Southampton's Victor Wanyama recalls nightmare in Nairobi

By Ben SmithBBC Sport
Wanyama upset by Kenya terror attack

It is almost a month to the day since Victor Wanyama received the phone call he will never forget.

The Southampton squad had just finished their pre-match meal in a Liverpool hotel before the team coach left for Anfield, when he was told his home city had been targeted by a gang of terrorists.

"It was a horrible moment," he recalled. "It was very difficult, so close to the game."

The broad, beaming smile that has lit up a room overlooking the St Mary's pitch for much of our interview, gives way to something altogether more thoughtful as Wanyama, 22, recalls the nightmare that unfolded in Nairobi on Saturday, 21 September.

"My friend called me first. He said: 'there are thieves in the Westgate shopping centre, they have hostages'. I thought 'how can that happen?' Then my cousin called. It was terrorists.

"That was the moment that made me worry because my thoughts turned to my family. He couldn't tell me if everyone was OK because he was not at home. My family shop there, it is only 10 minutes from my home. They could have been there.

"But when I rang home I found out everyone was OK. I didn't have time to call my friends to ask them. It was too close to the match by that time."

Victory at Anfield should be a memory for Wanyama to cherish, but now it is just a blur.

"It was very hard to play thinking of what was happening back home, knowing that people were suffering inside Westgate, possibly my friends. My brain was not in the game. I was just worried."

Four weeks have passed and we now know 67 people were killed by Islamist terrorists. Many more were injured. It is clear Wanyama is still struggling to make sense of what happened and what it means. Kenya's international matches were called off last week as a mark of respect.

Home and family remain cornerstones of Wanyama's life. He speaks to his mother, Mildred, most days and his father Noah is his biggest fan, albeit from afar.

His childhood in Kenya was tough but loving. His family could afford food but not football boots. It was left to young Victor to take matters into his own hands.

"I won my first pair of boots at an Under-10s tournament for being the best player. I was so happy. They were yellow. I had to take them off again a few minutes later because they hurt. It took me a long time to get used to wearing football boots."

In those days, Wanyama had torn posters of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes on his bedroom walls. Michael Essien was another hero.

"I used to watch them. It was great watching them play, they were fantastic players," he says.

Wanyama is sitting within touching distance, his muscular 6ft 2in frame hidden under casual clothing, his friendly face in shadow thanks to a black baseball cap, pulled down over his forehead.

He is warm and honest, thoughtful and grounded. He talks about returning home to Kenya, about walking around Nairobi where he enjoys meeting those who look up to him. He likes the normality, the human contact.

He is unfazed by his £12.5m price tag, the price Southampton paid Celtic for a player they believe can bring a genuine physical presence and an eye for goal to their midfield.

The club also believe he is only part of the way to fulfilling his vast potential.

Saints fans will hope to see more of that at Old Trafford on Saturday, a place he has only ever visited in his dreams.

"I used to support Manchester United," he adds. "Growing up, I was always wishing and dreaming of playing in England. I am happy to be here."

At Celtic he will always be remembered fondly. The Scottish champions paid Beerschot in Belgium just £900,000 for a raw talent. The fans took to him immediately, not least because he wore the No 67 shirt in honour of the Lisbon Lions.

The fact he scored 13 goals in 91 games also helped, as did a career-defining performance to inspire Celtic to a memorable victory over Barcelona and, famously, made Rod Stewart cry.external-link

"When I went to Celtic everything changed. I became a Celtic fan, because the passion of the fans just drove me crazy. I loved it."

The West End of Glasgow became his adopted home, but the lure of England and the ambition of Southampton's executive chairman Nicola Cortese convinced him to move south and become the first Kenyan to play in the Premier League.

"It is a good thing to represent my country. Football can bring people together where I am from. And it is a fantastic chance for me to show the world that Kenyans can play football."

Wanyama need only look within his own family to know that. His older brother, McDonald Mariga, was part of Inter Milan's Champions League winning squad in 2010.

His father was an accomplished footballer and coach of Nairobi's AFC Leopards. His mother played netball, his sister, Mercy, is in the United States on her way to becoming a professional basketball player. "We loved sport. My brother was a mentor for me."

But times have changed. Now home is a townhouse in Hampshire, where two framed pictures of him celebrating his Celtic goal against Barcelona hang proudly on display. Now Wanyama wants to play European football with Southampton.

"No one at the club is surprised at our success so far this season. But it is too early to talk about where we will finish. We want to take it game by game and to keep improving."

The Wanyama family motto was 'always do better', something Victor never forgets. His family are due to visit him in Southampton in the coming weeks but when he steps out at Old Trafford on Saturday, they, and all of Kenya, will stop to watch him realise a dream.

Whatever the result, there will be a phone call home after the game. Wanyama is determined to ensure that this time, it is good news.

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