By Isaac Swila
They are both strikers, they are lanky in frame, they play in foreign leagues, they don the same hairstyles but on the pitch, their styles contrast as day and night. That is the mixed yet exciting tale of Harambee Stars lead strikers Michael “Engineer” Olunga and Jesse Jackson Were.
In the last two years, Olunga has morphed into a key pillar in the national team while Were has been a peripheral figure; always in and out of the national set up.
In most instances, if one is starting a match, the other warms the bench patiently waiting for his turn, but where the situation dictates like in the recent international friendly match against the Leopards of the Democratic Republic of Congo, both started with Olunga operating as the main man upfront and Were attacking from the left flank.
Interestingly, at 23, Olunga, who is the younger of the two has a higher profile and better goal ratio with the senior side compared to Were who will be celebrated his 28th birthday on April 19.
In his two years spell in the team, Olunga has not only amassed an impressive 25 caps but has also had a fair goal return of 11, the latest being his double act last month at the Kenyatta Stadium in Machakos against the Congolese – goals that gave him a perfect birthday present and the recent deliciously taken free kick against Sierra Leone in a World Cup qualifier in Freetown.
But on the other hand, Were, who is direct in his approach has not had a good run in front of goal with the national team. In 19 appearances, mainly earned as a substitute, he is yet to register a senior national team goal under his belt leaving fans and pundits wondering as to what could be working against him in the national set- up.
Could it be just a matter of fate, or tactics, or has Olunga just happened too fast? At just 23, Olunga has already played for three Kenyan Premier League clubs namely Tusker, Thika United and Gor Mahia but also had an impeccable show in Sweden in 2016 with IF Djurgarden where he scored 12 league goals in his debut season before being lured to the super rich Chinese league early this year penning a deal with top tier club Guizhou Zhicheng for Sh440 million in transfer fee.
This big money move has seen him kick poverty out of his life and that of his family – as he earns a tidy Sh12 million a month at his current work place.
In Olunga’s career, he has never played for a club for more than a season.
His major breakthrough was perhaps in 2015 when he announced himself to the world while donning the famous green jersey of Gor Mahia. At K’Ogalo he not only became a crowd favourite notching in crucial goals but claiming assists too as the K’Ogalo juggernaut swaggered its way to its 15th league title unbeaten. In that season he also notched in 19 league goals and 37 in a calendar year for club and country to end the campaign with the Most Vital Player award.
In that memorable year, at the Cecafa Club championship in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, he grabbed acres of space with Tanzanian journalists buying ink by the barrel to write glossy stories about him. Soon, interest came from far and wide including from South Africa, which has been a bad hunting ground for ambitious Kenyan players. His gallant act in 2015 made him an ever present feature in the Stanley Okumbi coached Harambee Stars.
However, as Olunga hogged the limelight at Gor, Were never let it go unchallenged. Taking the challenge by the scruff of its neck, the soft spoken striker reacted by outscoring Olunga bagging three successive hat tricks against Chemelil Sugar FC, Sofapaka and Thika United in the month of July 2015 to engrave his name in Kenya’s football history books as the only local footballer to attain the fete. This impressive return helped propel him to the Player of the Month award of July as well as a Golden Boot award to boot at the end of the campaign on 22 goals.
Up next, Were sought a new challenge, docking at the mineral rich Zambia where he inked a better deal with powerhouse Zesco United at Zesco, he’s on a Sh500,000 monthly salary, which pales in comparison to what Olunga earns, but dwarfs up to ten times what his peers earns in the Kenyan Premier League. In Zambia, just like Kenya, he has played a phenomenal role. In the 2016 Caf- Champions League, he for instance, clinched the coveted Golden Boot award at the club’s end year gala night after a stellar season which saw him score 19 competitive goals; 15 in the league and four in the Caf- Champions League.
On the night he was bestowed this honour, Were summed up his feeling: “I can say that my first season was great because I achieved a lot with the team despite being my first season. My target in 2017 is to help my team reclaim the league title which we missed out in this just concluded year,” he was quoted in the clubs’ website.
However, as prolific as he maybe at the club level, Were, has for factors perhaps beyond his own making failed to hit the heights with the national team.
Unlike his national team striking partner Olunga who is shining at both levels, Were seems to leave his scoring boots at home in national assignments begging the question what could be the limiting factor?
He said, “All I can say is that whenever we play (in the national team), I follow instructions from the coach. Like in the game (against Congo) I had to keep shape and work hard in midfield where we had a lot of strength.
“Club football is at a different level with the national team. When you come to the senior side, you focus on team tactics. It is about tactics and teamwork while at club level there are different formations and different nationalities playing together. To me, what is important is that we win matches but not who scores,” Were said.
On the other hand, Olunga who made his debut for the Kenya national team in a friendly against Seychelles at the Stade Linité in Victoria on 28 March, 2015 before scoring his first senior goal in national colours in a friendly against South Sudan in June 2015, which resulted in a 2–0 win said, “By scoring the two goals (against Congo), I got a perfect birthday present. My aim is to break the record of the striker with most number of goals. I know it won’t be easy but with hard work and determination is it possible,” he said with a sheepish smile.
Asked on what inspired his big-money move to China that was met with mixed reaction, Olunga was guarded: “A number of factors and it certainly can’t be discussed in one interview,” he said, breaking into a hearty laughter. “China is a great environment and I like it there,” he said of his Sh440 million move to the Far East that now sees him rub shoulders with amongst others, Argentine Carlos Tevez and Oscar of Brazil.
The 6.3ft tall Olunga particularly caught attention with his recently adopted celebration style which saw him run to the corner flag, his left palm pointing to his right wrist: Of it, he says, “It simply means the hour is now, it’s my time to score.”
As Olunga flourishes, debate continue to rage on whether the 28-year old Were will continue to live in his shadow or whether a time shall come when the two will form a telepathic partnership similar to what Oliech and John Baraza had ten years ago.
Were’s former team mate James Situma feels that the tactics have hindered Were from fully expressing himself on the pitch but is quick to admit that Olunga’s “completeness” works in his favour.
“These are two good strikers. They are both goal poachers. If you mirror at Messi, for example, he does better with Barcelona than with Argentina,” he said, adding. “Jesse, most of the time, at Harambee Stars, plays wide. Then again you look at the formation. He is a striker who is most effective if limited in the 18- yard box. In short, the role he plays at the national team is different with what he does at club level,” he said: “Olunga has totally different qualities. He can use both legs and can score long-range goals. His instincts are different and it works for him because most of the time he knows where the goalposts are. But we shouldn’t have that mentality that both must score. As was the case with John Baraza and Oliech, the latter preferred to make more runs while Baraza was very lethal in the 18- yard area.”
As the duo continue with their charge for the national team glory, debate will continue to rage as to whether the more direct Were will finally get his scoring act or whether the tricky Olunga will keep the fire burning. The jury is out.