Dubai Sevens: Unpaid, blind in one eye, but Kenya stalwart Willy Ambaka refuses to yield

Troubled side earn a draw against World Sevens Series leaders Australia in opening round of matches

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Thanks to the spellbinding efforts of the likes of Japan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia at football’s World Cup, inspiring feats of underdog spirit have been in rich supply of late in the Middle East.

It is fair to say the Emirates Dubai Sevens has been flying below the sporting radar this weekend, given what is going on just across the Arabian Gulf in Doha.

Australia versus Kenya on the opening day of the World Sevens Series tournament, just up the Al Ain Road from Dubai, was never likely to be a headline act at the best of times, either.

And yet the 11.56am fixture on Pitch 1 included a performance to stir the soul. Kenya, a side who has not been paid for three months, earned a draw with the side who arrived in the UAE leading the series, having won the opening leg in Hong Kong last month.

Their final try was scored by Willy Ambaka, the Kenyan stalwart who now plays wearing goggles. He lost the sight in his left eye in a rugby accident playing in Russia last year.

“I am pretty much blind in one eye, and I have had to adapt to playing in goggles,” Ambaka said, after the 19-19 draw with Australia.

“The goggles have really helped, because if I got another knock, they eye would just pop and I might end up losing the eye completely.

“I have another surgery in February which will hopefully help, as I have lost the lens in my eye.

“The goggles are anti-fog and that really helps. I can see sufficiently. It is the beautiful thing about the new technology they have on the goggles.

“They are also very comfortable, so I am enjoying giving myself a chance to play.”

Ambaka was the player who brought the issue of his side's missed salaries to the wider public consciousness.

In a series of tweets in the lead up to the tournament in Dubai, he wrote that the players were eating into their savings, and relying on “a few local and international well-wishers” to get by.

He termed it a desperate situation, and requested the global community to donate and help them out. He says the side have been heartened by the response.

“We have had a lot of positive comments and hopefully something comes of it, and things change pretty soon,” Ambaka said.

“The talent is there. We just have to take care of it right now. There was chat that something good might come, but right now we are not focused on that.

“We are only focused on what we can control. We have showed up, but we also need to compete rather than just participate.

“There are a whole lot of complicated issues, but basically we have not been paid for three months.

“The boys have shown up and given everything for their countries and their families back home. We are hard-working people, we are resilient, and we just thank God for giving us the peace and motivation to face each day at a time.”

Ambaka said the idea of downing tools entirely has occurred to the players, but that they “love the country” too much to act on it.

“It crosses your mind, but everyone clocks in every day,” he said. “Nobody has missed training the whole time we have been struggling.

“The boys love the country, and we appreciate the peace God has given us. It has been tough, but the boys show up every day, and that is why you see these kind of results.”

Updated: December 02, 2022, 1:46 PM