Starlets heroine Avilia unplugged: I love Ugali and Kuku!
Cheris Avilia Salono will always re-live April 2016. And so will women football in Kenya.
When her country looked set for the all too familiar failure in football, Avilia blasted a shot from the edge of the box that flew in to the net after being set up from a free-kick in the dying minutes of their 2016 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (Awcon) qualifier against Algeria.
That swish off her boot sent Harambee Starlets to their first ever CAF Awcon finals in Yaoundé, Cameroon and Kenya to a continental showpiece for the first time since 2004 when their male counterparts last played at the Afcon.
Party scenes broke out at Nairobi’s Safaricom Stadium where dignitaries including Sports Cabinet Secretary; Dr. Hassan Wario and Football Kenya Federation boss, Nick Mwendwa, joined the jubilant girls in dancing around the pitch.
The two-legged tie ended 3-3 on aggregate with Kenya progressing via the away goals rule following a 2-2 stalemate in Algiers before Avilia’s strike secured a 1-1 draw in the return.
Despite lapping all the glory and adulation that followed her precious strike, life has not been all rosy for the super sub who spoke to Citizen Digital about her challenges when growing up, her career and the wonder strike that etched her name in local women’s folklore.
CD: How did it all start and did you always know football would be your career?
CA: I started kicking a ball when I was a kid. It started off as a favourite pastime. I had three brothers who were so much into street football and I admired their passion for the game. There were hardly any other girls interested so I had to play with the boys; challenging as that was. I was inspired by my brothers to keep going.
And it wasn’t long before I joined my first women’s team, Kamaliza United.
CD: Tell us a bit about your educational background?
CA: I studied at St. John’s Primary School, Kaloleni in Eastlands, Nairobi. I then graduated to Nile Road Secondary School in neighbouring Jericho. At the moment, I’m pursuing an undergraduate degree in Business Administration at KEMU University.
CD: How has the balance between football and education played out?
CA: I wouldn’t say I’m caught up in football that much. With the culture I was brought up and in at Nile Road, football or any other sport was never prioritized so I knew my studies had to come first. However, it’s during my secondary school life that I sharpened my skills. I remember how painful it was losing to Jogoo Road Girls in almost all our semi-final matches. I’m the only one from my final year squad that went on to play football at the semi-professional level. Football was never taken seriously at school.
CD: Did you always feel you were good enough to represent your country?
CA: It was my dream. I knew I could do something important with my talent if I got the opportunity and so I really prayed for it. And it did come; going to the Afcon is a big achievement and I thank God for everything.
CD: So, how did you break into the National Team?
CA: Coach (David Ouma) once came to see our women’s league match and he was really impressed by me and my style of play. He was on a scouting mission, selecting the best and that is how I joined the Harambee Starlets.
CD: How did it feel to score such a historic goal?
CA: It felt so great, really felt great and I still can’t believe I pulled off such an amazing feat after coming off the bench. I thought to myself what if this was our only chance granted to us by God? As I came in as a substitute and scored the equalizer I felt He had answered our prayers.
CD: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
CA: Right now my concentration is on Awcon and I’m graduating from the University in 2017. From it will depend. I want to play football now and later have a professional career so we’ll see how it goes.
CD: What are the challenges of being a Kenyan female footballer?
CA: We don’t have proper structures for women in sports and especially in football. Also, there are very few women footballers and it forces you to train with men. To be honest, not all men will give you an easy time when mingling with them. We also need better equipment for training.
CD: What’s your favourite meal?
CA: (Laughing) I love Ugali kwa Kuku (Chicken and corn cake). I’m Luhya so it’s obvious where I get the love for dish.
CD: Are you dating?
CD: Who’s the lucky guy?
CA: (With a shy grin) let’s just keep that a secret for now.
CD: Any parting shot?
CA: I’d like to urge upcoming footballers to never give up on their dreams and especially girls. I can see the future is bright. Since Mwendwa took over FKF changes have been positive; we’re getting our allowances on time, there is an improvement in equipment, kitting and with other training facilities.
We however need the National Women’s league back and having heard the FKF vice-chair Doris Petra saying that plans are underway, things are looking good.
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