Sometimes you lack the superlatives to define such a performance. Or perhaps it’s the belief, the spirit and the never-say-die attitude. Post-match, the Malkia Strikers huddled in a circle and at the count of three, they shuffled their feet and simultaneously fell on their bums then rolled backwards in celebration. It was the kind of celebration befitting such a feat.
The 3-2 (18-25, 16-25, 27-25, 30-28, 15-10) win over defending champions Cameroon will go down in history as one of the greatest comebacks from Kenya at a continental championship. Two sets down, the first six thrown into disarray and confidence falling, head coach Shaileen Ramdoo had to do something and he made three big gambles in the third set.
Leonida Kasaya, who had stepped out of the team bus last probably not expecting to feature on the day, was introduced for skipper Mercy Moim and played alongside Noel Murambi as the outside hitters while the left-handed Violet Makuto moved to middle blocker. Emmaculate Chemtai started as the opposite while Janet Wanja returned on court replacing Jane Wacu.
At that moment, the stage was set for another humiliation at the hands of West Africans who beat Kenya 3-1 in in 2017 to clinch the African title for the first time in their history.
“When we lost the first two sets it looked like we were going to lose 3-0 but we have showed that we can fight,” said Wacu.
Cameroon, who had played a series of international friendlies in Europe before this tournament, could not find a reply to Malkia’s new setup and game plan.
They reluctantly gave in as Kenya clinched the next two sets to set up the tie-breaker. And Kenya’s renaissance continued in the fifth set with Kasaya, bottom of the outside hitters’ pecking order, emerging as the best player in red on the day.
“Cameroon now respect us and it’s highly likely that we are going to meet them in the final,” said Wacu, a late inclusion into Ramdoo’s traveling party.
“We want to bring the title home. Our fans should keep supporting us, we won’t let them down,” added the award-winning setter before completing her interview with the love sign.
But this team has been shown nothing close to love by the government despite being one of the most consistent over the last decade. Even after calling for “equal treatment” prior to their departure, their cries fell on deaf ears as they crept out of the country for Cairo last week. No senior government official was present to hand over the flag to them. Not President Uhuru Kenyatta, his Deputy William Ruto or even the Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed. No-one!
The government still owes them monies from their triumphant trip to Uganda for the African Games qualifiers last month.
Malkia’s preparations were a far cry to the professional standards they have exhibited at the Africa Nations Championships having spent over two weeks requesting for friendly matches against local men teams.
Just a month ago, the national football team Harambee Stars benefitted from a windfall from the government while preparing for a similar assignment. Sh240 million was the exact figure. In fact, every Harambee Stars player who made the training camp to France and later travelled to Cairo for the tournament proper is now a millionaire. Receiving a million, either in bonuses or allowances, is unheard of to the Malkia Strikers. It has never happened before despite gracing the African Games, Africa Cup of Nations, World Cup and even the Olympics.
Ramdoo, seconded to Kenya by the world volleyball governing body FIVB in May, refused to bask in the glory of the spectacular comeback.
“We have a one day rest, hope we can enjoy that and use it as the energy for the next step. Let’s see what happens in the semi-final,” said the Italian.
We all know what will happen in the semi-final or at least we can predict. Kenya meet Senegal on Saturday, win and possibly set up a repeat of the 2017 final if Cameroon beat hosts Egypt. If Thursday’s performance is anything to go by, neither Cameroon nor Egypt can stop Kenya. Our 10th African title is on its way home.
If you believed in Football Kenya Federation’s #Tunaweza Afcon slogan, the Malkia Strikers’ one is realest. They have done it nine times before! President Kenyatta and his deputy should ensure these girls are paid their allowances. That motivation could be the missing piece in the jigsaw. They deserve it. Sorry, I mean they’ve earned it!