For the first time in 15-years, national football team Harambee Stars, managed by Sebastien Migne, has qualified for 2019 Africa Cup of Nations with a game to spare.
At the same time, Kenya’s youth teams also impressed at international assignments this year, giving fans every reason to believe there is plenty of talent for the future.
And with Stars captain Victor Wanyama enjoying limited time on the pitch owing to niggling injuries, striker Michael Olunga who plies his trade for Kashiwa Reysol, Zambia-based defender Musa Mohammed, Sweden-based winger Ovella Ochieng’, Sofapaka midfielder Dennis Odhiambo and Gor Mahia right back Philemon Otieno are some of the national team players who impressed.
The biannual Africa Cup of Nations football tournament is the continent’s premier national football team competition and Kenya’s qualification to the event, which will be staged either in Egypt or South Africa, hands Kenyan footballers a unique opportunity to showcase their talent to scouts from all over the world as they come face to face with established teams in African football, namely Cameroon, Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Cote d'Ivoire, and Senegal.
Kenya’s qualification for the tournament was mainly aided by the team’s unbeaten run in Group ‘F’ qualifying matches in September and October.
Kenya’s good run stretched across three matches played at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi and Bahir Dar in Ethiopia against fancied Black Stars of Ghana, and Ethiopia.
Along the way, Kenya somehow benefited from the suspension of Sierra Leone by world football governing body Fifa, guaranteeing Harambee Stars players an early qualification for the tournament.
Kenya’s qualification for the tournament had seemed impossible to many fans on March 24 when the team fell 3-2 to lowly Central Africa Republic in an international friendly match at the Stade de Marrakech in Morocco.
This result, coming three days after the full-strength Kenyan team had settled for a disappointing 2-2 draw with Comoros in another friendly match at the same venue, elicited angry reaction on social media from frustrated football fans.
This was on the back of another humiliating 2-1 loss the team had suffered at the hands of Sierra Leone in Free Town in September 2017 on the opening day of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier matches, an outcome that put Stars on the back-foot from the word go.
Faced by growing public criticism, Football Kenya Federation (FKF) president Nick Mwendwa had to make a move. He announced in Morocco that Stanley Okumbi who was the team’s stand-in coach at the time, his assistant Frank Ouna and goalkeeper trainer Haggai Azande had been sacked with immediate effect.
And exactly 42 days later, coach Migne was unveiled in Nairobi. The 45-year-old Frenchman came in as the replacement for Belgian Paul Put who had quit in a huff in February after only three months in charge in view of a better offer from Guinea.
Migne was unveiled alongside Nicolas Bourriquet as assistant coach, Guillaune Coffy as goalkeeper trainer and Ludovic Breul who heads the team’s medical department.
Without a doubt, Migne, whose coaching record at the time was sketchy, had big shoes to fill, considering that Put had quickly emerged a favourite of the fans after leading Kenya to victory in the 2017 Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup hosted in Kenya.
“If we qualify for the next Africa Cup of Nations tournament, that’s fine, but to play in this competition in 2021 is a must for me and Kenya,” a beaming Migne said at his unveiling.
“We wanted someone (a coach) who can appreciate when the lights suddenly go off, when the car doesn’t arrive on time, or when we suddenly have to train on a water-logged pitch,” added Mwendwa.
Fast forward to December and Migne remains unbeaten in competitive assignments since taking charge of the team.
Without doubt, that 1-0 win over a star-studded Ghana at Kasarani Stadium in Group F matches of the 2019 Afcon qualifiers was the team’s highlight performance of the year.
Also worth noting is the fact that the Frenchman achieved this result with 10-men following the sending off of Gor Mahia defender Joash Onyango just after the restart.
What’s more, captain Victor Wanyama - who has worryingly been on the treatment table for long spells this year – alongside attacker Ayub Timbe missed the match owing to injury and suspension.
“When we beat Ghana, I knew we would qualify. We worked so hard to prepare for that match and we had to endure a lot during the 90 minutes. I believe it is the start of something good for this team. I hope we can retain the coach, and also have good preparations ahead of the continental championship,” said Mohammed who is Kenya’s deputy captain.
A month later, Migne took his charges to Bahir Dar in Ethiopia and managed to pick a precious point to add to their tally in the qualifiers.
The former coach of the Democratic Republic of Congo then sealed the deal with a convincing victory over Ethiopia’s Walya Antelopes in Nairobi.
Sadly, this inspirational tale has taken a negative turn as Migne and his colleagues have had to work in a far from an ideal environment, occasioned by consistent salary delays. On two separate occasions since his appointment, Migne has threatened to quit the job owing to unpaid salary stretching three months. Meanwhile, FKF has consistently directed the blame to the government.
“I have just checked my account and there is no money,” Migne said this month.
“It is not a good thing at all and it means I will not be able to continue in this role (as Harambee Stars coach). It is very unfortunate after what we have achieved as a team for this great country.”
At the same time, Kenya’s steady rise this year also highlighted the emergence of fringe players such as Musa Mohammed, Philemon Otieno, Joash Onyango and Ovella Ochieng' who made a name for themselves as dependable players.
The success by Harambee Stars seemed to have spilled over to the youth team as Kenya Under-23 team, nicknamed Emerging Stars, recorded convincing victories over Mauritius in the opening round of the 2020 Olympics qualifiers.
The team, coached by Francis Kimanzi, defeated the Indian Ocean islanders 8-1 on aggregate, which included a 5-0 thrashing at home, to reach the second round of the competition where they face Sudan in March next year.
Kenya Under-23 team is seeking to qualify for the Olympics for the first team. Meanwhile, Kenya Under-17 team finished fourth at the regional Cecafa youth tournament.
The team also made it to the semi-finals of the Fifa-sponsored youth tournament in Tanzania but this performance was enough to guarantee qualification to the continental championship. The Under-16 team won the Copa-Coca Cola African championship in Nakuru.