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No time for friendship when Okumu faces Reims teammate Diakite

 Harambee Stars centreback Joseph Okumu celebrates his goal with Ivory Coast forward Oumar Diakite in Reims 1-1 draw with Olympique Lyon at Groupama Stadium in a French Ligue 1 match on Saturday, March 30, 2024. [Stade de Reims Facebook]

“Dis mon nom!” (Say my name!), the stadium announcer blasted into the speakers at Stade Auguste-Delaune.

“Oumaaar Diakite!” the crowd erupted. “Dis mon nom!” the announcer went again, and the crowd went wild for another time, “Oumaaar Diakite!”.

It was a chilly evening characterised by a temperature of six degrees and light drizzles that rhythmically kissed the green-grassed surface, which played host to a round 22 Ligue 1 match pitting hosts Stade de Reims against RC Lens - 130 km northeast of the French capital Paris.

It was on Sunday, February 18, 2024, after Ivorian striker Oumar Diakite, fresh from winning the Africa Cup of Nations at the age of 20, gave Stade de Reims a lead in the 41st minute in a game that played out to a 1-1 draw. Kenya’s Joseph Okumu was at the heart of Reims’ four-man defence.

The two men, separated by six years in age (Okumu, 26), were battling for one course on the evening - getting the best result against the visitors.

Okumu played his heart out while keeping the visitors at bay, while Diakite wreaked havoc on RC Lens’ territory. In the end, a win proved elusive, but a draw came by, thanks to efforts by the duo and their teammates.

 KTN News’ Program Editor Julius Jumah (R) and Stade de Reims and Harambee Stars centre back Joseph Okumu pose for a photo at the Centre de vie Raymond Kopa training ground in Reims, France on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. [STEPHENIE OJIAMBO, Standard].

Okumu and Diakite seek World Cup slots

And with the 2026 World Cup fast approaching, an interesting twist presents itself in the football script of the two teammates. Okumu and Diakite, teammates in Champagne, 6600 km from Nairobi, face off in the qualifiers on June 10, 2024, and the Ivorian cannot wait to take on his club teammate.

“It will be special to play against him. It is always special to play against someone who is your friend. I want to beat him; it is a personal fight. Not like I want to play against him to show him that I am the best, no. I respect him, he is a good player. I respect all the Kenyan people, I respect the Kenyan national team, but this is personal - I just want to win against my friend,” Diakite said in an exclusive interview with the The Standard.

Kenya’s Harambee Stars are in Group F for the Africa World Cup qualifiers alongside Ivory Coast, Gabon, Burundi, Gambia, and Seychelles. Stars are set to face each of the teams twice, including Ivory Coast, before the qualifiers come to an end in October 2025.

In Group F, Ivory Coast leads with a Fifa ranking of 39 globally and fifth in Africa, while Gabon comes in second with 86 globally and 17th in the continent. Kenya is the third-best-ranked team, 111 globally and 26th in Africa.

Despite the glaring discrepancy between the Elephants of Ivory Coast and Harambee Stars both on paper and on the field, Diakite is wary of Kenya’s ability, citing the East Africans’ demolition of Seychelles on match day 2 of the qualifiers.

“Football changes everywhere, especially in Africa like we saw in the last Africa Cup of Nations - every country has developed. Last time I saw Kenya beat Seychelles 5-0. So I think they have a good team also,” the former RB Leipzig man said.

 Harambee Stars defender Joseph Okumu reacts during their FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Qualifier Group E match against Uganda Cranes at Nyayo national stadium on September 02, 2021. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Okumu returns to full action

Before coming on in a 2-1 home win over Metz in League 1 on Sunday, March 17, 2024, Okumu had been sidelined for a month after suffering an abductor injury in the 1-1 draw with RC Lens.

The injury saw him miss high-profile league games against Le Havre, Lille, and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). The Four Nations Tournament in Malawi during the March 2024 international break saw him return to full action.

Okumu played maximum minutes for Harambee Stars in a 4-0 win over the hosts at the Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe on March 24.

On Tuesday, March 26, he was up against his club teammate midfielder Marshall Munetsi as Harambee Stars wrapped up the tournament with a 3-1 win over the Warriors of Zimbabwe.

This was the first time Okumu faced a club teammate at the international level, and the duel with Diakite in June will be his second time.

Having shaken off the injury and returned to full action, the former Chemelil defender is also relishing the chance to battle his club teammate Diakite.

The duo both signed for the Champagne outfit in the summer - Okumu from Belgian outfit KAA Gent and Diakite from RB Leipzig.

“Oumar is a good player and a friend. I look forward to the match; playing for my country as he plays for his. We are teammates here, but everyone wants to win for his country, and that is the beauty of football,” Okumu said of Diakite’s desire to win over the Harambee Stars.

 KTN News’ Program Editor Julius Jumah (R) with Stade de Reims and Ivory Coast forward Oumar Diakite during their interview in Stade de Reims team manager Miguel Comminges’ office at the Centre de vie Raymond Kopa training ground in Reims, France on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. [STEPHENIE OJIAMBO].

Afcon demons still haunt Diakite

With the game against Kenya coming up in June, Diakite is still being haunted by demons from the 2023 Afcon despite winning the tournament.

The Elephants survived group stage exit by a whisker after they were trampled 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea, and that match still lives in the memory of the man who sent his home country to the semifinals with a winner at death in extra time.

“That game was like a nightmare. It is difficult to explain. Even in a dream, it is not possible to imagine we lost 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea. It was a great accident because it is not possible to lose 4-0 and go on to win the tournament if you do not have a good team. We have a good team, we have so many great players and this is football,” said the 20-year-old.

Harambee Stars World Cup chances

Previously, the World Cup featured 32 teams, with Africa having only five slots. However, the 2026 edition, jointly hosted by the North American nations of Canada, Mexico, and the United States, will be an expanded one featuring 48 teams. Africa has been allocated nine slots and can win an extra slot through the inter-confederation play-offs.

Harambee Stars commenced their 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign with a 2-1 loss to hosts Gabon last November before picking up an emphatic 5-0 victory over Seychelles on match day two a few days later. Okumu missed both matches after picking up an injury against PSG on November 11, 2023.

Harambee Stars head coach Engin Firat has already expressed his skepticism about Kenya’s ability to qualify for the World Cup, terming it a huge miracle if it happened.

Sad tale of Kenya’s World Cup qualification history

Kenya has made 13 attempts to qualify for the World Cup – the first attempt dating back to 1974. Harambee Stars have never succeeded in their pursuit of playing at the global tournament.

In the 13 unsuccessful attempts, Harambee Stars has played a total of 74 matches, losing the biggest chunk (32 of them), winning 24, and drawing 18 times.

The closest that Kenya came to sealing a slot at the World Cup was in 1997 under now-deceased German tactician Reinhard Fabisch. Stars held the Super Eagles of Nigeria to a 1-1 draw in Nairobi but lost 3-0 in the return leg in Abuja.

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