‘Engineer’ Olunga begins Qatar sojourn, but is the move good for his career?

Analysis Jacob Icia

Harambee Stars ace Michael Olunga’s move to Qatari giants Al Duhail SC has attracted mixed reactions from his fans in Kenya, some questioning the decision – others commending the former Gor Mahia striker for the bold move.

Although the move from Japan’s top league side Kashiwa Reysol is done and dusted, the move costing the oil-rich Qatari side a tidy Sh. 0.8 billion, questions abound to the career progression of the mercurial striker, many viewing the move as a climb-down to his career, and one motivated by the financial windfall.

The disappointed ones also feel that Olunga, who has shone in every league he has played in, is at his prime of his career, at 26,  and would have therefore moved to elite European leagues, having proven his knack for goals, power, and impeccable discipline.

Prime in the sense that he banged 28 goals in 32 matches for Reysol in the just concluded season in Japan, winning both the Golden Boot and the Most Valuable Player awards. Noteworthy, he was outclassing his peers despite the fact that his Reysol could not even break into the top-five teams in the league, finishing seventh in the competition.

Those who rubberstamp the move feel there is every reason for the man who grew up in Nairobi’s Lucky Summer humble setting, and now in pursuit of the Qatari riyals.

Harambee Stars assistant coach Twahir Muhiddin is one happy man, backing Olunga’s star to continue shining even in the peninsular Arab country.

Thrive anywhere

“You see when such opportunities come players consider their personal interests, which could be different with what the fans think. Football is a short-term career and there are risks that can make it even shorter, so it is not easy to turn down big opportunities (in terms of money). Importantly, it must be understood Olunga has a manager who is more influential in such decisions, and has his interests too.

“The sweet end of it is that Olunga has proved throughout his career he can thrive anywhere, and it cannot be any different in Qatar,” said the veteran coach.

Muhiddin observes that with the FIFA World Cup 2022 edition going to Qatar next year, the country will be on global radar than ever before, and the Upper Hill Secondary School alumnus will benefit a lot.

Olunga poses for a picture after picking his J1 MVP award

“There is a wave that comes with the World Cup host in different ways, and for sure Olunga will gain much from it. As coaches we know him, he is a very disciplined player who always goes an extra mile especially by training on his own, so he will soon be on the limelight again if he sustains the hard work there – in a very strategic season,” he noted.

While accepting the J1 League of Japan is more competitive than Qatari, Muhiddin reminded the latter is also attracting big names in the recent past signaling growth. According to the Bandari FC Technical Director, the move does not necessarily mean he cannot play in European elite before he retires.

‘A’ student

“Well, of course the older you are, the fewer the chances of breaking into the top European leagues, but it also depends on the player’s manager. Let’s not forget he played for Girona (Spanish La Liga) while on loan from China. There could still be a way to navigate him there but his success should not be measured by playing in Europe, but his impact in every club he plays for. He has for example set an example to our young players that they can rise to stardom even in lowly ranked clubs through personal hard work,” offered the coach.

Experienced football agent George Bwana shared the sentiments, also strongly backing Olunga to take the Qatari league by storm.

“In football it has never been about whether a certain club is the best place to be, what matters is if the player is happy. I know many people think it is not the right thing because he has already played in China and Japan, expecting a move to France, Germany or England. However it is not as easy as that, it’s easier said than done. The thing is if Olunga followed the money, and every player plays for money, in my opinion it is okay.”

Bwana also said Olunga’s chances to ever feature in the popular English Premier League, which he personally expressed desire for in his teenage by poking former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger to sign him, have diminished considering his age.

Inborn instinct

“That’s for sure, because they want players who can play for them for up to three years and still retain market value for other leagues. If he plays in Qatar for around two years, it would be hard for him to make an English club move.

“However, there is something special with him. He is an A student, which helps him a lot. He is talented and can think the way ordinary talented players won’t which gives him a chance still. He can surprise people, if he wins the Golden Boot in Qatar you never know, at 29 a big club would still want to sign him.”

KCB Football Club head coach Zedekiah ‘Zico’ Otieno, who also coached Olunga recently in the national team says he still has a lot to offer at club level.

“Olunga is a rare breed of scorers whose scoring instinct is not just worked for, but is inborn. Such players will always be sought after. That’s why you see players being signed from South America to Europe, because of the special ability to score goals all the time. He definitely has a lot in store,” noted the former Kenyan international.

Locally Olunga featured for Liberty Academy between 2012 and 2016, a period within which he was loaned to then Kenyan Premier League side Thika United, Tusker FC and Gor Mahia scoring three, nine and 19 goals for the clubs respectively, in league matches.

It is in 2015 however that he shone the most, while with K’Ogalo, winning Kenya’s Premier League MVP Award (2015 season) and subsequently secured a move to Swedish side IF Djurgardens, where he scored 12 goals in 27 appearances. In the following year, he joined Guizhou Zhicheng but was loaned to La Liga’s Girona after only nine appearances, netting two for the Chinese side.

Olunga in Girona colours

At Girona, in his 14 matches, he scored three before switching to Reysol in 2018 where registered a whopping 55 in 66 matches.

His financial future could have been secured by the moves across the continents,  but what of his football career? What does the future hold for the ‘Engineer’?