Benson Omalla – Boy Wonder

With the game running out and Kisumu Day fans growing ever more restless, an inviting ball is floated into the box where teenage prodigy Benson Ochieng Oluoch – or as he is better known, Benson Omalla – has pulled away from the last line of Orongo School’s defence dragging with him at least 3 defenders. Weighing up his options in next to no time, he opts to chest the ball down in the most nonchalant manner for an onrushing midfielder who drives into the space vacated by Orongo’s backline as they scramble to cover one of the most exciting football talents emerging from the lakeside city. With the goal at his mercy, the aforementioned midfielder tries to lob the keeper. As the ball floats above the keeper’s outstretched hands towards the goal, silence engulfs the cold Kisumu morning. He has to score.

He doesn’t! Incredibly, the lobbed effort is too heavy. Kisumu Day students/fans – some dressed in green sweaters and some in white vests – lined up along the touchline can barely believe what they’ve seen. Their team has squandered yet another opportunity to break the deadlock. Football is a simple game, they say, and yet it is so difficult to do the simple things. But, in one move, Benson Omalla did a very simple thing effortlessly to create space and set up a glorious chance for his team. His movement, his touch, his vision and finally the execution of it all was magic. I travelled 350 kilometres from Nairobi to watch Benson Omalla in Kisumu, and he conjured magic right in front of my eyes.

Saturday morning in Kisumu is unusually wet. It had been raining for the entire week leading up to the weekend. I brave the elements and make my way to Kisumu Day where I hope to have an audience with the hottest young talent in the country, a 17-year-old making waves in the Kenya Premier League. My handler, Coach Anthony Oballa, head coach of reigning Chapa Dimba National Champions Mayatta United had made arrangements for me to speak to him. He insisted I do so. If you know Anthony Oballa and what he has been able to achieve in football, then you know his knowledge and judgement of young talent are top-notch. I trust his word.  

It’s the first game of the pool stages of the annual Kisumu Boys Open (KB Open), a competition organized by my alma mater Kisumu Boys that features schools from around Kisumu County. This first match is played at Kisumu Day grounds Coach Oballa informs me that he won’t be present in our meeting with Omalla. So instead he sends Coach Carina Baraza to guide me through security checks at the school gate before I am allowed to speak to Benson. We get in and find shelter under the lush, green trees that perfectly align the streets of Kisumu Day. I notice students slowly gathering around the football pitch as they finish their breakfast – a hearty serving of white porridge and oversized mandazis. It’s time for the game. Shortly after, a group of players burst through the crowd onto the pitch to begin their warm-up. Coach Carina lights up and excitedly points towards the group of players warming up.

 “Ndio yule, ako ndani anatafuta Ball. Amevaa number 10!” 

I clean the raindrops off my glasses as I squint, trying to see that far up the pitch and then I finally see him. Boy wonder. Kisumu Day’s Number 10. School Captain. Chapa Dimba Na Safaricom All-Star. Fresh from scoring a hat-trick in the Kenya Premier League.The pride and hope of Manyatta United, his boyhood club and Awasi border, his birthplace. He stands out from the rest.

Coach Carina pulls him from the rondo he was in and politely asks him to come talk to The Dug Out. He obliges. Great footballers aren’t the greatest talkers. They prefer to do their talking on the pitch. Benson isn’t any different. He is shy and reserved. It’s a trait that runs through the family, a fact I’ll discover later. Soon as I begin speaking to him, we are surrounded by his schoolmates who are eager to listen to him speak. I ask him how he juggles football and schoolwork. He tells me it’s a challenge that has been made easier by his school as they fully support talented students in pursuit of their dreams. For him, the goal is to be a professional footballer. But before he becomes one, he has to strike a critical balance between classwork and his true passion. A candidate in this year’s KCSE, his Form 4 White classmates inform me that any perceived loss of focus by Omalla is unfounded as he performs well in class. “Ako sawa class sana”, they tell proudly me. 

From an early age, Benson was destined for greatness. In 2015, while playing for Chipolopolo, he received the Man of the Match award after scoring twice in a game at Kisumu Stadium. He then joined Manyatta United where, under the tutelage of Coach Anthony Oballa and Coach Carina Baraza, he blossomed into a fine striker. “Manyatta United tulianza tukiwa wadogo. Tulianza na Under 12, nikapromotiwa kuenda Under 14, then Under 16, then Senior team.” Omalla recalls. Limited by a lack of training equipment, worn-out footballs, broken cones and uneven training pitch, he was a key cog in the Manyatta United team that won several tournaments including Copa Coca-Cola and the Provincial title. Ultimately, Chapa Dimba na Safaricom became the Everest they wanted to summit.

The 2019 Chapa Dimba Na Safaricom tournament was the platform Benson Omalla craved and when it kicked off, he took his chance with both hands. At only 17 years of age, his performances in the Nyanza Regional Finals drew a lot of interest from scouts and coaches. His brace in the final against Nyamira Boys sealed a 5-0 win, ensuring that he won the Golden Boot with 5 goals and helping his team qualify for the National Finals in Meru. His performances in the Nyanza Regional finals were consistently at high levels. He scored, assisted and led Manyatta United’s forward line with such distinction that his name was one of the first to be considered for the Chapa Dimba All-Star Team. Unsurprisingly, he was bound for Salou, Spain for a 10-day training camp that he credits for his development so far.

Spain was a world away, literally and figuratively. New boots and swag, all-weather pitches, world-class training, La Liga-qualified coaches and a Champions League winner, Luis Garcia, sharing incredible football wisdom all within a span of 10 days. The icing on the cake was the visit to Camp Nou, one of football’s great cathedrals to watch Barcelona beat Getafe 2-0. Benson had learnt the basics of the game during his time at Manyatta United. In Spain, he learnt the finer details of the game. He became more aware of the tactical side and the mental fortitude required to be a star. The coaches emphasized the importance of unreserved dedication to improving one’s self as a player. Watching Barcelona beat Getafe 2-0 just days after their historic collapse at Anfielto Liverpool in the Champions League Semi-Finals perhaps provided the most important lesson of all, dealing with setbacks. Benson saw what he could become, what he could achieve, where he could play and the levels he could reach. Manyatta United had lit the spark. The trip to Spain turned into a burning desire. “Nikimaliza shule (nataka) nicheze kama one or two years (KPL) and then niende abroad” Benson told me.

Duncan Odhiambo, Benson’s younger sibling speaks proudly of his brother. In fact, Benson is his hero. He follows all his games closely. Duncan was at Kisumu Stadium to watch Benson bag his first top-flight hat trick. He giddily tells me, “Alifunga mbili first half, akafunga moja second half”. He was there on November 25th, 2019 to watch Benson score a 91st-minute winner against KCB, securing all three points for Western Stima in a tight Kenya Premier League match. 

Duncan informs me that despite having the world at his feet, Benson has remained grounded and down to earth just as he was before all the attention. He still is the caring and protective big brother. He still walks to school every morning as he used to before. The maturity he’s shown on the pitch is also evident at home as, instead of launching a well-deserved and justified spending spree with his first big cheque after helping Manyatta United lift the Chapa Dimba Na Safaricom National Title, he instead bought household items for his family, the most important being the big tv that is a fixture in their Nyamasaria home today allowing Duncan, Benson and their family to watch their heroes in Europe. Benson Omalla says he models his game to mimic his hero, Marcus Rashford, Manchester United’s young number 10 who is also carrying the hopes and dreams of one of the world’s biggest teams. With such admiration, it is no surprise then that Duncan is following in his big brother’s footsteps by leading the line for Manyatta United’s Under 14 side.

Sunday afternoon, Benson would lead his team to yet another title, the KB Open Tournament. The draw against Orongo only served to harden their resolve and they swept away the competition with relative ease. At this moment, education seems to be holding him back as he only plays home games for Western Stima. It’s impractical for him to be involved with the team full-time. Even then, he has contributed seven goals in the KPL this season and is on course for a double-digit tally. He is also the youngest recipient of the Sports Journalist Association of Kenya Player of the Month Award at only 17 years of age. Most importantly, his exploits have inspired a generation of young footballers in Western Kenya and beyond. 

Benson will keep an eye on the Nyanza Region Chapa Dimba na Safaricom from the sidelines. He is ineligible to play by virtue of being a Kenya Premier League player. But he will be cheering on his old side, Manyatta United, hoping that they repeat their triumph last year. His message to the players participating in this year’s edition is to give the competition their all. “Players wakuwe na morale. Chapa Dimba ni real na inapea vijana platform ya kuonekana huku nje.

*This story was originally published in 2020.

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