Mathew Ottamax: Harambee Stars keeper who split opinion

Mathew Ottamax

As I tried to compile the list of the greatest AFC Leopards players, I paused before placing John Busolo as number two to goalkeeping legend Mahmoud Abbas. The contention in my mind was whether the slot should go to Mathews “Ottamax” Owino Otama.

Ottamax was known for his ego, for which he doesn’t make apologies, despite many believing it is what came between him and overtaking Mahmoud Abbas as Kenya’s greatest number one. On a good day, he was always the match hero between the posts, but when his temperament got the better of him, schoolboy errors left fans baying for his blood.

Moreover, he is a great storyteller who never shies away from revealing memories of his time on and off the pitch. His life has been a true rollercoaster.

In October 2010, he stormed the pitch during a Gor Mahia vs AFC Leopards match at Nyayo National Stadium after people were injured and later died in a stampede. He was roughed up by match stewards. That’s Mathew Owino for you — courage, pride, and magic hands in goal.

It all began as a joke. Some older boys were kicking the ball in the neighbourhood around Eastleigh, and they needed markers for the goal. This was in the 80s when very few players, if any at all, knew about cones. Ottamax was asked to put his sandals as goalposts and stand in between them. That marked the seed that grew into a prolific goalkeeping career.

Then he missed joining Form One in 1989 because his parents wanted his elder sister to complete high school first. Peter Kenneth, then an official of Re-Union FC, came in and sponsored him through school at Kangaru High School. Meanwhile, he was featured for Re-Union in the league and even got his first call-ups to the national team while still a student, courtesy of Mohammed Kheri. He never featured, though, but learned a lot.

He left Re-Union and joined Gor Mahia in 1995 but could not keep up with the squad. So the lanky but agile keeper crossed over to AFC Leopards. Only two other players had made this bold move. John “Zangi” Okello and Paul “Kunde” Ochieng’ did it in 1988 and 1994, respectively. Leopards featured in the 1997 Confederation Cup. This was the era of Peter Onalo as club chairman, and he had begun assembling a squad that won the league in 1998.

When Ottamax joined Ingwe for the 1997 season, they were representing Kenya in the CAF Confederation Cup. Leopards saw off Simba SC of Tanzania and then got a walkover over Kabwe Warriors of Zambia. This set them up against Kampala City Council in the quarter-finals. Ottamax played for about 60 minutes without gloves in the first leg in Kampala.

Another Ottamax goof happened when Kenya was playing Djibouti in a 2000 AFCON qualifier in August 1998. Ottamax staged a sit-in in the hotel against coach Abdul Majid, which was sorted out without the squad knowing. Kenya won 3-0 in Djibouti and then 9-1 in Nairobi. It is that one goal that Ottamax conceded that revealed who he is. He tried to go around Djibouti strikers with the ball in a fit of confidence but could only dribble past one of them. The second one dispossessed him and scored into an empty net.

This was after he had been dropped by Reinhardt Fabisch in 1997 for Francis Onyiso. Montenegrin coach Vojo Gardasevic brought Ottamax to the national team as his main keeper in 1996. The Kenya vs Algeria first-round match is where the 20-year-old Ottamax proved his mettle.

He made great saves as Kenya beat Algeria 3-1 in Nairobi and then lost 0-1 in Algeria. It is Ottamax’s good showing in Algiers that sent Kenya to the group stage of the qualifiers.

Musa Otieno and Ottamax [File]

Then Frabisch was brought in just before the next match against Guinea. Ottamax went as the first-choice keeper, but Francis Onyiso went between the posts as Kenya lost 3-1. The team manager told Frabisch that Ottamax had said he was sick. The German coach had played basketball with Ottamax just before the lineup was announced, and Ottamax promised to give his best. He read sabotage, and the loss did not make things better.

The squad was to proceed to Khartoum for CECAFA straight from Conakry. Ottamax and Boniface Ambani, another outspoken and confident player, were left at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as the rest went to Sudan. When Farbsich left and Abdul Majid took over, Ottamax demanded respect from Majid, who did not hide his preference for Onyiso.


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