Year in Review: Harambee Stars end AFCON drought
- When the 2019 African Cup of Nations draw was released, Kenyans were half optimistic of Harambee Stars chances to qualify, judging by the opponents against whom they were pooled with
- Much later near the tail-end of 2018, Kenya made it for the first time since 2004, after Sierra Leone was officially disqualified to mark the greatest achievement of the current football generation
When the 2019 African Cup of Nations draw was released, Kenyans were half optimistic of Harambee Stars chances to qualify, judging by the opponents against whom they were pooled with.
Much later near the tail-end of 2018, Kenya made it for the first time since 2004, after Sierra Leone was officially disqualified to mark the greatest achievement of the current football generation.
In Group F, led by four-time champions Ghana, Stars were to fight for at least second place finish against the former, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone.
The dream appeared to have been short-lived, when Stars, then under the tutelage of arguably naïve Stanley Okumbi, lost 2-1 away to Sierra Leone in the campaign opener.
That was in June 2017. The loss served the last stroke that broke the camel’s back, and Football Kenya Federation (FKF) had to hire Paul Putt who in just under a month delivered the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup at the apex of 2017.
Then came the ‘Year of the Lord’, 2018, despite starting in the most unlikely way. The Belgian tactician who had expressed his confidence that there were still slim chances of Stars making to Afcon, resigned ad infinitum.
Putt said he left because of unfulfilled promises by the country’s football governing body.
“I have been in Africa for 11 years, and I think I’ve been improving earning a lot of respect therefore I have a good reputation. I believe in my philosophy. I left (Kenya) because I was not given 100 per cent support but five per cent.
“I was really disappointed when all my requests fell on deaf ears therefore I resigned to put pressure on them but they took it differently and went to the media instead of replying to a confidential letter I wrote to them,” told the Putt, soon after ditching Kenya for Guinea.
The exit in February was perhaps a blessing in disguise, as it opened door for the search of another tactician, and French Sebastian Migne would take over at the begging of May.
On September 8, Migne was on the touchline as Harambee Stars dimmed Ghana’s Black Stars in a phenomenal win that turned around 2019 Afcon chances.
Nicholas Opoku’s first half own goal helped 10-man Harambee Stars break a 15-year jinx against Ghana as they edged them 1-0. Revival it was, setting momentum to a 0-0 draw away to Ethiopia and a 3-0 win later against the Walya Antelopes in October, reassuring Kenyans the drought was almost ending.
In the three matches, Migne shifted from the norm, resting the obvious regular players and proving critics wrong.
Against Ghana, Migne surprisingly partnered Joash Onyango and Musa Mohammed at the back with Ismail Gonzalez benching Anthony Akumu in midfield that also had Sofapaka’s Dennis Odhiambo. There was no Johanna Omollo either, with natural midfielder Philemon Otieno of Gor Mahia was given the right-back role.
Migne is on record that the matrix for the team will be complete with the return of Ayub Timbe Masika who has not featured since his appointment, out of suspension.
It meant seven points, at a time that Sierra Leone was temporarily locked out with a scandal of government interfering with the running of the local federation. Ultimately, when the ban led to disqualification, and Group F was declared a three-team affair, Kenya sealed her ticket to play in finals.
“The CAF Executive Committee at its meeting on Friday, 30 November 2018 in Accra decided on the case of Sierra Leone in the 2019 Total Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
“Sierra Leone is disqualified from the qualifiers and all its matches are annulled,” CAF said.
Interestingly, Stars goalkeeper Patrick Matasi (St. Georges of Ethiopia), told Citizen Digital he had no rough idea that he would ever play professional football when Kenya played in the Tunisia finals.
“I don’t remember much about Kenya’s last qualification to the Afcon. At that time in 2004, I was a 14-year old concentrating on school and helping my parents in their sugarcane farm. I could not even afford to watch a match. I just get to hear of the stories from the likes of Duncan Ochieng and Dennis Oliech,” Matasi told.
Eric ‘Marcelo’ Ouma, another Migne’s trusted player in the current composition, said he was still in elementary lower class in the last year of qualifying, emphasizing how big the deal was.
With only a match against Ghana in the qualifiers remaining just to decide who tops the group come March 2019, Stars journey in 2018 had pressing gray areas.
Migne, in December, threatened to quit following delay in payment of salary. That was the song that diluted sweet Stars victory over Ghana, with the Frenchman banging table and walking off press conference at the Moi International Sports Kasarani.
“I’m not happy at all and I think I will be very brief tonight because during the week there was lack of respect with this team. When I saw Cameroon have training in this field (Kasarani) and not us who we were at the Kenya School of Monetary Studies, I was not happy,” the tactician said of his side’s failure to train consistently at Kasarani, the venue of the qualifiers.
“I can speak about Blackberry (George Odhiambo) for example, in France Under-21 team, a Liepzig player was not there when he was called and they asked FIFA to give him a suspension. Hugo Loris who is a World Cup Champion with France, he was in Paris to check with the national team doctor if his injury was true or not.
“I have full confidence with Victor Wanyama but I need to check. If we want to achieve at the high level we need to improve a lot of things and I don’t want to speak about Boniface Oluoch or Allan Wanga; I think it was a lack of respect, I don’t want to say too much I want to keep cool, keep quiet… I need to think about the future… thank you,” said Migne to the astonishment of journalists as he left conference room.
That was the second time players had failed to show up for the national team, after a section Gor Mahia players refused to travel with Stars to India for a friendly tournament.
Unfortunately, while the player-coach relation or player-national team issues have progressively been dealt with, the Ministry of Sports that undertook to pay the coach and his assistants has failed to take the responsibility responsibly.
“The success of our national football team is a game changer in our sports. We are proud of what our young people are doing to improve standards of game in the country,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta after CAF’s announcement of Kenya’s qualification. If the President’s words are anything to go by, the financial gray areas could just be resolved and ignite into Stars into another unparalleled year 2019.
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