Joseph Okumu's meteoric rise from rejection in South Africa, one-year sabbatical to France's Ligue 1

Photo Credit: Stade Reims

STARS ABROAD Joseph Okumu's meteoric rise from rejection in South Africa, one-year sabbatical to France's Ligue 1

Mark Kinyanjui 18:34 - 23.07.2023

The 26-year-old Kenyan international has joined the Will Still-coached side from Gent on a five-year contract

The trajectory of a professional football player, especially one that hails from Kenya is rarely linear. Stade Reims’ newest sheriff in town Joseph Okumu is living proof of this.

At 26, Okumu has gone through all the highs and lows you can imagine. He launched his career in 2015 at Chemelil Sugar, having just graduated from Kakamega High School.

In 2016, he left for South Africa, before moving to the United States and then Sweden and Belgium. Over seven years, one can only imagine the challenges he has had to overcome to end up playing in a top-five league.

Before ending up gracing European nights with Gent, (Europa Conference League games with La Gantoise), the Kenyan international defender went through a series of unsuccessful tries and even periods without clubs.

Most Kenyans started recognising him in 2019 during the Africa Cup of Nations held in Egypt when he was clearly the standout player in an otherwise underwhelming tournament for the Kenyans as they got walloped by eventual finalists Senegal and Algeria in their group. 

Ask him if he would have found himself in such a situation where he was marking the likes of Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez two years earlier, and he probably would have snapped your hand in half.

Okumu terminated his contract with South African club Free State Stars (South Africa) and returned to Kenya. He actually took a whole year's sabbatical away from the game.

"I had lived through a nightmarish season with 4 different coaches, injuries... I had lost the desire to play football. I needed to take a break," he recalls during an interview with Nation last June.

"I had opportunities to sign in other clubs but I had lost the taste for competition, for training. I was in a kind of footballing depression. I needed to recharge my batteries." 

"In 2017 I needed a break. I cut football completely for about a year because the previous season had been very complicated. But I ended up going back to what I love the most, I couldn't stay away from the pitch indefinitely" . 

Fortunately, a move to US third division side AFC Ann Arbor materialized, before the move to USL side Real Monachs, which fully relaunched his career.

It is at Monarchs where the impressive displays at the AFCON were showcased to the world. Two months later, he was an IF Elfsborg defender in the top flight of Swedish football.

Okumu spent two seasons in Sweden. In the 2020 Allsvenskan league, he topped the league for accurate long balls per 90, making 10.1 long balls, which is an important aspect for a modern team that is playing out from the back.

Defensively, he showed his ability to read the game well, with his 2.7 interceptions per 90 a league-high. It earned him a place in the team of the season, and it was not a surprise to see Genk calling just over two years later, a call he could not say no to.

Okumu took to the Belgian top-flight league like a duck to water. With more than 90 games under his belt in a Gantoise jersey, Joseph has established himself as one of the benchmarks in the Jupiler Pro League.

He averaged 2.3 interceptions per game. He has also made 1.5 tackles per game, while also recording a 66 percent ground duel win percentage.

According to, he is in the 94th and 93rd percentile for tackles and interceptions made respectively, making him a solid reader of the game statistically.

Okumu is also very good on the ball. He is in the 94th percentile for passes attempted per 90 minutes. He attempts 3.59 progressive passes and 0.97 progressive carries per 90.

Solid in duels, imperial in the air, and a good receiver Joseph denotes by his speed. Okumu has also proven to be a fast defender. Indeed, he is simply one of the fastest central defenders in Europe, having clocked  36 km/h according to his new club’ website.

Shortly before leaving for France, Okumu was named Gent vice-captain, proving his effervescent influence on the side in the two years he was there.

As Okumu settles down in France, his resilience and proven track record will surely make him move on to bigger better things, and maybe replicate Victor Wanyama in becoming the second Kenyan (third if you want to count Divock Origi) to ever play in the lucrative English Premier League.