Olunga becomes first African to win MVP award in Japan’s topflight league
How red-hot ‘Engineer’ Olunga earned ‘legendary’ status in Japan
Kenyan international reveals secrets behind his success in coronavirus-ravaged campaign.
Many criticised Michael ‘Engineer’ Olunga when he joined Japanese club Kashiwa Reysol in 2018 after the expiry of his loan deal at Spanish side Girona.
Two years later, however, the Kenyan international seems to have earned legendary status following his stunning performances at Kashiwa.
The Harambee Stars assistant captain, 26, who has the knack for drawing hero-worship at almost every club he has turned out for, wrote another chapter in his glory-laden career when he became the first African to claim the Most Valuable Player as well as the golden boot after scoring a staggering 28 goals in the just concluded 2020 J1 League season.
This saw the former Gor Mahia and Djurgårdens IF striker become the eighth player to lift the MVP and golden boot awards in the Japanese league in the same season.
Olunga was in the form of his life in a challenging Covid-19 environment, scoring in almost all the 34 league matches that helped the Nelsinho Baptista trained-side finish seventh (52 points) on their return to topflight league.
While the lanky strihas been tearing apart oppositions defence in Asia, his absence was felt as the national team Harambee Stars literally struggled for goals in the rescheduled two-legged Group G 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers tie against Comoros.
Olunga, who deferred his Engineering (Geospatial Engineering) degree course at the Technical University of Kenya, has so far scored 18 goals in his 40 appearance for the national team, was sorely missed for the fixture due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
While the chances of the third-placed Stars making back-to-back Afcon qualification looks complicated, Olunga’s club career continues to go from strength to strength.
Though Tuesday’s historic feat at the J.League Awards will forever remain in his memory, Olunga has left quite an imprint at most of the clubs he has featured for.
“I would like to thank the almighty God for everything He has done for me. I also thank everybody that has supported me in one way or another to achieve this feat. It has not been easy as you all know this year has been challenging because of the coronavirus pandemic,” Olunga told Standard Sports on phone.
His recent recognition comes barely a year after he joined the growing list of the highest goal scorers in one match in the world when he banged eight goals in Kashiwa’s 13-1 emphatic victory over Kyoto Sanga in last year’s season ender.
Olunga finished the season with 27 league goals as Kashiwa got promoted back to the topflight football after winning the J2 League title the season before.
Though the pandemic slowed down football activities and its competitiveness throughout the world, for Olunga, it was a blessing in disguise as it gave him a chance to improve on the physical aspect of his game.
And having scored a massive 32 goals in all competition last season, Olunga claims he was mentally prepared ahead of what turned out to be difficult, but successful campaign for him.
A chance to self-evaluate
“To be honest, I was more prepared this year than before because I had scored 27 goals last season and there were a lot of expectations from all quarters. The team has heavily banks on me and that made me come into the new season mentally prepared. Though we had some challenges midway through the season, as a professional player I had to stay calm, focused, relaxed and concentrated on my work. I thank God I was able to deliver and score 28 league goals,” he said.
“The four-month quarantine period gave me an opportunity to work on my physical aspect of the game as we embraced the new norm of working-out from home by going to the gym. So, if you look at the Covid-19 period, it gave me a chance to self-evaluate what my strengths and weaknesses were. I also tried to do more research on how I could improve my game.
He continued: “This went along way to help me because the season was very tough with congested fixtures. We were playing back-to-back fixtures (Wednesday-Saturday and Tuesday-Sunday), they were very compressed but the key factor was the game recovery, good conditioning and diet. All these factors combined, they helped me to achieve this great feat this season.”
Even as he insists that he was not surprised by his incredible form this campaign, Olunga feels his ability to quickly adapt to the Japanese culture played a key role in his achievement.
“Despite all the challenges, I had a feeling it was going to be a good season. Of course you can’t dictate how the season will go but what I did was to work hard day-in day-out because I believe there is no substitute for hard work. I tried to improve on my weaknesses and solidify my strength in each passing day,” he explained.
“I have also been able to learn the Japanese way of life and what is expected of me both inside and off the pitch. So, this has really helped me to develop both as a player and a person.”
But the left-footed lanky striker is not new to successes. From record Kenyan Premier League champions Gor Mahia to Djugardens IF in Sweden and Girona in Spain, he has left a legacy there.
Olunga started with Gor Mahia in 2015 when he was named the best player in the Kenyan Premier League after scoring 19 goals to help K’Ogalo lift their third consecutive title with an unbeaten record.
He then moved to Swedish top tier side IF Djurgarden where he netted 12 goals before joining Spanish side Girona on loan from Guizhou Zhicheng in 2018.
And on his La Liga debut, Olunga bagged a hat trick against Las Palmas in a span of 22 minutes to become the first Kenyan and African to score a hat trick in the Spanish top division.
He became the first Kenyan to play and score in a Japanese top tier league when he joined Kashiwa Reysol in 2018 and helped them earn a promotion back to the topflight football, just one year after being relegated.
But it is his remarkable scoring form and interaction with fans that has seen him become a cult hero at Reysol. He has been seen on several occasions celebrating with the Kenyan flag as well as singing with fans the famous ‘Jambo Kenya! Hakuna Matata’ song during his goals celebration moments.
However, Olunga, who has reportedly signed a one-year contract with Kashiwa, was evasive when asked about his future in Japan in the wake of his impressive season. He has been heavily linked with a return to Europe as his current deal nears to expiry next month.
“I will not be talking about moving to another team or league at this time,” he said.