the best midfielders in the Premier League over three seasons and many clubs were lined up for your signature. Why Spurs? Was it Mauricio Pochettino?
I knew the impact the manager had at Southampton and I knew we shared the same dream of playing in the UEFA Champions League final and winning it. I wanted to do it for him because I knew what philosophy I was going to get there and I knew everything about him. It was an easy decision for me to be attracted to Spurs, I knew how good he was, how much I learnt from him and how much I could improve with him. Which teams did you actually have to say no to because of your ambition to reunite with Pochettino, and do you have any regrets about joining Spurs?
There were so many clubs, Atletico Madrid I know, there were many clubs interested but I couldn’t really know which teams put offers on the table. But I can tell you Atletico, Liverpool, Leicester City and some French clubs. I don’t have any regrets; Spurs is a top team and I had a good time there. Even though we didn’t win the Champions League final, I had a good time. Did the UCL defeat deflate the squad? There was a noticeable deterioration before Pochettino eventually was sacked...
I think after the Champions League final, everyone was disappointed and it was difficult to move on, you know? It was difficult for players to accept that because it was a big chance for us. Many players beat themselves up too much and that distracted the squad as they healed and moved on from the disappointment. I would say the manager [Pochettino] always gave his best but it was just the squad that needed to adjust quickly, you know, by moving on, but that never happened...
Jose Mourinho’s arrival saw you fall out of favour. What happened?
Mourinho comes in, I was injured for a while and when I came back from the national team he actually arrived so he continued playing with the players who were in the squad at that time and fit. It was a bit difficult and we spoke about my
“MOVING TO A BIGGER CLUB TOO EARLY AND IT DOESN’T WORK OUT, THEN YOU MIGHT HAVE TO TAKE A FEW STEPS DOWN.”
injuries. He said to me that it was going to be difficult for me to play because I was behind in fitness and I need to wait for my chance. I was waiting for that and it took long and that frustrated me, I needed to get back to playing and get back to do what I love doing. I’m a guy who just loves playing football and if I wasn’t going to get that there I would rather leave.
There was a lot of clubs who wanted me, some on loan, some permanent. It was difficult to do business, as you know the chairman of Tottenham [Daniel Levy] is a tough guy and I can’t blame him. There wasn’t much time as the window was about to end. It took long [to negotiate]. I couldn’t afford to stay another season to wait for my chance, I just wanted to get back to playing football. So when the window closed I decided to come to the MLS with Montreal and my first season I played under Thierry Henry and I loved it. I’m excited to stay here for another year.
At Southampton I would say Sadio Mane, Moussa Dembele at Spurs and at Celtic I will choose Scott Brown. Dembele for me, the connection we had ... he is just a top player, together me and him, we were killing teams. In training you think you could get the ball from him but it never happened. Him for sure, he could have walked into any team in the world, we had good times at Spurs. And then Sadio, he was amazing, the runs he makes, he’s so quick, as a midfielder, when you have a player like him you always have the option of going long [ball] and you know when you’re in a tight area and Sadio’s in front, you can just lift the ball over and he’ll be there. It was fun playing with him. Of-course the first and second season was tough but the third season he started showing what he could do and from there we could see Sadio is a great player.
You know it’s always tough to make the transition and fans always expect me to play the same way I played at Spurs or Montreal. They don’t understand that there’s guys around you that are different from the national team at different levels. It’s difficult but Kenya has some young talent and I love my country. It doesn’t matter how tough it is going to be, I always wanted to go back and represent my homeland with pride. I’m proud of being Kenyan, nothing will change that. Even if we win, we win together, if we lose, then you know it’s going to be you that gets the blame because you are Wanyama and in my case because I play for a bigger team. I took that on the chin and I love my country.
At the moment I just want to help Montreal, we have a good team here and I just want to focus on here and then the future will sort itself out. I just need to perform well here and the rest will fall into place but I keep the door open and see what happens.
Any interest in African football – Al Ahly, Esperance, TP Mazembe, maybe the big-three of South Africa?
Maybe in the future one day I would love to have that experience as well because I have not played club football in Africa yet. I like all the top teams in South Africa, Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates, of course Mamelodi Sundowns. I supported them when I was young watching Surprise Moriri and all those guys, it was nice to watch how they play. I would say I do support them now also because my Kenyan companion [Brian] Onyango is there and my friend, the Ugandan goalkeeper Dennis Onyango, that’s why I always watch their games and support them fully. Those teams that I have mentioned, Kaizer Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns, Orlando Pirates – they play really nice football to watch.
I follow Benni McCarthy, I know him personally and I follow his career as a young coach and he’s doing very well. I also like to follow him to see how he’s doing, and I might want to follow his footsteps. He’s doing great with AmaZulu, I know he made Cape Town City play some nice football but now at AmaZulu he’s doing great. It’s an inspiration as African footballers who still play in Europe. When you see him, we want to learn from him and follow in his footsteps. Steven Pienaar is another I look up to, they have done so well. Steven has got his coaching badges, managing the Under-16s at Ajax and one day I would like to follow in their footsteps and be a manager.
“MANY PLAYERS BEAT THEMSELVES UP TOO MUCH AND THAT DISTRACTED THE SQUAD AS THEY HEALED AND MOVED ON FROM THE DISAPPOINTMENT.”
So why MLS with Montreal Impact of all places – we know a move to Club Brugge fell through ...
Has there been any other teams in Africa you’ve watched with a keen eye?
Did you find it hard to remain committed to the Kenya national team with such a vast difference in quality in comparison to your club squads?
Your top three players you’ve played with – who are they and why?
You’re 29 now, do you harbour any ambitions of returning to Europe?