Harambee Stars must prove their worth in 2024

Michael Olunga (L) of Harambee Stars contest for ball with Rashid Toha Freedon of South Sudan during International Friendly match played at Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi on September 12, 2023. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Harambee Stars face a monumental year in 2024, with high expectations to prove their readiness for top-level football.

This urgency stems from the team’s mixed performances in 2023, a year crucial for shaping their future.

Stars will participate in crucial competitions, including the 2025 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, the 2026 World Cup qualifiers, and the 2024 CHAN, highlighting the importance of this year​.

Kenya’s journey in 2023 under coach Engin Firat was a blend of highs and lows.

It was a period of trials, tribulations, and some triumphs. This was a time that served as a litmus test for their resilience and potential.

Coming back from a Fifa ban that sidelined them from international football, the Stars embarked on a journey to reclaim their respected position in world football.

The year began on a somber note, with the Stars missing out on the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers due to the Fifa suspension.

It was a setback that denied them the chance to test their mettle against Cameroon and Namibia, potentially affecting their competitive edge and international ranking.

However, the suspension lift heralded a series of friendlies that provided a platform for the team to demonstrate their capabilities.

Harambee Stars registered mixed results from March to November, indicating both resilience and areas in need of improvement. The period was marked by friendlies and World Cup qualifiers, which painted a detailed picture of the team’s current standing.

In June last year, Kenya secured a narrow 1-0 victory over Pakistan, a positive outcome that would boost the team’s confidence.

However, they faced a setback with a 1-0 defeat to Mauritius, a result that might have been unexpected considering Mauritius’ relatively lower profile in international football.

September brought more friendlies, with Kenya pulling off an impressive 2-1 win against World Cup hosts Qatar, a team that has invested heavily in their footballing infrastructure in recent years.

This victory was significant, showcasing Kenya’s potential to punch above its weight. However, this high was followed by a 1-0 loss to South Sudan, indicating inconsistency in the team’s performance.

In October, Kenya demonstrated their ability to hold their ground against stronger teams by drawing 2-2 with Russia. This result was particularly encouraging as it reflected the team’s resilience and capacity to compete with teams that have a more established footballing history.

The World Cup qualifiers in November were where the Stars truly had their mettle tested. Firat’s men started with a disappointing 2-1 loss to Gabon after initially taking the lead. Stars then redeemed themselves with a resounding 5-0 win over Seychelles, displaying their offensive capabilities.

Despite these fluctuating results, Harambee Stars’ Fifa ranking remained static at 110th, a clear indicator that while progress was made, there was still much work to do.

Coach Firat’s observations about the lack of creativity and profligacy upfront suggested areas for tactical and technical development.

Looking into 2024, with the 2025 Afcon qualifiers and the remainder of the World Cup qualifiers, there is a sense of cautious optimism. The team has shown it can compete but now must build on its potential to achieve greater consistency and success on the international stage.

For most of last year, Firat went wild during press conferences calling for critics and journalists to give him time to build a formidable side that can compete and play with a recognisable style. Unfortunately, as it stands, the nation doesn’t not have a philosophy or renowned style of play.

Well, with the Afcon and World Cup at stake in the coming years, Kenyans will surely need to see results, especially this year when the qualifiers take centre stage.

The 2025 Afcon qualifiers will begin in March with the preliminary round as the first and second round matches are scheduled from September, the same month the third and fourth round games will take place.

The final rounds of the qualifiers are slated for November, and Morocco will host the 2025 Afcon finals after Guinea was stripped of its hosting rights. In the 2026 World Cup qualifiers, Harambee Stars face an uphill task of securing their spot in a highly competitive group that includes powerhouses Ivory Coast and Gabon. The importance of goal difference, evident in Ivory Coast’s 9-0 victory, emphasises the need for a more prolific goal-scoring performance.

While the 5-0 win against Seychelles brought joy to fans, it also exposed the team’s vulnerabilities, prompting a critical evaluation of their finishing and overall cohesion.

As Firat continues to shape the team’s identity, the hunger for success and aversion to losing provide a foundation for Harambee Stars to build upon.

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