NAIROBI, September 5 – Every Kenyan will be on the edge of their seats on Saturday afternoon as Harambee Stars take on Namibia in a crucial World Cup qualifier.
There has been a crazy rush all week with football fanatics scrambling for the available tickets while Harambee Stars replica jerseys have been selling like hot cake.
It is amazing what can change a few months can do in terms of changing an attitude.
When the draw for the 2010 World Cup qualifying was made, few gave Stars a chance.
After all, they had won only one match the previous year-that’s if beating Somalia 2-0 in a Cecafa Senior challenge match in December actually counts.
But the seeds of belief were first sown in the opening qualifier away to Namibia. Stars may have lost 2-1 in Windhoek but they were the better side on the day and were unlucky to concede a last minute winner.
News of their performance travelled fast and by the time Guinea came calling in Nairobi a week later, Nyayo national stadium was sold out. The fans were not disappointed as a Dennis Oliech brace helped Stars to a 2-0 win over the fancied West Africans.
A similar 2-0 win over Zimbabwe’s Warriors had the city in raptures as Stars confirmed they had turned the corner with another controlled performance. And when they earned an impressive barren draw in Harare 0-0, they had their qualifying fate in their own hands.
It is because of this excellent run that expectations in Saturday’s match against the Brave Warriors have hit the roof with fans and the media confident of success.
But what has caused the turn around? What happened to the team that could hardly win a match? Why do fans, all over a sudden, believe in their beloved national team?
The appointment of Francis Kimanzi has no doubt played a huge role. The 33 year old tactician was lost for words when he was handed the honour of coaching the team but that was the last time he showed any nerves.
Under him, Stars have been transformed into a tactically astute team capable of dealing with any situation. His no frills approach has rubbed some players the wrong way but there is no questioning that this is a man sure of his own abilities and those of his team.
His detailed preparations have done wonders to the team bringing on balance while his tactical game plans have worked to a fault.
The sight of him training his charges on the City Park astro turf pitch before they played Zimbabwe is an example of the kind of foresight he possesses.
Kimanzi’s decision making has also been spot-on as showcased when he promptly dropped fullbacks Kennedy Ayong and Ibrahim Shikanda after the first match when he realised that their lack of height was a big disadvantage. A similar tough decision will see Anthony Kimani sit out Saturday’s match despite starting the last four games for the Stars.
The performance of some of our foreign based players almost always drew criticism but Kimanzi has somehow managed to bring out the best out of the foreign based legion.
Arnold Origi, Dennis Oliech, Macdonald Mariga have played key roles in the team’s success.
Oliech’s timely return to form as well as a change of attitude has been a great factor. Three years to the day, Oliech refused to turn up for the team in a match against Guinea claiming he would only do so if he was reimbursed money he had used to travel back home.
Despite desperate persuasion by the then KFF chairman Alfred Sambu, Oliech would not budge and spent the afternoon at a beach hotel as Kenyans went down without a fight in Conakry.
This year however, we have seen a new, committed Oliech, who has led the line tirelessly and his three goals have been pivotal. His work rate has been phenomenal, as well as his leadership of the team providing much needed inspiration and he will be sorely missed.
The quality of the premier league has gone up several notches and this has in turn provided the national team with quality players. Following the entry of Supersport as sponsors, this season has been very competitive with clubs getting funds to run their affairs.
The fight for the ultimate prize has also gone a long way in making the league competitive which has in turn improved the quality of our players.
The agreement by Kenya Premier League and KFF to co-manage the team has paid rich dividends. Under the deal KPL clubs agreed to spend some of their cash in running the team and the results have been there for all to see.
Since the deal, the boys have atleast been treated like a national team complete with track suits and decent playing uniforms. Their allowances are being paid on time and there is greater sense of focus which has really helped foster team spirit.
But while the rise has been sharp, there is a great need for the country to sustain the current momentum. Whether Stars make it to the next round or not, all stakeholders should ensure that we build on this.
Over the years, Stars have gone back to ground zero every time they suffer a defeat but, like Kimanzi says, there is a need to build a solid foundation and this campaign certainly qualifies.