Why Harambee Stars need to dig deep to qualify for 2026 World Cup

Harambee Stars’ Head Coach Engin Firat in training at Kasarani Annex.[Jonah Onyango, Standard]

The national men’s football team Harambee Stars will have to dig deep and pull up their socks if they are to play in the 2026 Fifa World Cup in the United States.

This is after Kenya was drawn in a fairly tricky Group F where they will fight for the only direct spot in the group against Ivory Coast, Gabon, Gambia, Burundi, and Seychelles.

A total of 54 African nations will compete for the available 9.5 allocated spots for Africa, with the qualifiers officially starting in November.

Winners of each Group will automatically qualify for the Fifa World Cup 2026.

The four best runners-up (from the Groups) will play in a CAF Play-Off tournament. The winner of the CAF Play-Off Tournament will play in the Fifa Play-off Tournament to potentially be the 10th African nation.

While the increase of the number of African representatives from five to nine comes as good news to the continent, Kenya still has a long way to go if their recent performance is anything to go by.  

The Engin Firat charges have been struggling to hit the ground running since their one year ban was lifted last year in November.

In fact, Stars dropped down three places in the latest rankings released by Fifa.

The national football team dropped from position 102 and is now ranked 105 worldwide with 1191.07 points.

The drop is attributed to the team's latest poor results registered during their last three international friendly matches played against Iran (lost 2-1), Pakistan (won 1-0) and Mauritius (lost 1-0).

To qualify for the USA World Cup, the Michael Olunga-led outfit will need to be at their peak since now they will be playing against highly ranked nations boasting world class players like Ivory Coast who have Wilfred Zaha, Nicholas Pepe and Frank Kessie within their ranks.

This will also shift focus on Harambee Stars head coach Engin Firat who since arriving in the country in September 2021 has not had an easy ride.

The coach’s first game ended in a 5-0 humiliation at the hands of Mali during the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in October 2021, before losing 1-0 in the return leg.

A 1-1 draw with Uganda was next before he picked his first after defeating Rwanda 2-1 in a dead-rubber match at Nyayo Stadium, in November.

Firat left after Kenya was banned by Fifa for government interference, but he returned in March this year after the ban was lifted.

The Turk took Kenya to play Iran the same month and despite Michael Olunga scoring and with Kenya leading until the 75th minute, two late goals condemned Harambee Stars to a 2-1 defeat.

His latest defeat against Mauritius elicited further criticism as to whether he is the right man to lead Kenya back to the old forgotten glory days.

Will Kenya qualify for the 2026 World Cup with Firat in charge?

But even as Stars look forward to the qualifiers, currently there is no single facility in the country that can host an international football match.

The completion of the proposed upgrade of most stadiums by both national and county governments has either been slow or stalled in totality.

The government needs to improve and even modernise most of the facilities in the country which have been used as cash cows in the recent past. Several inspections have been made to different facilities across the country, but nothing fruitful has come out of them.

As it stands, Harambee Stars, FKF Premier League champions Gor Mahia and FKF Cup winners Kakamega Homeboyz are likely to host their World Cup qualifiers, Champions League and Confederation Cup matches outside the country.

Although the government recently submitted a joint EAC Pamoja bid with Uganda and Tanzania to CAF to host the 2027 Africa Cup of Nations, the state of infrastructure is appalling.

Kenya’s two largest facilities, Kasarani and Nyayo stadiums, were banned in October 2021 by CAF after they both failed to meet the required standards to stage Fifa accredited matches.

While Kasarani and Nyayo have unsuccessfully undergone renovation for many years, a deserted Nairobi’s City Stadium is typically a historical site while Kipchoge Keino which has been earmarked for 2027 Afcon literally looks like a grazing field.

The next few months are going to prove Kenya's preparedness for the upcoming international matches.

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