Mountain to climb as Kenya's Stars take on giants

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The team has to battle a pre-tournament favourite and a past title winner in quest for history

Wednesday March 18 2020

The Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) is on, and those who have cared to listen know that Football Kenya Federation (FKF) and Harambee Stars have said the country is ready to conquer Africa, after failing to qualify for the tournament in the previous fifteen years.

Kenya takes on Algeria tomorrow in their Group C opening match in Cairo and their performance in that match will show whether they are out to rewrite history or stretch the country’s poor run in the continent’s biggest football tournament.

“It’s a reality that they have foreign-based players. However, for me I just believe that 90 minutes is what counts, and if the players do everything right and they believe in themselves, I don’t think that parity will be seen in 90 minutes,” says former Harambee Stars head coach Jacob “Ghost” Mulee.

In all the five past appearances, Stars have never gone beyond the group stages, recording only one win in the 14 matches played since its first appearance in 1972. It has lost nine times and drawn four times.

In 2004 when Kenya beat Burkina Faso 3-0 the Stars also collected four goals, replicating the country’s record set in 1992.

If the team has small ambitions, then all the boys need is to win one match in the group stage and exit the competition with more than four goals and a better goal difference. Over the years Kenya has been weak between the posts. For every goal the Stars have scored, they have conceded three, according to a Nation Newsplex analysis of the results of all Stars’ past matches obtained from the World Football Elo Ratings, a website that keeps statistics of all international matches ever played by countries.

If tournaments are not won solely by impressive profiles and statistics stretching back many decades, then all the teams currently in Egypt stand a fair chance of lifting the trophy, including debutants Burundi, Madagascar and Mauritania.

However, many people, especially historians and statisticians, would be surprised if Kenya won the tournament or even came close to that. Essentially, the country is boxed within Group C, the only space where they believe the Stars’ prospects can be realistically discussed.

And their pessimism can be intoxicating!

Discovering Senegal

The group appears to rest in the firm grip of Senegal, a team with many stripes, quite a few of them coming in superlatives: number one Fifa ranking in Africa (22 in the world), the best-performing team in the Afcon qualifiers (16 points), the best qualification goal difference in Group C (+10) and 2002 tournament finalists.

And then there is Sadio Mané, fresh from beating Victor Wanyama to the UEFA Champions League title and finishing two places ahead of him in the English Premier League. Stars should hope that his winning ways in Europe do not cross over into the Maghreb.

Although he has not scored a single goal in the qualifiers, where he played five of the six matches, the Liverpool forward has had an impressive season, starting 92 percent of the times and netting 22 league goals, according to Transfer markt, an online site that displays statistics on professional footballers. On the other hand, Wanyama was part of Tottenham’s starting eleven only 11 percent of the times and scored just one goal. Kashiwa Reysol’s Michael Olunga started half of the times and saw the back of the net six times.

Generally, there have been few collisions between Kenya and Senegal. In the three instances, Kenya has lost twice and drawn once.

It might be intimidating that all the players in the 23-man squad are foreign-based, of which all but two play in top-tier European clubs – this is football at a much more competitive level than the national leagues in Africa.

According to former Harambee Stars head coach Jacob “Ghost” Mulee, these are realities that teams have to live with but do not necessarily determine the outcome if handled well. “It’s a reality that they have foreign-based players. However, for me I just believe that 90 minutes is what counts, and if the players do everything right and they believe in themselves, I don’t think that parity will be seen in 90 minutes,” he says.

He stresses that the role of the coach is to put confidence in the team, reminding them that history is there to be written by them downing such teams.

Opening match

While Senegal is a prospective candidate for discovery in the last group match, Algeria is where the Harambee Stars’ spotlight is currently aimed. According to ‘Ghost’, a win against Algeria will not just be about points but also about morale.

Statistics put the Desert Foxes as second-favourite in the group. Though previous meets have ended in three wins, three losses and a draw for each country, Algeria has a better Afcon history, having qualified 17 times and clinched the trophy in 1990. The team also had a better qualification run, finishing first in Group D with 11 points and a goal difference of +5 compared with Kenya’s +3.

Moreover, Algeria has over half (57 percent) of its squad playing in the apex of European football leagues, the second-highest share in the group, including English Premier League winners Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez, who managed seven goals last season and two in the Afcon qualifiers. The bigger trouble for Kenya’s defence, however, will be Algeria’s danger man Baghdad Bounedja, who netted 39 goals for his club Al Sadd last season and three of the nine goals the Desert Foxes scored in Afcon qualifiers.

When meeting the two teams with the best goal records in the group, Stars will have to go out and score many goals to stay afloat. Kenya got four goals, including an opponent’s own goal and a penalty, from four matches and conceded one in the qualifiers. Sierra Leone was banned by Fifa due to government interference in football, leaving the group with three teams. Stars is the only team without a player scoring at least twice in the qualifiers. In the group, Senegal and Algeria each had a player scoring a total of three goals while Burundi’s Abdul Razak led with six goals.

Former Harambee Stars player Taiwo Atieno, currently involved in an initiative to build a stadium in Migori County and develop football talent, thinks that lack of dependable strikers has been one of Kenya’s weaknesses for a long time. “We don’t have the training or the facilities to make these players be finishers, we train our wingers to be technical and strong but not goal scorers,” he says.

The other stars

Many commentators have warned that Kenya might be disappointed by Tanzania’s Taifa Stars if they hope for an easy time in their second match in as much as statistics show they might be the group’s punching bag. With the youngest team in the group (25 years and five months), they are definitely trailing in experience and easy to put aside as a great team for the future. Algeria is the oldest team in the group, with an average age of 26 years and two months, followed by Senegal (25 years and 11 months) and Kenya (25 years and seven months).

Of the past 64 encounters between the two neighbours, Kenya has won 32, lost 17 and drawn 15. The Taifa Stars have the lowest Fifa ranking in the group (131), 26 positions behind Kenya’s 105 as at June 14, 2019. They also conceded goals in the group stage just as frequently as they have scored, finishing with a goal difference of +1.

But not even their worm’s eye view of the group should fool any team. If not thrust forward by sheer talent and skill, then the support of their fans might just do it. Tanzania has waited 39 years to participate in the tournament for a second time and their participation is such a big deal to the people, including President Magufuli.

Whether playing in the local league or abroad like Mbwana Samatta and Simon Msuva, each member of that dream team is currently a celebrity!

In Kenya, many football fans are still waiting for a national team that will evoke emotions like the days of Coach Reinhardt Fabisch, when even kindergarten kids recited the Harambee Stars line-up like nursery rhymes.

That long wait might come to an end in a couple of weeks when Stars’ rays will have shone beyond Group C. Coach Sébastien Migné seems to be taking it one step at a time, and doing so his own way.