x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Kenya's Victor Wanyama has a taste for victory with Celtic

The Celtic midfielder is not chickening out of a challenge as he braves cold and difficult conditions in faraway Scotland.

Victor Wanyama's journey from playing in Nairobi in 38ºC heat to zero temperature in Glasgow has not been easy.
Victor Wanyama's journey from playing in Nairobi in 38ºC heat to zero temperature in Glasgow has not been easy.

"Chicken," Glasgow Celtic's Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama says with a laugh.

"I'm addicted to chicken. I have it twice a day, sometimes more. Kenyan chicken, Scottish chicken, it doesn't matter. Something's not right in my life if I don't eat chicken. I've tried to hide the fact that I eat so much chicken at Celtic, but people are starting to realise. But I don't worry, chicken is good for you."

The only worry Celtic fans have about the increasingly impressive 21 year old, who scored twice in Saturday's 5-0 win at St Mirren, is that he will leave their club.

Vultures have been circling around the chicken enthusiast. Queens Park Rangers had their £6.5 million (Dh38.3m) - plus 20 per cent sell-on fee - turned down in August.

Celtic last week offered Wanyama an improved contract to take him beyond his current one, which ends in 2014. They want to tie him down to prevent him fleeing the roost.

"I want to play at the best level I can," he says.

"That's normal for every footballer. But I'm very happy at Celtic and I'm loving playing in the Champions League."

Signing for QPR may have meant the perceived glamour of the Premier League and games against Manchester United and Arsenal rather than Ross County or Inverness, but staying at Celtic means he plays in front of three times as many fans as at Loftus Road.

Plus, in the Champions League Celtic are the unlikely second placed team in Group G after drawing at home against Benfica and beating Spartak Moscow away.

Barcelona are the group leaders and the pair meet in Camp Nou tonight, where Wanyama's many suitors will be watching how he does against the Catalans.

"We're very happy with our form," the Kenyan says.

"We're working hard in the hardest league to play in the world, the Champions League. And we travel to Barcelona confident that we can avoid losing.

"We'll play as we always play and that's to win. We went to Moscow to win and we'll go to Barcelona to win.

"We'll travel with confidence and we'll travel with a huge support. We won't travel to defend."

Barca are not impenetrable at home. Spartak scored twice in the opening Group G game and were within 19 minutes of victory before Lionel Messi scored two to improve their 17-game unbeaten European home run, one that 4,900 travelling Celtic supporters hope will end tonight.

"They have players who can change games," Wanyama says.

"I look at Messi - and also Cristiano Ronaldo - as players who improve year on year.

"That's what I want to do. In the midfield, [Andres] Iniesta and Xavi are two players I really admire, then there's Xabi Alonso and Yaya Toure at Madrid and Manchester City. Yaya is the best African player, he's so strong and has great ability to run with the ball at speed."

Wanyama's journey from Nairobi, where he played in Kenya's 2-1 friendly defeat to South Africa last week, to Glasgow has not been straightforward, and begins with his brother, McDonald Mariga Wanyama, who is currently on loan to Parma from Inter Milan.

"I left Kenya at 16 to see my brother, who played at Helsingborg in Sweden. He was my idol and still is, he really helped me.

"I played there for six months as a youth player. The facilities were much better than in Kenya and it was the summer there so it wasn't so cold."

He returned to Kenya when his brother left for Parma. Then the younger brother was offered a trial with Beerschot in Antwerp, Belgium.

"On my first day I couldn't believe how cold it was. I ran back into the changing room and the coach asked what was wrong. I told him that it was freezing, that I'm from a country on the equator where I play football in 38° heat.

"I'd never played when it was 15°, let alone zero. The coach laughed and told me I had to get used to it. He gave me some gloves and a hat.

"It was still cold, so I put a second pair of gloves on and a coat. Then I didn't stop running because it was too cold when I stopped. The coach liked that."

He liked Wanyama enough to offer a contract, too. But life was tough for a 17-year-old boy far from home.

"Nobody spoke English," he says. "So I felt a little lost. I was speaking with my hands.

"If I wanted chicken then I had to pretend to be a chicken. It worked. People understood."

Wanyama got his poultry fix and started to settle. He was raw, but already an international footballer, having made his Kenya debut at the age of 15.

"It was just a few minutes, but I did well," he says.

Kenya have never qualified for the World Cup finals and have not played in the biannual African Cup of Nations since 2004.

The country was suspended by Fifa, citing government interference in the national side, in 2004 and again in 2006 and are currently ranked a paltry 128th in the world, 12 places behind the UAE.

"We had our problems with football in Kenya, but we're getting better," Wanyama says. "If I'd stayed in Kenya I'd be a very different player and it's the same for other players. We now have players in Belgium, France, Israel and Norway.

"The domestic league is improving too. Our aim, which I think is realistic, is to reach the finals [of the Cup of Nations]."

Football is becoming more popular in the East African country of 41 million. He concedes that Kenya is known for distance runners, and he says he considers David Rudisha, a compatriot who hold the world and Olympic record in the 800 metres, a friend.

"We're all very proud of our runners … but Kenyans love football too. The leagues in Italy, Spain and England are popular on television, but I prefer to support the local teams and my brothers who play for them.

"There can be more than 25,000 for a derby game in Nairobi between my old club AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia.

"It is like Celtic and Rangers."

Wanyama joined Celtic from Beerschot for £900,000 in 2011 and has played in Scotland's "Old Firm" game several times.

"I enjoyed it," he says, "and it's strange with Rangers not being around, but we have many games to concentrate on.

"We did well to reach the Champions League after beating my old club Helsingborg. Our manager, Neil Lennon, loves football and loves winning.

"Even in training, he always wants to win, win, win. He always wants 100 per cent from you, which helps you improve. I can see that he was a good player."

Wanyama, who wears number 67 to honour Celtic's 1967 European Cup winning side, is praised for his strength, tackling, passing and calmness in the heart of the team.

"I'll always give my best. I'll stay focused, hopefully keep on improving. I'm still young and have time to learn, but I feel like I'm getting better all the time."

The Celtic fans, some of the younger ones who have recorded: "Give me goals, Wanyama, in the Champions League" to the tune of Eddy Grant's Gimme Hope Jo'anna will agree.

"There's a player we call big Victor," goes the song, "he runs the midfield and the Celtic defence. But the best thing about our Victor is, his goalscoring is becoming immense."

Goals may be a tall order in Camp Nou tonight, but the Kenyan knows those fans will be behind him.

"No matter what happens in Barcelona, they will not believe the incredible atmosphere when they play in Glasgow," he says.

He will be up for that one in two weeks.

After some chicken, of course.

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