Capped 50 times by the Kenya, John ‘Mo’ Muiruri is arguably one of the best midfielders of his generation.
The 40-year-old moved to Europe in 2001 from Tusker and joined Belgian side KAA Gent where he spent four seasons before crossing over to Germinal Beerschot in July 2004. He then moved to Norway after a season, joining Moss FK, where he finally settled until he retired recently.
Muiruri now plans to transition into fulltime coaching. He is currently taking his coaching badges which will culminate in an elite coaching course in the Netherlands. He continues preparing for the big leap into professional coaching by training academy kids at Norwegian third-tier side Oppegard Club alongside another former Kenyan international, Bonaventure Maruti.
Before that, he was the head coach during the 2017-18 season but did not renew his contract as he opted to go for advanced coaching classes.
But just how did a boy who grew up in rural Nakuru get to the big stage in football at a time when the local game had little or absolutely no television coverage? Muiruri was lucky to join top-tier side Utalii in 1998 immediately after High School. From then, his career continued on an upward trajectory.
“Utalii was my first real club other than youth football. While at Kisii High School, we had a team to be proud of that had the likes of Simeon Mulama, Ramadhan Balala, Sunday Eyenga, Geoffrey Jambe, the late Godfrey Chibole and Abdul Akhonya, to mention but a few. In short, we had a great team and we prided ourselves in the fact that no one could beat us at our own turf, in the Premier League or whatever,” reveals Muiruri.
“Utalii came calling for a friendly at Kisii High School - we lost 1-0 but I had a good game. The team then lifted the league a month later. After my Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams, I went to play for them in the East and Central Club Championship in Zanzibar.”
Muiruri needed no time to settle at Utalii and was called up to the national team after impressing in the East and Central Club Championship. He was the youngest player in the national team then. Muiruri kept his place and jersey number 10 for ten years consistently. Important to note, is that he played professionally in Kenya for just three years, won two league titles and was the runners-up Footballer of the Year twice before moving to Belgium in 2001 to join Gent.
“I moved to Europe rather unexpectedly. There was a Belgian businessman at the Coast who was following my progress mostly through national team games. He sent teammate Robert Mambo to me with promises of taking me to Europe. He requested for my details; passport number, birth details and all that. I gave them to Mambo to take with him to the Coast,” said Muiruri.
“In January 2001, we were playing Gabon at home and he had invited a scout from Gent to Mombasa for a holiday and they watched the game together on TV. Two days later, I was on a flight to Belgium for trials and was signed. I actually met that guy for the first time on the day I was traveling to Belgium!”
Having played in Europe for over 17 years, Muiruri says his humble background is what propelled him to remain focused and that also shaped his future.
“I have now been in Europe so long that so much passed me by. I just had to sit down and think critically about what I really wanted. Having been raised up poor and on a one meal a day in my childhood, I got the chance of my life to change that. Moreover, I have always been in love with football so I needed not so much motivation to do what I loved most for money.”
Muiruri is now a permanent resident of Norway, but he refuses to forget his past and the people that moulded him. He singles out former Harambee Stars manager, the late Reinhardt Fabisch, for special praise.
“It would be so unfair to try and compare coaches. They say even a fool teaches you how not to be one. In my hometown, Nakuru, we have really great coaches who helped me love the game. My first coach was the late Andrew Ochilo, he taught me basics like positioning. Then Omar Matendechere, dad of Ramadhan Balala was instrumental in my career. Then came someone I respect so much, Sammy Nyongesa. We used to call him "The Brains" because he emphasised on using them. These were my pioneers but there was also Jacob "Ghost" Mulee, Christian Chukwu and Fabisch who harvested on what had been planted and also instilled great ideas in me as a player,” said Muiruri.
‘’Fabisch was so intelligent. One simple reason he was successful is that he was a man manager, and by that I mean he never expected a uniformed performance from the team - he used players strengths for the good of the team. It is always important to study people's struggles and try to understand them not boss them," he adds.
This year, Harambee Stars qualified for Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) after a decade and a half in the cold and Muiruri says the key to success in the national team is each player doing what is required of him.
“I have not had the privilege of watching most of our Harambee Stars matches but I remember we used to know what was expected of us individually and as a team. I remember always saying to the guys; if you are a street sweeper, sweep it so clean that in your obituary it will state here lies the best street sweeper ever, in short do your job in every department and all will be well."
Despite staying and playing in Europe for the better part of his career, his best memories remain when he was starting out in Kenya.
“My best memories were always with the fans in the Kenyan league. The abuse I would get from fans as a 19-year-old made me strong. Many won't believe, but I didn't know how I was feared until my friend told me all the fans insult you and your mom because they are scared; punish them. It was a game changer in my career,” he said.
“My worst memory was when we played Oserian Fastac and won 1-0 on the last day of the league. We were tied on points with Mumias Sugar and they needed to win 10-0 to win the league ahead of us, and they did just that for real!"
His advice to upcoming footballers? “Everyone knows there's greener pastures on the other side, but in the meantime can you please work on sharpening what is lacking in your game? Is your left foot weak? Is your reaction slow? Is your leadership wanting? Analyse yourself and make yourself better. Believe me, you won't have to look for clubs, your performance will attract them.”
Mo, as he is fondly known by his peers, harbours a deep ambition to coach Kenya in the near future but for now, the happily married father of two is well settled in Norway.
“Life has been good. I am happy and really enjoying life in Norway. It is where I call home now and my family likes it here.”