Chameleon: The real face behind the growth of Oliech and Wanyama

His trainees include Victor Wanyama, Humphery Mieno, Jamal Mohammed, Francis Kahata, Willis Oburu, Crispin Olando, among others.

In Summary

• He says he had realised that a number of young talents were going to waste due to neglect by coaches and so he decided to hang up his boots to take up coaching.

• For 29 years, Zuberi has been the heart and soul of a ‘self-made, self-run’ football academy in Majengo slums that has produced football gems in the last 15 years or so. 

Coach Zuberi 'Chameleon' Abdalla at San Siro grounds in Majengo Slums, Nairobi
Coach Zuberi 'Chameleon' Abdalla at San Siro grounds in Majengo Slums, Nairobi

In an interview on a local comedy show, former Harambee Stars captain Dennis Oliech mother, the late Mary Ayuma, attributed his son’s success in football to ‘Chameleon’.

She said: “There was this one gentle boy that was called Chameleon who used to knock on my door every morning asking for Dennis and they would go for hours. But within a short time, I came to understand that Dennis was doing well in football. I thank Chameleon for helping my son get to where he did.”

This left the audience wondering who this 'Chameleon' was and what role, specifically, he had in Oliech’s glorious career.

Chameleon is a nickname for Nairobi’s Majengo slum-born and raised Zuberi Abdalla. He says he realised that a number of young talent was going to waste due to neglect by coaches and so he decided to hang up his boots to take up coaching.

“While playing for Great Gwangi and then Pumwani Sportive, I observed a lot of talent that was going to waste since nobody was taking care of the young boys. With a number of coaches in Pumwani and Majengo giving up on coaching to concentrate on other things, I decided to get into coaching just to save talents and ensure that their basics are right from a tender age. I knew the value of ball control and creativity. My idea was that, when the boys grow up, their basics should be perfect,” he said.

It’s through this initiative that he was able to nurture Oliech and a number of other players who rose to play in the Kenyan Premier League and even the national team.

For 29-year-old Zuberi has been the heart and soul of a ‘self-made, self-run’ football academy in Majengo slums that has produced football gems in the last 15 years or so. And quite spectacularly, he continues to nurture and bring out talented footballers.

His involvement with kids from a tender age has seen over 20 players take the field for the national team, including two captains.

His trainees include Victor Wanyama, Humphery Mieno, Jamal Mohammed, Francis Kahata, Willis Oburu and Crispin Orlando among others.

The 42-year-old is as passionate as ever.  Having helped so many talents come through and make it at the big stage, there are two players whose career growth has pleasantly surprised him.

“I was surprised to see Oliech and Wanyama’s career growth. Initially, they were just ordinary players. But they worked hard. I never thought they will reach the level they managed to,” says Zuberi.

He spotted and got impressed with Oliech when he turned up for Dagoretti Santos in a friendly match against his Sakayonsa side. With Dagoretti outside the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) program cluster, he lured him into his side just to give him more playing time and enable him to enjoy the benefits that came with playing for MYSA teams.

“At 12, Oliech was so good in terms of speed and quality. He enjoyed playing for us because he was able to play a lot of matches which helped him improve on his football,” said Zuberi, who earned the nickname 'Chameleon' for changing teams each and every time.

Former Bandari custodian, Oburu who played alongside Oliech at Sakayonsa confirmed that it was through playing for his side in the MYSA tournaments that Oliech came into the limelight.

“By playing for Sakayonsa, Oliech had the opportunity to play a lot of tough matches at a young age which aided him into rising to the top quickly,” says Oburu.

Zuberi got into the wrong books of Muthurwa’s Country Bus FC when he poached Wanyama.

“Country Bus FC were unhappy with me poaching Wanyama. We in most cases had a tussle with them but they didn’t understand it was for a good course. At Country Bus they wanted him to play for the senior team but he always wanted to play with his agemates at Sakayonsa. Later they came to realise that I was doing the right thing because as soon as he started playing regularly for us, his skills improved tremendously,’’ he says.

Not only did he poach Oliech and Wanyama from other teams, former Gor Mahia skipper Jerim Onyango, Paul Were and Patrick Oboya were also drafted into his team at different times at the beginning of their football careers.

Just like most junior coaches, Zuberi endured the wrath of most parents just to get his players to training or match venue.

“He was a risk-taker. My mother didn’t like the idea of me playing football, but the coach would sneak me out of our house just to play. In most cases, he could time when I have been sent to the shop and he could convince me to follow him to the football grounds without considering the repercussions when I return home in the evening. He would do this time and again and this really annoyed my mother that she ended up declaring him persona non-grata around our house,” Mieno recalled on how, at the age of 12, he was playing for the U18 side, thanks to Zuberi’s trust in him.

Zuberi concurred with Mieno, saying that he at times waited for the kids while they were going for holiday tuition and would divert them to a football venue.

Mieno was full of praise for Zuberi, whom he referred to as the pillar of his success.

“I have never come across someone who trusted me the way Chameleon did. He drafted me into the U18 team even before I became a teenager. In most cases, some coaches and my colleagues would object to some of his decisions but that didn’t bother him as long as he had trust in you,” Mieno adds.

Zuberi trusted his players that he went out of his way to ensure that they understood what was required of them in order to improve on their game.

Oburu recalls how he facilitated his travel alongside Jamal to Norway with the MYSA team for the annual Norway Cup when the odds were against them.

“Most of our team members didn’t have birth certificates that would have assisted them to acquire travel documents. So we didn’t even bother attending the trials. We only had a baptism card.  But after a few days, he came to me, Jamal and Kevin Wachira, and asked for the baptism cards and within three days we had our birth certificates,” Oburu recalls.

“And because we had missed out on the trials, he managed to convince the organisers to conduct another trial, which we attended. Before the match, he told us to give it our best since it would change our lives and that is exactly what happened. We did what we were asked to do and we made the team.”

Zuberi had identified Oburu along the dusty alleys of Majengo trying out goalkeeping with his friends.

“While walking one afternoon, I bumped into a boy who was playing with his friends.  I rushed to inform my colleague that I had spotted a boy that can make a good goalkeeper. We then went and picked him and he joined us. Months later, he was part of the MYSA team that travelled to Norway,” Zubedi recalls how he tapped the former Sofapaka custodian.

Zubedi, though unqualified, assembled kids from his neighbourhood and gave out instructions in the entire duration of the training that would last hours before sessions would end—either at dusk or until the polythene ‘Juala’ ball had worn out.

Years later, Zubedi has not lost his passion for tapping and developing new talent. Every Saturday morning and every day of the school holidays, he will be spotted at the Shauri Moyo Kamukunji grounds taking kids through their paces.

“Most coaches in our leagues are very happy about the basics of the boys that come through my program. It is helping the boys to shape their career by being told everything that they need to know when they take on the pitch,” he said.

He observed that perpetual growth is the key to a better future.

“My methodology revolves around the concept of growth. Focusing on both, physical and psychological development of the players.

"My aim is to encourage and show a path towards professional football to as many kids as possible.

Despite his long experience and success, Zuberi is facing a lot of challenges in regard to the smooth running of his job. Lack of playing fields and kit has negatively affected his programs.

“In the last 15 years, we have seen a number of playing fields being grabbed by private developers. This has denied us playing grounds and in the end, led to a lot of talent going to waste. Lack of enough kit has also affected us. In the past, we would play with ‘Juala’ but now life has changed and if you don’t have the leather ball, you won’t be able to conduct a training session,” Zuberi said.

Zuberi added that winning the faith and trust of parents has also played a key role in his success with kids.

“In the beginning, I received a lot of opposition from parents but with time, after the success of their children, I managed to win their trust and we have ever since had a good working relationship,” he said.

His belief in establishing an environment where the kids can express themselves freely and at the same time have an opportunity to showcase their talent has played a key role in his success.

At the moment, Zuberi, whose philosophy is pegged on discipline, faith, training and growth, is coaching Equity FC.