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Another year of false hopes from Harambee Stars; and true to form, it ended in anguish

FOOTBALL By Washington Onyango | December 24th 2021 | 5 min read
Harambee Stars defender Eugine Asike reacts to an injury 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]

Football is littered with riches to rags stories – slumbering giants who sleepwalk off cliffs and into the depth of their domestic pyramid.

For a number of national football teams, their place in the game sits in a perpetual yoyo between success and failure, agony and ecstasy, qualification and knockout.

But what happens to the whole nation when they find themselves dropping out of every single international tournament?

Given a chance, Kenyans would wish that the performance by the national football team, Harambee Stars in 2021 be omitted from the history books because the performance was dismal and utterly disappointing. 

Harambee Stars did not only fail to qualify for the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), but they once again fell short in meeting their expectations after failing to progress to the play-offs stage of the 2022 Qatar World Cup qualifiers.

In a season that promised high hopes for fans when Kenya started off the year with two international friendly wins against South Sudan (1-0) and Tanzania (2-1) in March, Stars were looking more likely to achieve their most sought milestone, qualifying for the World Cup.

But first, they had to show the African continent that they were ripe and ready for the global showpiece by qualifying for Afcon.

Kenya’s hope of making a back-to-back appearance at the Afcon finals from arguably an easy pool, was hanging by a thread.

Pooled in Group G alongside continental giants Egypt, Togo and Comoros, Kenya were lying a disappointing third, with merely three points from four matches.

Egypt and minnows Comoros were at the helm of the pool on eight points each, while Togo were last with just one point.

Teams had only two rounds of matches each left in the Afcon qualifiers, and Harambee Stars’ chance of qualifying for the continental showpiece was slim.

They needed to beat a star-studded Egypt in Nairobi and Togo away in Lome, and hope that the Pharaohs and Les Coelacantes of Comoros lose all their remaining matches.

However, that did not happen after the Pharaohs led by Liverpool idol Mo Salah held the impressive Stars to a 1-1 draw in a match played behind closed doors at Kasarani in Nairobi on March 25.

But with hosts Comoros and Togo having settled for a barren draw in an early kick-off, Kenya’s road to Cameroon hit a dead end since they could not catch up with Egypt and Comoros who were then leading the pool with nine points each. 

Kenya defeated Togo 2-1 in the dead-rubber last pool clash to cement their third place finish in the group on seven points.

On the other hand, hosts Egypt thumped Comoros 4-0 to finish atop the pool with 12 points, three above the latter. The two teams sealed tickets to the delayed Afcon planned for January 2022 in Cameroon. 

The exit elicited mixed reactions from fans as they blamed the Football Kenya Federation (FKF) led by former president Nick Mwendwa for replacing coach Francis Kimanzi with Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee in the course of the qualifiers.

FKF gave no concrete reason for the change as the new-found hope in Stars’ progress hit stormy waters.

Majority believed that had Kimanzi been in charge until the end of the group matches, Kenya would have sealed a ticket to the competition’s finals. 

However, buoyed by the team’s brilliant show against Egypt and Togo, the federation promised to take Kenya to their first World Cup appearance when the qualifiers started in September.

With Mulee on the tactical driving seat, Kenya started off with a fair result after playing out to a 0-0 draw at home against Uganda Cranes and 1-1 stalemate against Rwanda in Kigali in their Group E World Cup qualifiers that also included Mali.

Harambee Stars’ Captain Michael Olunga during the FIFA World Cup qualifiers second round at the Nyayo National stadium on Monday, Nov 15, 2021. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Just as Kenyans were starting to believe in Mulee, FKF made the same mistake that cost Kenya an Afcon ticket. 

Mulee was unexpectedly replaced by Turkish Engin Firat who had a winning rating of 0 percent with the Moldova national team he previously managed.

He took charge of 11 matches, losing nine and drawing two.

He had no previous experience in African football and more baffling, he was hired on a two-month contract.

FKF defended the deal, saying it was protecting the country against financial losses if they part ways.

Furthermore, Mulee had started a restructuring process at the national team that saw the likes of Lawrence Juma, Kenneth Muguna, Abdallah Hassan, Richard Odada and Daniel Sakari become an integral part of the national team set up.

Kenyans heavily criticised Firat’s poor record with Moldova which was evident when Stars were humiliated 5-0 in his first assignment against Mali.

It equaled Kenya’s worst-ever World Cup qualifying defeat in history — a 5-0 loss to Tanzania in 1980.

With a contract of two months, Firat gambled with his line up in the two crucial matches against Mali staged at Stade Adrar in Agadir, Morocco and Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi.

In the first leg, Firat’s line up faced backlash from fans on social media after he played some experienced players out of position and benched natural wingers.

Despite the Turk apologising unreservedly and blamed the dismal performance on “not having known his players well”, the ship was already sinking and Kenya’s World Cup hopes had drown.

In the return leg in Nairobi, Stars lost 1-0 to the West Africans, and Firat completed his short stint with the team with a 1-1 draw and 2-1 win over Uganda and Rwanda in the return legs. 

Harambee Stars coach Engin Firat reacts during their last CAF World CUP qualifier group stage fixture against Rwanda at Nyayo national stadium in Nairobi on November 15, 2021. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Firat guided Kenya in four matches, losing twice, drawing once, and winning once.

Kenya finished third in Group E with six points as Mali advanced from the group with 16 points after managing five wins and a draw.

Despite begging to be allowed to continue with his job, the federation under the Caretaker Committee refused to listen to the Turk who left in November 16.

In the end, it is widely evident that haphazard managerial changes and questionable team selection hampered Kenya’s progress in 2021.

Kenyans are left to wait to see who the next coach will be.

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