Midway through the Kenyan Premier League season, the Ulinzi Stars’ camp reported they had overcome the hiccups at the start competition and that they would be afraid of no team.
From flirting with relegation at one time, Ulinzi were in a credible fourth place when the league ended with that Mathare United triumph on November 22.
It was evident that Ulinzi, the former two-time Kenya champions, had regained the pedigree of a decent football side.
Their management also appeared more serious than that of the recent past and the team could be headed for a bright future.
That future could even be very much on the way because at the end of last week, Ulinzi achieved what no other footballers from the Combined Services of the Kenya Armed Forces –Army, Navy and Air Force -- have ever done.
Ulinzi Stars have qualified for the soccer tournament of World Military Games in Brazil in 2011.
Kenyan soldiers have done well in past World Military Games but specifically in athletics and boxing. Soccer players will be attending for the first time.
At the Military Games, the soccer teams are of high quality. From Africa, military teams of top class can be found in the domestic leagues in including, for example, former African club champions FAR (Royal Armed Forces) of Morocco.
In the eastern and central African region famous league clubs, such as APR of Rwanda, Simba of Uganda, and Zambian sides Green Buffaloes and Red Arrows, are military teams.
So for Ulinzi, taking part in the just-concluded Africa Military Games soccer tournament in Uganda was perhaps an equal challenge to the domestic KPL league they had just gone through.
“It was hectic,” said Ulinzi chairman, Colonel Khalif Shabel, “the league just concluded, we took a little break, then had just three days after regrouping to psyche up the team for Uganda.”
The competition was stiff and hot favourite teams included those from defending champions Cameroon, Algeria and hosts Uganda, whose Simba club [in the days of Idi Amin] once reached the actual final of the old Africa Champion of Club Champions Cup, the forerunner of the Champions League.
Did not lose focus
After defying all odds to reach the semi-finals in Kampala, Ulinzi were eliminated by Cameroon 2-0.
“We did not play badly. The score does not reflect that we had seven good opportunities to get goals,” said Col Shabel.
But in order to achieve the main goal that took them to Uganda, Ulinzi did not lose focus and were to dramatically grab a place in the World Military Games for the first time by winning the third place in Uganda.
And what a stage it was for Africa’s third spot battle. It was Kenya’s Ulinzi versus home side Simba of Uganda, the team currently lying second in the Ugandan Football League.
Kenya international trialist Evans Amwoka stunned home support by scoring in the third minute of added time for a 1-1 tie with Simba which forced a decision to be taken through penalties.
Merry-making Ugandans had already started to leave the stadium sure that Simba had clinched its place in the world finals when Amwoka’s goal turned the contest on its head.
The goal, off the corner kick by another Kenya international, Geoffrey Kokoyo, sent the decider to the nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out which added another chapter to Ulinzi’s history.
Simon Sserunkuma had given the Ugandan army side the lead in the 57th minute, which came after four attempts by Ugandan players hit the woodwork.
In the shoot-out, it was obvious that Ulinzi had the edge.
The biggest contributors were players also highly rated at home including veteran goalkeeper and former Harambee Stars skipper Francis Onyiso who saved two penalties and scorers Francis Ochieng’, -- one of the leading goal getters in the KPL who recently got a national team call-up -- Harambee Stars defender James Mulinge, George Othieno and Onyiso himself who also stepped up to take a kick.
Ulinzi coach Joel Omondi said: “The men were very committed to qualifying. No doubt they were exhausted and fatigued after a long Kenyan season and intensive schedule here in Uganda but they managed to dig in, give it their all and achieve this.”
Cameroon and Algeria who made the final grabbed the other automatic places for Africa. African representatives in the last World Military Games in India were Cameroon, Guinea and Burkina Faso.
The continental eliminations for a tournament in 2011 may seem to have taken place too early but Col Shabel said: “It’s not too early, the staging of military games has its own unique logistical challenges, and you need plenty of room to maneuver.”
But he said Ulinzi owed its success to the competition they got in the Kenyan Premier League.
And with half a dozen Ulinzi players of Kenya international recognition -- Onyiso, Kokoyo, Mulinge, Ochieng’, Amwoka, Hussein Mohamed and Sammy Simiyu -- the team obviously does not lack class or self belief.
Ulinzi’s feat also drew congratulations from their compatriots in the domestic scene. The KPL chairman, Bob Munro said: “All over in KPL and the country in general salute Ulinzi for this remarkable achievement.”
Mulinge and Ochieng’ who only arrived back in Nairobi with Ulinzi yesterday afternoon, were of course supposed to immediately head to Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani to join the Harambee Stars.
The two soldiers will be joining other compatriots to return to Uganda in barely two weeks for another campaign.
The national squad begins their training this morning for the forthcoming Cecafa Challenge Cup in Kampala and Jinja between December 31 and January 13.