ICIA: Lessons learnt from AFCON miss, let Stars fly to Qatar!


ICIA: Lessons learnt from AFCON miss, let Stars fly to Qatar!
Harambee Stars players celebrate Kenya's opening vs Zambia in an international friendly at the Nyayo National Stadium. (PHOTO/Sportpicha)

In Summary

  • The 2022 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifiers are done and agonisingly, Harambee Stars could not make it to the Cameroon fiesta set for January-February.
  • What a missed opportunity for the current generation of players, the fans and the administrators of the sport or simply put Kenya to make yet another history after the 2019 AFCON in Egypt?
  • Quoting Mwendwa’s tweet after the fixtures were released, I join him in a bullish approach towards the qualifiers, “kufa dereva, kufa makanga. Let’s do this!”
@icia_jacob

The 2022 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifiers are done and painfully, Harambee Stars could not make it to the Cameroon fiesta set for January-February.

What a missed opportunity for the current generation of players, the fans and the administrators of the sport or simply put Kenya to make yet another history after the 2019 AFCON in Egypt?

In an interview with Football Kenya Federation (FKF) president Nick Mendwa soon after the 2019 AFCON, his answer to critics that Harambee Stars could not improve on the 2004 record in the finals staged in Tunisia was based on a pledge to qualify again and progress on it.

In 2004 Kenya crushed out of the competition in the group stage beating only Burkina Faso while sinking to Mali and Senegal, and would exit in the same fashion in 2019 only beating neighbours Tanzania. Senegal was there to haunt Stars again, and eventual champions Algeria.

“We need to be honest, it was an achievement to qualify for the AFCON after 15 years in the cold. We may not have advanced from the group stage, but we have players who now know where to start in the next AFCON.

“The problem has been when we qualify, we take too long before we qualify again, and when we do we are always taking a fresh generation without any experience on the stage. In 2021 (before Covid-19 pandemic forced postponement of the finals to 20229), we should be able to build on our performance beyond the group stage,” Mwendwa said.

Sadly, it was not to be!

A fairly easy group of Comoros, Togo and Egypt proved hard for Kenya to make it. Fortunately, the botched Cameroon 2022 campaign ends and immediately ushers yet another battle for the 2022 Qatar World Cup qualifiers.

Fortunately because, if any lesson was learnt through the failed AFCON journey, it will be fresh for all stakeholders heading to the World Cup qualifiers whose kickoff is June, just two months from today.

FKF has a golden opportunity to wipe away the tears and frustrations of Kenyans caused by the missed AFCON ticket, by delivering an even bigger one, the World Cup ticket. In the same sense, the federation, if not careful, could pile more anger and dissolution among the lovers of the beautiful game through the qualifiers if nothing new will be exhibited.

Going by the history, it easy to say Kenya is going nowhere in the quest for a ticket to Qatar. After all it has only five slots available, yet it was not possible to seal one out of the 24 available in the AFCON. I however refuse to incline on that school of thought!

Is it not Comoros, ranked by FIFA at number 130 with an average rank of position 172 since the ranking began which stole Kenya’s slot to Cameroon? Did I not watch on Wednesday, North Macedonia beating four-time world champions Germany at home?

Just before delving into the keys to what must be done if the Qatar dream is to be realised, it is only fair to pinpoint the misses of the failed Cameroon journey.

Hanging Project 

The first miss was the unexplained sacking of former Harambee Stars coach Francis Kimanzi midway the qualifiers. FKF knows best the evil Kimanzi committed and could not survive the chop just a fortnight to the Comoros double header.

On paper, Kenya needed at least four points from the islanders who I stake will still be whipped out of AFCON in the group stage, but the abrupt change of guard at Stars was a gift to them as they grabbed four from us.

When Sebastien Migne who had taken Kenya to AFCON 2019 was sacked, the FKF said Kimanzi had accumulated quite a lot through the Egypt sojourn and was the best local solution in the build up to the next AFCON and World Cup qualifiers.

As Migne would say, they had formed a “group” of players that needed few adjustments to go to the next level. Kimanzi had retained most of the players as his backbone, but also had interesting additions as is normal in any national team. No player is permanent and so replacements are inevitable.

As his successor Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee is doing now, he had started incorporating some new faces from the local league. During the 2019 Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) Senior Challenge Cup in Kampala –Uganda, Kimanzi was clear he was looking for players to join the first team for the qualifiers.

One of his prospects was the now on song Abdalla Hassan, a man he challenged to show him “he can play on the stage of real men.”

But, after starting with a satisfying draw away to Egypt, a disappointing draw against Togo at home and finally a morale boosting win over Zambia just before the Comoros home tie, he was unceremoniously shown the door leaving his project hanging.

In a nutshell, the timing of the decision to fire Kimanzi was poorly thought! If he did indeed not fit the bill, it should have been detected either before the start of the qualifiers or at the time he deputised Migne.

If he developed anything funny along the way, it would have been wiser to let him finish the Comoros double header as there was a window of three months for his successor to plan before the final two matches. That is if he had indeed committed the unthinkable, but the best would have been at least finishing the AFCON qualifiers.

Had Kimanzi failed after the entire qualification expedition, no one would have said anything at his sack, and all the blame would be on him, just like Togo did with Frenchman Claude Le Roy.

Thus, Kenyans do not expect the same on Mulee, not that he is the man in charge of the Stars going into the World Cup qualifiers. If he starts the process in June, let him finish unless the unthinkable happens. Just like nobody wants Mwendwa out before he completes his term, it is fair to give a fair chance.

Another miss was massive changes in the Stars squad within the qualifiers. While this is a hot potato many choose to dodge, any call up requires justification not only by the performance shown in national team colours but at club level. That way, the high turnover where players are called up for one match and it is over is avoided.

It only exposes poor scouting when such a trend continues. What had Mulee seen in Arnold Origi that could not last him beyond the Comoros double header? What about the Barnsley defender Clarke Oduor who appeared once in Zambia friendly? Is it entirely difficult to judge his capabilities from his displays with the English championship side?

Mulee has just executed yet other massive changes, dropping the likes of Victor Wanyama, Ayub Timbe, Origi, Eric Johanna, Johanna Omolo and Co, somehow justified with the results posted against Togo and Egypt. Good job did the local lads do, especially the ones making debuts at such a high level.

“I don’t have stars, my stars are those who performed against Togo. Stars are the players whose current form helps the team,” Mulee said, but must be careful with turnover because consistency cannot be ignored.

Just like he had a predictable lineup going to the 2004 AFCON which he managed, building such a team will be a plus to him and the Stars. However, there is little time for trial and error, as the qualifiers are here with us.

While the issue of Covid-19 is not entirely in the federation and the coaches’ hands, key lessons have been learnt from the AFCON qualifiers. One is that you can be counting on your best player today and tomorrow he is not available. It was clear Mulee was caught unawares when then Kashiwa Reysol striker Miacahel Olunga missed the Comoros matches after the virus struck his Japanese club.

The untold bluntness in the Stars’ attack especially in the first leg in Nairobi meant there was little or no anticipation for Stars without Olunga. This appears to be a lesson learnt, and must continue, as his absence away match in Togo was fairly well covered.

The second bit of Covid-19 preparedness is on the dirty tactics African nations are claimed to be playing on visiting opponents. This, according to Mulee, cost them a great deal in the Comoros return match and the Togo’s too.

In his own words, it is frustrating when you are told you cannot field the stem of your team hours before kickoff.

As it stands, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has not dealt with this new phenomenon well, and individual teams have to be sharp in managing such situations.

Already, FKF General Secretary Barry Otieno is in a six-month ban by CAF for protesting the harassment in Comoros. The gravity of the matter however is being foregrounded to the continental authorities, as occasioned by the postponement of the Sierra Leone versus Benin final AFCON qualifier as the latter refused to play with six of their players declared Covid-19 positive by their hosts.

How about such a move? Remember every point matters in the qualifiers.

Lastly, Mulee was on point when he attributed failure to win home matches in the AFCON qualifiers as their major undoing.

“What really cost us was the fact that we didn’t get maximum points in our home matches. If you want to qualify for a competition like the AFCON, you must win at home. You need to win at least two home matches and win at least one away. That really affected us but with the plans we are putting in place, winning almost all home matches will ease our qualification journey,” told Mulee, giving a recap of the qualifiers.

And so, with Kenya starting off the World Cup qualifiers at home against Uganda, that is must win. If you are daring to play in the biggest football extravaganza in the world, the Mulee, Rwanda is the team to beat away as you said in your formula, in the second match.

Come September, when Kenya travels to Bamako to face Mali, a defeat must be avoided by all cost, and with the draw away to Egypt plus the latest away win to Togo, it is not a mere illusion Mr. Mulee.

At least a draw in Bamako will inspire the confidence needed to beat the West Africans in Nairobi four days later, and Kasarani or Nyat¡yo must be a fortress as it was in Migne’s tenure. Four-time African champions Ghana knows the story very well.

By the time Stars face Uganda in Kampala on the first weekend of October, there must be no two thoughts about it. These are neighbours we are so familiar with, and despite their impressive record at home, they are not a side you face with fear if you want to play in the World Cup. Previous performances by then should ensure confidence in the Stars camp is lowest at 100 percent!

By the time the group stage is wound up in Nairobi against Rwanda in the second week of October, it is no brainer a home win is the only expectation. Topping the group would mean fearing no team in the final round of qualifiers.

This is easier to say and write than to do, but there are no shortcuts. It is only by killing a giant you become one. It is difficult but possible.
For the Uganda and Rwanda away matches, if Covid-19 will not be an obstacle, plans to ferry fans to Kampla and Kigali must be put in place as early as now. If it adds just one percent of the ingredients needed to make it, it is worth it.

Mwendwa has done well in basic preparation logistics so far, and the federation must not rest on their laurels. As signaled lately, the federation must develop a deliberate camaraderie with the Ministry of Sports, so that there is no sweat when reaching Kencom House for any help. This has not been the case before.

Importantly, let the conversation be Kenya is going to Qatar, and not “may go.” That was suggested in the second term pledge by Mwendwa’s administration when he said it would be a plus to qualify the Stars to Qatar but it is a real quest to do take the Starlets to New Zealand 2023.

Quoting Mwendwa’s tweet after the fixtures were released, I join him in a bullish approach towards the qualifiers, “kufa dereva, kufa makanga. Let’s do this!”

He leads the way as we follow. For anything positive along the rigmarole, a thunder of claps will follow to encourage him. When the contrary happens, a cacophonous wave of disgruntled  Kenyans will be difficult to silence. All the best Stars!

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