There is a feeling of “yes we can” in the Kenya team camp here in Cairo.
Harambee Stars are in the cusp of qualifying for the knock-out stage of the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in the tournament’s history.
This situation has never confronted Kenya in over 30 years. In fact, in a history of four previous outings in the African finals, one will have to go back to Kenya’s first appearance at this stage in 1972 when all the matches they played for had a stake.
In that inaugural appearance in 1972 Kenya had started badly losing 2-1 to Cameroon but recovered in a match they needed results to draw 1-1 with Mali.
It then came down to the final round of matches where Kenya needed to beat Togo to guarantee qualification to the semi-finals. Instead, Stars were held to 1-1 draw by Togo while eventual finalists Mali drew 1-1 with group winners Cameroon to secure the second qualification slot.
In 1988, 1990, 1992 and 2004 Harambee Stars were long out of the race by their second match and appeared to have just made the numbers rather than being contenders.
Fast forward to 2019. In Egypt, Stars lost 2-0 to Algeria in their first match and looked to be writing the same script when they fell 2-1 to Tanzania at half time of their second match.
But they pulled off a remarkable comeback to present themselves with everything to fight for in their final group match on Monday against Africa’s top ranked team in the world, Senegal and Sadio Mane.
A win will hand Kenya an automatic spot in the round of 16 while a draw will almost certainly guarantee them qualification as one of four best placed third finishers in their respective groups.
Migne was clearly a relieved man having achieved a rare victory for Kenya at this level. His smile at the post-match press conference told it all.
“No one bet on my team winning,” Migne simply said.
“We will have a good dinner amongst ourselves courtesy of the captain Victor (Wanyama) then we will start thinking of Senegal,” the Kenyan coach revealed.
That dinner was a closed door affair for the players who were given a rare moment in this pressure cooker atmosphere of knock-out qualification battles to savour a rare win.
Unlike their first game, players were willing to talk to the media at the mixed zone section of the stadium following the vital victory against Tanzania.
Man-of-the-match Olunga said they just held on to their belief and fought to stay alive while captain Victory Wanyama said they never gave up.
Harambee Stars management have kept the team closed away at their Tiba Rose Plaza Hotel where their training ground is, next to the 30 June Stadium, venue for Group “C” matches.
The only official access given is 15 minutes before selected training sessions and only elected players (normally) two, are provided for interviews. At the mandatory pre-match press conference, the coach and one selected player are presented.
Standing just a grasp away from taking a knock-out spot will have given the Kenyan boys added motivation to step out and fight.
According to Migne, reliable defender Joash Onyango who got injured at the last training session before their opening match and right back Philemon Otieno may likely be available for selection.
Japan-based Olunga has opened his accounts with aplomb and could be the X factor in Kenya’s campaign.
And the team has a vocal band of travelling Kenyan fans who have added colour and vibrancy to their group matches. Optimism abounds for a round of 16 appearance.
“Everything is possible. We have nothing to lose,” said Migne for the umpteenth time at Friday’s evening training sessions.