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Pochettino made Victor Wanyama, but McDonald Mariga helped shape him

Victor Wanyama is the most important person in Kenyan football but the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is not the trailblazer for his country -- or even his family. That would be Wanyama's older brother McDonald Mariga -- the first Kenyan to play in Italy, Spain and the Champions League. He won the competition with Inter Milan in 2010 before Wanyama had even played in it.

Now, the 30-year-old Mariga is rock-bottom of Italy's Serie B with Latina, who have not paid him since November, while Wanyama is second in the Premier League and preparing for an FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea. But he owes it all to his big brother. It was Mariga who brought Wanyama to Europe as a 14-year-old; Mariga who orchestrated his first big move and Mariga who advised him to go to British football with Celtic in 2011. He has been the biggest influence on Wanyama's career.

They grew up in the Muthurwa neighbourhood of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, the middle two of four footballing brothers and the sons of a footballing father.

"Our family are so close. My mum and dad made us close," Mariga tells ESPN FC. "Growing up, they said, 'You have to help your brothers'. We would play football together and maybe at school you would finish first but you'd have to wait for Victor to come home together -- things like that.

"Sometimes you were playing and you would see someone kick your brother, you feel bad and go to stop it. Even now, we speak every night on Skype. Maybe we don't talk on the day of the game so he can concentrate, but we send messages like, 'Hey, have a good game'. But after the games, we always talk. We discuss how it was -- everything. When I don't have a game, I always watch Victor's."

Even when Mariga got his first professional contract in Kenya, Wanyama -- four years his junior -- would go along to training and Mariga recognised his talent from a young age.

"Victor could have been the best player of us [brothers] -- I thought that when he was small," he said. "When you're little, you don't have a mind for tactics. You just play for play. You want to dribble past everyone. He was like that."

Mariga's big break came at 17, when he joined Swedish third division club Enkopings. After a season, he was loaned to Helsingborgs in the first division and he soon signed permanently. Although his success on the pitch was immediate, he was homesick and always cold, so he devised a plan.

"I went to the chairman of the club," he said. "He was friend, he liked me so much -- and I said, 'My brother plays in Kenya, can he come here and train with the second team?' He said it's no problem.

"I wanted Victor to stay with me because I was alone. He helped me a lot. I had my brother and we were going to training together and coming back home together and talking. Before it was very difficult for me because I was alone and it was very cold in Sweden. But with Victor being there, I was very happy. Everything was going smoothly. He did well and everything was just simple and easy."

Mcdonald Mariga
Mariga has been there every step of the way for his brother.

It was a happy time for both brothers but Mariga's performances at Helsingborgs attracted the attention of clubs across Europe, including Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth, and at the end of the 2006-07 season, he was in demand. When he agreed to join Serie A club Parma, Wanyama was desperate to come too.

"He wanted to come but I went to Parma on loan for six months, and I told him no," Mariga says. "I had to do good for that time so I could stay at Parma. If I didn't do good, I would have to come back to Helsingborgs. I was determined because it was my dream to play in Italy, so I told him he had to stay alone at Helsingborgs. I thought it was good for him to be independent."

Wanyama returned to Kenya but Mariga was not the only one to have impressed in Sweden. There was a buzz around Wanyama, who had made his debut for Kenya as a 15-year-old in 2007 against Nigeria, and a flood of agents were desperate to arrange his next move. Again, it was Mariga who made the call.

"The agents all wanted to help him. One wanted to take him Belgium, one wanted to take him to Russia," he said. "I wanted him to stay in Europe -- at Helsingborgs or in Belgium. But Russia, no, I didn't want that. I didn't think about racism, I just wanted him to be very close, so I could visit him. It was good he went to Belgium."

From 2008 to 2011, Wanyama played for Beerschot in Belgium's first division, quietly impressing. Meanwhile, in January 2010, Mariga was in demand again. Manchester City tried to sign him but, like Portsmouth, they could not get a work permit, despite the intervention of the Kenyan prime minister. Instead, Mariga signed for Jose Mourinho's Inter, three-and-a-half months before their historic treble.

Mariga was not a regular under Mourinho -- he was an unused substitute in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich but featured in the legendary semifinal against Barcelona -- but he loves the Portuguese and cannot understand his mixed reputation in England.

"People who hate him don't understand him, they don't know him," he said. "He is a very cool person, a very good person and a very good coach. I can assure you, if you meet Mourinho now, he is a very good person.

"With players, he is good if you do what he wants. He makes sure everyone has a job, if someone works the way he doesn't like, he will be mad at him. But if you work the way he wants, he is a very good person, a straightforward person, who jokes a lot. I never had a problem with him. In the whole time at Inter Milan, we didn't have someone who had a problem with Mourinho, on the pitch and off the pitch."

Mourinho's glorious departure from Inter spelled the end for Mariga too and at the end of that season; the brothers were both on the move, Mariga on loan to Real Sociedad and Wanyama to Celtic. As a boy, Mariga owned a Celtic shirt which he passed on to Wanyama when he had outgrown it, and he had admired the Scottish giants long before Henrik Larsson arrived at Helsingborgs from Barcelona and tried to persuade him to move to Glasgow.

Wanyama made his name at Celtic and impressed at Southampton before moving to Spurs.

So Mariga immediately gave his brother's move his blessing: "Henrik Larsson came to Helsingborgs, we played together and he said, 'Maybe I can help you go to win some titles at Celtic'. As we were talking about it, Parma came in, so I chose the first option. So when Victor called me, and he had a chance to go to Celtic, I said it was very good."

Wanyama is certain to return Tottenham's team for Saturday's FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea at Wembley, where his steadying presence will be vital if Spurs are to reach a first FA Cup final since 1991. He has probably been the club's most consistent performer this season and he is one of the only players to have subdued Chelsea's irrepressible N'Golo Kante.

It was at Celtic that Mariga believes his brother matured physically, but it is under his current manager, Mauricio Pochettino, who brought him to English football with Southampton in 2013 and then to Spurs last summer, that he says his brother became "complete."

"I think he got stronger when he started to play at Celtic. He became more muscular -- the football in Scotland, England is more physical," Mariga said. "But he said Pochettino is the coach who has made him. He's the one who, when Victor came to Southampton, he taught him what to do and how to play -- all the things.

"He's the one who taught him everything and made even more qualities for Victor. He gave him exposure and confidence. If you don't have confidence from the coach, you cannot perform well. He's helped him a lot."

Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.


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