Despite her father, Josephat Musungu, being a former footballer with Kenyan Premier League side Thika United, Cynthia Shilwatso’s mother didn’t approve much of her passion for football.
Love for the beautiful game was engrained in her DNA, but for her mum, school was the most important thing.
“I started playing when I was in Class Four, but my mum always wanted me to concentrate on school. It was always a quarrel when I was out playing. Somehow, I always managed to sneak out and my dad would be the one speaking on my behalf when mum was annoyed,” the 21-year old recalls.
I would play with the boys using a ball made of plastic bags just around the playing fields next to our home. For me, it was a way of enjoying my free time.
For Shilwatso, she knew football was passed down into her DNA by her dad and she was determined to pursue the same, while also working hard in class not to disappoint her mother.
It was her father, Mr Musungu that would continually encourage her to keep working on her talent.
“He has really played a big role in me being here today and he was always the one encouraging me, correcting me on what I did wrong and trying to help me improve. I owe him a lot,” explains the forward who has sealed her first contract abroad after joining Spanish top tier side EdF Logrono.
Growing up in the village of Kivagala, deep in the Western Kenya County of Vihiga, Shilwatso didn’t have the best of training facilities or equipment, but she still made the most of what was available. Worse still, there were no girls’ teams.
“I would play with the boys using a ball made of plastic bags just around the playing fields next to our home. For me, it was a way of enjoying my free time but I knew the talent was there. I would only play with girls’ teams when there was a tournament,” she explains.
It was a move to Ibinzo Girls’ for her secondary education that proved the catalyst to her career and football talent. The school principal then, Mrs Esther Apeli played another crucial role in chiselling her towards a path in football.
Ibinzo was a school well known for its footballing talent in the Western Kenya region and Shilwatso was a perfect fit.
“Mrs Apeli was of huge help because she gave me lots of confidence and self-belief. I went straight into the school team in Form One and from there, I grew and grew,” narrates Shilwatso.
In Form Two, she was scouted by the nearby Kenya Women’s Premier League side Vihiga Queens and when in Form Four, earned her first ever call up to the national team with the Kenyan Under-20 side.
That same year, 2017, she helped her school reach the finals of the National School Games and eventually qualified for the East Africa Games where they reached the quarter finals.
“It was a good experience playing the school games and that is what gave me the good foundation in my career. Also, the fact that I played in the league with Vihiga Queens was an added advantage as it gave me more experience,” she adds.
With Vihiga, Shilwatso won the Premier League title four times in a row and has now been a consistent figure in the national team. During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualifiers, she scored four goals, including home and away against Malawi.
She also played a pivotal role as the Harambee Starlets clinched the CECAFA Women’s Championship in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania last year.
“It has been a great experience playing for the national team. The level there is higher and you learn every day. Also, it has given me a platform to showcase my talent,” Shilwatso states.
It is her performances for the Starlets that earned her a first ever deal abroad when she penned a three-year contract with Spanish side Logrono, where she hopes to rise to the ranks of four-time CAF African Women’s player of the year Asisat Oshoala who turns out for FC Barcelona.
“I really get motivated when I see the African players do well in Spain. I look at the likes of Oshoala and tell myself that I need to work hard to reach her heights. She is a role model to many African girls,” states Shilwatso.
“I want to do well with Logrono and my first task is to ensure I win a regular starting place. I also want to help the team do better in the league and improve as a player,” the 21-year old notes.
Also top on Shilwatso’s targets is seeing the national team qualify for the Total Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON) in 2022, with the 2020 edition having been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She believes the confidence and experience picked up by the team over the past year, including coming one step closer to a historic qualification to the Olympics are testament enough that Kenya should be watched by the rest of the continent.
“We were so psyched up for the 2020 qualifiers which were to start in April, but we now have to re-focus on 2022. We have plenty of time to build an even stronger team. More and more players are going out of the country and in the long run, this will improve the national team,” the confident left footed forward adds.
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