The Monday Profile: Taiwo Atieno
One of the curiosities of African football has been the relatively undistinguished performance of national teams from the east side of the continent. Ethiopia and Sudan may have won continental titles in 1962 and 1970 but that was before the era when most countries participated, and the cultural and ethnic make up of those states is quite different from the the cluster of countries that tends to be referred to as” East Africa” in geographic and political terms – the territories that were at the heart of British colonial power – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Of these, Kenya has always been a sporting powerhouse – with countless triumphs in athletics – both inside and outside stadia. With a population of 41 million, the country has exercised a key role in the geopolitical sphere: its tourist sector is more heavily developed than elsewhere and its manufacturing base is the largest in the region. Political instability has been chronic, but nevertheless, the ingredients remain for the country to play a wider role on the world stage, providing a launch pad to achieve greater success in other arenas such as sport.
But the national football team, the Harambee Stars, have a singularly abysmal record. A squad drawing on players from club outposts as far apart as Vietnam, India and Finland once again look unlikely to quality for the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. A 2-1 win over Angola in March provided hope but an earlier embarrassing defeat at the hands of Guinea-Bissau had already set ambitions back and a 1-0 reverse in the return fixture against the Angolans in Luanda in June has all but extinguished hopes of qualifying. Worse, close rivals Uganda under Bobby Williamson now need only a point to progress to what looks like it will be the most open tournament in years. Nor has the picture been much rosier at club level – Gor Mahia’s African Cup Winner’s Cup triumph in 1987 remains the sole pinnacle of success.
Yet the Stars do possess some serious talent. Often, the emergence of a single world class player can transform a seriously underperforming country into a contender and in McDonald Mariga of Inter Milan, Kenya may have this. Indeed, it was Mariga who lashed in a screamer in that first game against the palancas negras. Mariga has started promisingly at Inter after a move from Parma and despite the erstwhile attentions of Manchester City. He, and Auxerre striker Dennis Oliech constitute a duo who should trouble any opponents (the latter has an international striking record of 27 goals in 37 games).
Enter Brixton-born Taiwo Atieno, son of a Kenyan newspaper man and an English mother and a recent recruit to the national squad after declaring that it had long been his dream to turn out for the Harambee Stars.
Just 25, he has tallied up just the four games for Kenya to date, but his club career has been truly picaresque. Now, Torquay United look set to allow him to grace the halls of an English club for the ninth time; the majority of his commissions being on loan after an early spell at Walsall. Most recently, Atieno was at Luton Town and he scored two doubles in cup ties last season, before turning out for Stevenage on a solitary occasion.
Such a stop-start club career perhaps doesn’t augur well, but Atieno has achieved greater success in the United States – scoring in a famous CONCACAF Champions League encounter for USL club Puerto Rico Islanders against Liga Deportivo Alajuelense, one time continental top dogs from Costa Rica. Tall and strong and possessing “all the attributes”, he perhaps deserves the chance Martin Ling is providing.