It’s often said that the hallmark of great footballers is playing at the World Cup Finals – and probably winning it. Well, that may be true.
But one could also argue that the hallmark of an accomplished player is to be part and parcel of the world’s most prestigious club competition – the Uefa Champions League.
In East Africa – a region doomed with instability, corruption, ‘life presidents’ et al – there was something special to smile about on Tuesday night when Kenyan international McDonald Mariga swept imperiously into history books by becoming the first man from the region to play in the Champions League.
Though a cameo showing, it was beautifully executed in the noisy trenches of Stamford Bridge after Inter kicked the ‘Roman Empire’ hard and out of Europe. The Londoners were outplayed, out-thought and out-smarted in all departments.
When the Italian machine bamboozled past the enemy with less than 10 minutes to go, the ‘Special One’ summoned his indefatigable defensive midfielder to quell the home riots as the match entered the home stretch.
Thrown into the mix in the 85th minute, Mariga assiduously worked by the second, and successfully kept the Blue wave at bay for a famous 1-0 win.
Speaking to the Daily Nation on phone, the gifted 22-year-old could not hide his joy. “What began as a dream has become a reality. I was extremely delighted to make my debut in the Champions League. This is the biggest club competition in the world,” Mariga said.
Win Serie A, Champions
“I had good game and really enjoyed myself. This is just a starting point for me ... playing with champions of this calibre makes things a lot easier. All I think about is doing better in each game. I just need to keep working hard and, hopefully, win the Serie A and the Champions League.”
It was the humble but hugely talented player’s best five minutes of his career thus far. This man, Mariga, somehow manages to bring hope to many a person in a land brimming with talent but bedeviled with greed – the latter always thwarting the former. Thus the unwritten rule in Africa: Evil always triumphs over good.
When the Cecafa region failed to send even a single team to the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Angola, every analyst condemned the region to hell. It was disastrous. But entrepreneurial Kenyans have always had a way of squeezing success out of adversity. Remember they were the first to set up cyber cafes in America? It was now Mariga’s turn to take the cue. And the young man did not disappoint. He bravely, and deftly, took the challenge and restored some regional pride.
“I was a bit nervous about being the new boy in the squad but everyone made me feel at home. They are a good bunch of lads. Making a Champions League debut against a top side like Chelsea is wonderful. I hope to get more playing minutes.”
Over the last half a decade, he has been the most revelatory presence on the East African scene. With one of our own trading tackles with the John Terrys and Didier Drogbas in Europe, Kenya has plenty to be smug about. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King. Mariga brings about the royal feeling to Kenyans.
In France, Dennis Oliech is also knocking doors on the Champions League. His club, AJ Auxerre, is just a point adrift Ligue 1 leaders Bordeaux. This suggests that, come next season, Dennis “The Menace” could make his European debut as well.
But what Oliech lacks in discipline and skill Mariga has to spare. As we saw it in the 2010 World Cup/Nations Cup qualifiers, Mariga can bewitch a crowd: In Abuja, he wowed the ogas with a sublime display that embarrassed Obi Mikel and Co.
At times, with the ball at his feet, the moment freezes – as if all around are transfixed – wondering what will happen next: Usually something delightful. That’s our man. Remember when he powered past three ‘Super men’ from the centre of midfield before he was cruelly brought down yards from the box? That’s our man.
Now that he has teamed up with the ‘Special One’ in a team of extra-ordinary men, the highly rated youngster is headed for the skies. Throughout the game at the Bridge, the Italian champions shimmered with menace.
And as frustrations took toll on the Londoners, Drogba saw red in the closing minutes and Terry was seen to shout obscenities at the fourth official as he left the pitch after fulltime. “We showed that we are a great team, because we adapted well despite the changes. The key was that we played a great first half, and that made it easy. It has been a great week for me,” a joyous Mariga said.
His boss, Mourinho, said of his former club: “This is a team that lost a semi-final with a goal that was not a goal, lost a semi-final on penalties, lost a final on penalties, lost a semi-final in a game they should win 3-0 with three penalties. This is the history of this club and these players.
“It is a history of frustration. Tonight, they felt immediately that Inter were the best team and this brings frustration to great players. These are my players, my people, but today I was the enemy and the enemy won. I celebrated a lot in the dressing room. It was a big victory for my team. I love Chelsea, I love this stadium, I love these people, but I am a professional.”
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich walked alone across the pitch to the dressing room after the game as Inter fans sang Mourinho’s name and the visiting fans sang “Bye bye Carletto”. What a humbling experience for the ‘Russian Emperor’! And with Mariga among the protagonists, it’s time we uncorked that champagne.