A majority of inhabitants from the Rift Valley region are well known globally for producing some of the best track and marathon stars.
The runners, much like Germany footballers, have become the nation’s flag-bearers. They have made the country visible on the global stage and inspired a new generation of athletes.
In fact, a good number of record breakers today are drawn from Rift Valley. Names like 800m world record holder David Rudisha, world marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge and world women marathon record holder Brigid Kosgei are among some of the notable athletes from the region.
However, the dynamics seem to be changing as brilliant footballers are slowly starting to emerge from this region that is traditionally known as the home of athletic stars.
Predominantly, football has been characterised as a sports that seats well in Nyanza, Western, Coast and to a certain extend Central regions.
However, Jimmy Rero who played for Nakuru All Stars in the 1960s as a defender helped to open the way for footballers from Rift Valley region and the current crop of stars are even doing it better.
Rero’s son Tom was a regular with KCC Eldoret and was voted 1998 Kenya Football Federation Player of the Year.
When Kericho Olympic Youth Centre was established in 1974 they produced a top goalkeeper David Sawe who also played for Abeingo FC of Nakuru and also as a reserve for the national team Harambee Stars.
After Sawe came Joe Birgen of Waterworks FC before it was renamed Ulinzi Stars.
Another talented ball juggler from Rift Valley was the late David Chirchir who juggled selling second-hand clothes in Gikomba Market and playing for Re-Union FC.
Then there was former Harambee Stars midfielder Sammy Sholei. He was an effective midfielder who played for Rivatex and Raymond FC (both now defunct) before moving to Kenya Breweries (now renamed Tusker FC).
Sholei was part of the Kenya Breweries team that reached the finals of the CAF Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994 that failed to hang onto a 2–2 away draw to succumb to a shocking 3–0 loss at the hands of Zaire’s DC Motema Pembe in the return leg in Nairobi.
He was also a Harambee Stars player, having earned his first call up under coach Mohamed Kheri back in 1991.
He earned 20 caps for Kenya, including appearances in World Cup qualifiers. He retired from club and international football in 1997.
Alongside Sholei is Joseph Ruto. Ruto played for Tusker before crossing over to Tanzania’s money bags, Azam FC.
Ruto came back and joined Bandari FC and also spent a season with Posta Rangers before joining Mathare United back in 2011. He featured twice for the national team.
Later current Kenyan Premier League champions Gor Mahia joined the fray by also picking football talent from Rift Valley when the late James Sianga picked John Kiplangat from Karabok Secondary School in Homa Bay County.
He contributed immensely to the K’Ogalo resurgence under coach James Sianga from 2012-2014 before coach Zdravko Logarusic sold him to Chemelil Sugar.
While many of these older footballers from the Rift Valley were few, the current crop who are playing in the KPL have made many to realise that Rift Valley is no longer only about athletics.
The likes of Gor Mahia’s Nicholas Kipkirui has made it possible for youngsters in Rift Valley to also pursue football as a career and not only concentrate on athletics.
We take a look at current footballers who have betrayed their calling of being elite runners and have established themselves as dominant football players in KPL.
Nicholas Kipkirui (Gor Mahia)
When Gor Mahia recruited Nicholas Kipkirui from Zoo Kericho in the 2019 January transfer window, many pundits did not anticipate him announcing his arrival by scoring against Egyptian giants Zamalek FC in a Caf Confederation Cup tie.
First of all, one would not have imagined that the then Gor coach Hassan Oktay would gamble by throwing a greenhorn to play as lead striker in such a highly charged and crucial match.
In a game where everything counted, what did the tactician see in the youngster that others did not? The player was literally thrown in the deep end of the pool. Kipkirui did indeed swim so successfully by scoring the third crucial goal.
Perception is sometimes not everything. In the prism of our Kenya football, Kipkirui had everything against him. First his surname betrayed him, second he had never played on a bigger platform.
Playing against K’Ogalo’s international arch-rivals, stage fright would have been a real issue. Third, he was plugged to play number 9 for none other than Gor Mahia in front of their kowtowing crazy, demanding and unforgiving fans.
In reference to the history of the club, Kipkirui occupied a position held by previous amazing strikers like William Chege Ouma, Hesborn Omolo, Peter Dawo, Stephen Odiaga, Stephen Okumu, Dan Sserunkuma, Michael Olunga and Meddie Kagere. All serial goal poachers.
Wesley Kemboi (Kisumu All Stars)Wesley Kemboi plays for Kisumu All Stars. The speedy striker had shone brightly for Western Stima being one of the longest serving footballers in that team before leaving last year.
He won several Player of the Month awards during the last campaign in KPL
In 2016 while playing for Western Stima, Kemboi was named September’s Player of the Month.
He last played for Harambee Stars under Frenchman Henri Michel in a friendly against South Africa, but has not caught the eye of the current technical bench.
The 33-year-old is currently training with All Stars as they await their relegation playoff against Vihiga United.
Isaac Kipyegon (AFC Leopards)
Another Zoo Kericho product, Kipyegon joined AFC Leopards in October 2018 and has grown to be one of Ingwe’s crucial defenders.
The defender had been one of the most consistent players in the Kericho-based side something that he replicated in the blue and white Leopards jersey after scoring twice in Ingwe’s 2-1 win over Ulinzi Stars in December the same years.
Gideon Kibet (Chemelil Sugar FC)
Gideon Kibet is a professional football player from Kericho. He has also played in Kenya Premier League for Zoo FC. He currently plays as a defender for Chemelil Sugar.
Though he has never scored in the KPL, Kibet has been an influential player for Chemelil despite the financial challenges currently facing the club.