Finnish-based Ekhalie elated by Harambee Stars debut
As the little-known Amos Chona Ekhalie replaced made his Harambee Stars debut on Tuesday against Liberia, few could tell who the diminutive player spotting a conspicuous Bandholz beard was. Or what the moment meant for him.
A common fixture at Finnish Premier Division champions, IFK Mariehamn, the 28-year-old attacking midfielder says he has spent years vying for his maiden cap for the Harambee Stars.
And barely a month after helping Mariehamn capture its first league championship in a remarkable feat likened to Leicester’s 5000/1 fairytale march to the 2015/16 English Premier League title, Chona was handed his first national team call-up.
In a Stars squad slowly establishing a conventional winning team, Ekhalie could only afford five minutes on the pitch after coming on for match-winner Paul Were in the 89th minute. But it was the moment he says he fulfilled a lifetime dream.
A last born in a family of four, Ekhalie grew up at the coastal city of Mombasa where he enrolled at Makande Primary School before joining Serani Boys Secondary; both famed for their excellence in sports and especially football.
He recalls declining his father’s choice for him, Tudor Day Secondary School, with the decision solely fueled by his desire to go pro with his football talent.
“My father is a footballer and has been involved in many football activities in Mombasa after playing for the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) team in his hey days, but at that point I had to insist it was Serani or nowhere else. I knew there were high chances of catching scout’s eyes from there because football was trademark of the school.
“It was not difficult anyway to convince him because he knew the path I wanted to follow was a career in football. My mom was a sports lady having played for KPA netball and basketball and she motivated me. Former Stars captain Robert Mambo rose through its ranks, as well as other Abdi Simba and Godffrey Osama who all shined with the national team at their time,” Ekhalie told Citizen Digital.
Still only a junior student at Serani back in 2004, Ekhalie was quickly snapped up by the then Kenyan Premier League (KPL) side Coast Stars after making headlines during an inter-schools tournament.
He never won a major title with the team but for him, it prepared him for the big stage.
“When I joined, Dan Ogada was the coach and had keen interest in me alongside a few other teenagers. I was motivated to play with stars like Ali Breik who was then a dependable Harambee Stars midfielder among others.”
He was enjoying top form during the last secondary school games he played in 2007, when his role model Mambo, then playing in Sweden spotted him.
His key destiny helper as he acknowledges, Mambo organized his travel to Finland for trials in 2008 January. He never disappointed.
“I was tried for one week before I was given an opportunity to play my first match. The management at Mariehamn was impressed with me and I began my journey to settle.
“It was not easy, it was an all different world, from weather to football technicalities. The club had very few youthful players like I was then, and was the only foreigner.
-Life in Finland-
“I kept reminding myself a slogan we used to apply back in Kenya anytime we played away from coast, that coast footballers have to adapt and prove themselves to get space elsewhere because we felt it never came easy like players from other regions,” the UEFA Champions League bound player reminisced.
He has been in the same club for his entire period in Europe, save for a three months period in 2013 when he moved to Sweden’s Sunds IF before returning to his Mahariehamn side.
“The first three seasons we were always battling relegation but fortunes have changed. We first won the Finnish Cup and qualified for Europa Cup in 2015, this season it was another milestone winning the maiden Veikkausliiga Championship booking a champions league spot,” Ekhalie charged.
He feels Kenya is fast rising to be a football powerhouse in Africa, saying the quality of the players in the current team and others untested playing in Europe will propel the East African nation to unprecedented glory soon.
“When I first watched Kenya play Congo away, I saw felt something great was on happening within the team. The quality of players we have managed well no doubt we will be play in continental or world cup sooner than pundits would imagine.”
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