Afcon 2023: Born in Namibia, raised in Manchester, Ryan Nyambe is hungry for more success

Having already shocked Tunisia, the Brave Warriors' right-back tells The National they are capable of going further

Namibia's Ryan Nyambe, right, in action against Tunisia. Reuters
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Namibia’s win over Tunisia in the Africa Cup Nations was the shock of the tournament so far. Tunisia are ranked 28th in the world, the third highest in Africa. Namibia, from a country of only two million, are ranked 115th.

Namibia hasn’t even had a functioning domestic league for most of the past five years because of a long-running dispute between clubs and the football association. The national team doesn’t play home games in the country, but in neighbouring South Africa, such is the poor state of stadiums.

Yet Namibia, who gained independence from South Africa in 1990, defeated Tunisia 1-0 on Tuesday thanks to an 88th-minute winner in a game they deserved to win. It was their first ever victory in the Cup of Nations in their fourth appearance at the tournament. The "Brave Warriors", as they are known, had lost seven and drawn two of their nine previous Afcon matches.

“It was a surprise to the rest of the world, if you think that Tunisia have played in World Cup finals and they beat France in the last World Cup,” Namibia’s right back Ryan Nyambe told The National from the team hotel in the Ivory Coast, where the tournament is being staged.

“But not to us. We’ve got a good team, a great team spirit. We beat Cameroon during qualification for the tournament. We drew against Ghana a couple of weeks ago in a friendly. And we were the better team against Tunisia.”

Nyambe plays his club football for Derby County in England, the country he has called home since he arrived aged nine.

“I was born in Namibia in a town a 16-hour drive from the capital, Windhoek,” Nyambe explained. “When I was eight my mum moved to Manchester in search of better opportunities for the family. She worked as a carer. She sent us a picture of her in her uniform. I stayed with my family for two years and then moved to Manchester.

"It was December. Cold. I’d never seen snow before. We lived in a terraced house in Levenshulme, then Benchill in Wythenshawe. It was a huge culture change, but I enjoyed it and settled quickly. There was a shop which sold the food we had in Namibia, though when I ate the school food that was a big change.

"I was always outside playing football. I was curious. Manchester was much busier than Namibia. I’d go to the fountains in Piccadilly Gardens and jump around in them having fun. And Manchester was a big football city. I supported Manchester United and played as a centre back. My favourite player was Rio Ferdinand. But despite living in Manchester, I’ve never actually seen Manchester United play.”

Spotted by a Blackburn Rovers scout, he was signed by the club at 13 and would travel from Manchester to Blackburn three times a week.

“I did have one trial at Manchester United for eight weeks and remember Marcus Rashford being at the club, but United didn’t want to sign me so I signed a scholarship with Blackburn,” he added.

Progress was swift. He made his first-team debut at 17 in 2015 and was named Blackburn’s young player of the year in 2016-17. For six seasons, Nyambe was the first choice right-back.

Rovers went down to the third tier and were promoted back to England's Championship a season later in 2018 for Nyambe's "best moment in club football”. He moved to second-tier rivals Wigan Athletic in 2022 and experienced his "worst moment in football” when the Latics were deducted points and relegated.

It was a surprise to the rest of the world ... But not to us. We’ve got a good team, a great team spirit
Ryan Nyambe on Namibia's Afcon win over Tunisia

Without a club for months before the start of this season, he signed a short-term contract to join Derby. It was extended until the end of the current season and Nyambe is “very happy, playing for a huge club in a big football town where the crowds are bigger than a lot of Premier League teams.”

It was back in 2019 that he made his Namibia debut.

“They contacted me when I was 17. I had the chance to play for England too as I had citizenship. I waited and then there was another approach. I spoke to my mum and she was very happy for me to play for Namibia. I consider it home, my country. I wanted to play for my country,” said Nyambe.

The 26-year-old is from Katima Mulilo, by the Zambezi River spit of Namibia, surrounded by Zambia, Botswana, Angola and Zimbabwe.

“I go to Namibia at the end of every season and some friends from Manchester came once. They loved it, it was funny to see their faces when they saw baboons by the side of the road. Namibia is such a beautiful country, where the desert meets the sea. The weather is good; the natural beauty.”

It’s also huge, the same size as the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany combined, and yet with a population less than the size of Greater Manchester.

“I see life through a different perspective when I’m there,” added Nyambe. “People have less but appreciate life more. The only bad thing is the flights. I was told there was a direct flight between Manchester and Namibia years ago. I wish it still existed.

"Now, I fly Manchester to Ethiopia, then take another flight to South Africa and then another one to Namibia – though we’re playing most of our home games in South Africa. That’s not ideal and we’re trying to get back to playing in Namibia, but the facilities are not the best. The astroturf pitch that we played on was really worn. They’re trying to improve at least one stadium for us, but if any good has come from playing away all the time, it’s that it has made us stronger.”

Namibia are managed by Collin Benjamin, a Namibian football great who moved from assistant to manager in 2022. Nyambe is playing at the highest level of players in the squad, though captain and striker Peter Scalulile is a regular scorer for Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa. Most of Namibia’s starters play in South Africa.

“The coach is decent, he knows his stuff, he’s played Champions League football for Hamburg,” said Nyambe. “And he speaks English. In the dressing room, most of the players speak Afrikaans. I left at nine so I can’t speak it.

“I missed games in 2021 because of Covid restrictions and my partner was pregnant, but I’m playing in all the games now and enjoying it. I get to see Africa, where I’m from. And I’ve met the president of Namibia.”

Namibia’s next group game is against their neighbours South Africa in Korhogo on Monday. South Africa lost their opening game 2-0 to the fancied Mali.

The final group game is against Mali, a country with top youth talents and some of the finest African footballers of the last 20 years, including Seydou Keita, Mahamadou Diarra and Mohamed Sissoko.

“Our aim was to get one win in this competition, a first ever win,” Nyambe added. “We have that win now. Let’s see what we can do against South Africa. We played them two months ago and drew 0-0. We’ve got a chance.”

Updated: January 21, 2024, 4:12 AM