James Magayi @magayijim
Fourteen years and 10 coaches down the line, a football-crazed Kenya finally climbed back on stage for just her fifth appearance in the continent’s premier football festival, the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).
The national team that has put up with mismanagement, mediocrity, ridicule and hostility from home fans finally endeared themselves to the nation by ending a long barren run.
And they did it in style, qualifying with one match to spare, a phenomenon not associated with Kenya. The writing was on the wall, though, from last month as a lowly rated Kenya shocked the world with a remarkable victory over the Black Stars of Ghana.
Shortly afterwards, Kenya benefited from a near act of god as world governing body FIFA proclaimed an indefinite ban on Sierra Leone citing government interference. FIFA’s intervention altered group permutations in favour of Kenya who needed to finish above either Ghana or Ethiopia to book their place in Cameroon next year.
Maverick French tactician in charge of Harambee Stars Sebastian Migne then masterminded an ugly but vital draw away with Ethiopia last week then followed it up with the resounding victory at Kasarani yesterday to complete the job. Migne joins the lofty steads of Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee who led Kenya to her last AFCON appearance in 2004, Gerry Saurer and Jonathan Niva.
The relatively young squad that started for Kenya yesterday, averaging 24 years is tipped for greater success given the right management and support. Five of the starters ply their trades locally.
“Football has changed and any team can beat another. You just have to look back at the World Cup to realise that there is no small team anymore. Kenya can go places and conquer. These players are very talented and capable of doing well in the Afcon finals,” Migne told People Sports.
Fans started milling into the 60,000-seater China-built Kasarani stadium as early as 8am after the government decided to scrape gate charges. The fully packed stadium intimidated Walia Ibex with songs and dance that buoyed Harambee Stars to a historic feat.
Kenya first played at the Cup of Nations in 1972 under Niva then waited 14 years to make her second appearance in 1988. The team then qualified for the 1990 and 1992 finals before going back to a 12-year lull broken by Mulee in 2004.
Ten coaches have taken charge of the national team since the 2004 showpiece in Tunisia, five of them locals serving unsavory results to the nation. Francis Kimanzi’s tenure was hailed as fruitful as the country climbed FIFA rankings remarkably while Zedekiah Otieno narrowly missed qualification.
Twahir Mihidin, James Nandwa and Stanley Okumbi had their stints too without success. Antoine Hey, Henri Michel, Adel Amrouche and Robert ‘Bobby’ Williamson are the foreign experts who tried and failed to take Kenya to Afcon post 2004.