NAIROBI, October 25 – Football is a cruel game, so goes the saying and many Kenyans must have cursed football gods following last Wednesday’s draw for the final qualifying round of the 2010 World Cup.
Having punched above its weight, Harambee Stars’ present for defying all odds to make it to the final qualifying round was a draw from hell as they were pooled together with African giants Nigeria and Tunisia as well as Mozambique.
The fans may have been bullish beforehand about Stars chances of making it to 2010 but the draw was a real dampener pouring cold water on any lingering hopes.
And they have good reason to be afraid given the pedigree of the teams involved.
The Nigerians are a class act and were easily the best side in the second round of qualifiers collecting maximum 18 points from their six games. Such was their dominance that they conceded just the one goal and even that was an own goal.
Our record against these two teams is not so great. Nigeria thrashed us 3-0 in the last competitive match in Lagos in 1997. More recently, they edged out the Stars by identical 1-0 wins in friendly matches in Lagos in 2001 and Nairobi in 2007.
Add the quality of players that the Super Eagles possess in the likes of Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Nwankwo Kanu, Taye Taiwo, Ike Ukechukwu and John Obi Mikel and you can understand the despair when the West African nation popped up from the bowl.
Tunisia boasts an infinitely superior record against Kenya. The Northern Africans beat Stars both and away in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers and in the likes of Franciluedo Santos, they have one of the more potent attackers in Africa,
Mozambique may look easy on paper but the Mambas held the Ivorians to a creditable 1-1 draw in Maputo and only succumbed to defeat in Abidjan to a last gaps penalty.
On paper then, it seems like an impossible task to qualify for the World’s premier football showpiece.
But is it?
Recent matches have shown that there are no ‘small’ teams in African football anymore. The so called footballing minnows have improve significantly in the last few years that the big sides can no longer cruise to major finals without breaking sweat.
Malawi beating Reigning African Champions Egypt in Lilongwe in June this year is a cse in point with the Pharaohs simply unable to cope with the Flames.
That Togo and Angola qualified for the 2006 World Cup ahead of their more fancied rivals marked a complete turnaround where hitherto smaller nations are more than holding their own.
Stars thus have a chance if they possess the necessary self belief and confidence
The team also boasts a decent record against the top African sides. For some reason, Kenya always seems to raise their game when pitted against more fancied opponents.
In the 1998 World Cup qualifiers, Stars held Nigeria to a 1-1 ‘win’ in Nairobi and also held Cameroon to a barren draw.
That they had eliminated Algeria from the 98 qualifiers in the preliminary round shows that they can overcome top sides.
Against Morocco in 2006, Stars had the Atlas Lions on the ropes for long periods so we should be confident.
“Whenever we play a big team, our players raise their game because they want to show that they can measure up to the so called stars. They put in even more effort and when you add that to proper preparations, they can be a match for any team,” said Harambee Stars coach Francis Kimanzi.
The big sides are not as solid as they appear on paper.
Nigeria may have collected maximum points but they were in a relatively weak group with a frankly poor South Africa while lets face it, Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea are not exactly powerhouses in African football.
Tunisia on the other hand are undergoing something of a transition after parting ways with long time serving coach Roger Lemerre.
The 2004 Africa winners suffered a rare 1-0 loss to Burkina Faso in Tunis who ultimately claimed four points from the Tunisians and they had to win their final qualifying match to qualify for the final round.
Even if Mozambique pushed Ivory Coast all the way, they also suffered a humiliating 1-0 loss to Madagascar in Maputo!
From this vantage-albeit very optimistic point, it’s feasible that Stars can actually make it to 2010.
“Nothing is impossible. This is not a league where you have a whole season. This is just six matches which is you plan for well, you can achieve whatever you want to achieve,” said Kimanzi.
To do that however, they will need to have everything in the build up to the qualifier s go like clockwork.
Kimanzi says, “We need 100 percent commitment from all involved. The team must have a substantial budget which would help in proper planning of training camps and facilitate friendlies.”
These friendlies, he says would play a vital role in expose our players, “Our players need to frequently play against the kind of competition that we will face in the qualifiers to prepare them for the task at hand.”
So we could actually make the trip down south to wave the Kenyan flags so long as KFF KPL and the government all put their act together and give Kimanzi and his boys.