NAIROBI, Kenya, Sept 26 – Harambee Stars’ 1-0 loss to Mozambique in a 2010 World Cup qualifier several weeks ago raised hue and cry among the passionate fans in Kenya.
Anger, frustration and disappointment were the prevailing feelings with most calling for sacking of the head of coach Antoine Hey and football officials after a defeat which left the country’s chances of qualifying for the World cup or even the Cup of Nations hanging by a thread-albeit a very thin one. They now lie bottom of the group with just three points with Mozambique in third, Nigeria second and Tunisia top.
Compare this scenario to a year ago.
Then, our national football team was on the verge of qualifying for the final phase of the 2010 World Cup campaign.
The country was on a football high. Optimism and hope were the main ingredients. Banners were unfurled at stadiums, tickets sold out and fans fought the dreaded GSU as they sought entry into the stadium, gates were broken as we sought to catch a glimpse of our stars.
The dream was real. Harambee Stars- hitherto written off in a group containing Guinea, Zimbabwe and Namibia had against all odds won three matches.
The feel good factor continued such that when the draw for the final rounds was done, fans believed that Kenya would not only beat Mozambique but could also upset Tunisia and Nigeria and make its debut at the world’s biggest football bonanza.
Sadly, this dream has been wiped out in a miserable eight months as Harambee Stars under the stewardship of Antoine Hey capitulated in spectacular fashion.
Gone are the swashbuckling performances of last year.
Instead, insipid, demoralized and bewildered, Stars have been a pale shadow of their former self barely putting up a fight against any team and after loses to Tunisia, Angola and Mozambique, they will be very lucky to make Angola in January.
Where there was optimism, now there is pessimism, hope has been replaced with despair, the dream has turned into a nightmare.
So where did it all go wrong?
Where did we lose our way?
First and foremost the decision to have Football Kenya Limited run the team as opposed to Kenya Premier League (KPL) proved catastrophic.
With the federation broke, KPL clubs came together in May 2008 and decided to fork out part of their funds from their lucrative deal with Supersport to support the team.
Under the agreement, KPL would run the national team which they did with distinction with the team being run professionally. Gone were the days of colourfully emblazoned t-shirts which were replaced by designer travelling suits while the allowances were all paid on time.
Suddenly there was discipline and a feel good factor about the team.
The hiring of Mathare United coach Francis Kimanzi was a masterstroke by KPL as the young tactician set about to prove that he was capable.
Shrewd and tactically astute, he was able to coax the very best out of our little resources. All of a sudden players were giving their all and there seemed to be a plan on the pitch.
The effect was evident as Stars punched above its weight defeating the fancied Guineans and Zimbabwe by identical 2-0 scoreline. A gritty draw away to Zimbabwe sealed our qualification.
Sadly, the success led to a change of heart by FKL who demanded to have ‘their’ team. They were granted their wish and then the problems started.
First, friendlies mostly not on Fifa dates suddenly sprouted from all over, Egypt, Oman, Yemeni, Malaysia etc.
When Kimanzi questioned them, they hurriedly sacked him and in his place they brought in German coach Antoine Hey.
His very recruitment was shrouded in secrecy. Unveiled by the Prime Minister Raila Odinga, there is little detail of how he was arrived at. Were there interviews? If there were, who were the shortlisted candidates?
The government however committed to paying his salary (Sh1.7 million per month-Kimanzi was on roughly seventh of that) and voila! We had a new man at the helm.
To say the German came with a modest CV would be a gross understatement. Without a win in any of his three previous jobs where he was incharge of Lesotho, Gambia and Liberia, Kenya was taking a big gamble with the unproven coach.
The 39-year old German then shuffled the team, recalled Musa Otieno and then left out top players because of the infamous letter of commitments that he introduced. All over a sudden, where there was unit, there was a divided group of players.
He did not take time to get inculcated into Kenya’s football culture instead relying on advise from various quarters.
The results have been disastrous. Kenya’s best defender Edgar Ochieng continues to be left out of the team because of the letter of commitments feud between the coach and Mathare United.
In fact no Mathare United player is in the team but those who have left the league champions for other clubs swiftly find themselves back in the groove-Austin Makacha the best example.
On the pitch, he adopted a far more conservative approach. Where before Stars would dare to take the game to the opponent, now they went in looking for damage limitation.
Kimanzi’s steady 4-4-2 was replaced by the 3-5-2 which at times-Nigeria comes to mind metamorphed into 3-6-1.
“Every coach has a philosophy and players take time to understand and learn it. When Hey came, they had to change everything and this affected the team. Also the formations he has been employing are a bit strange especially as the 3-5-2 system is outdated. Though he is a young coach, his ideas are a bit too old fashioned and that is why we are struggling because its not working with our players,” says Kimanzi.
Hey was also unable to strike a rapport with players. Whereas the pros had been leading the way, now they are under pressure for underperforming. Dennis Oliech is a case in point. The Auxxere player flourished under Kimanzi and ‘Ghost’ Mulee before hand but has struggled under Hey.
“You have to understand Oliech as a player and as a person and play him to his strengths which include his ability to run – at people with the ball – but if you play him through the middle as a target man – then you won’t get the best out of him,” says Kimanzi.
The team spirit has not been helped by him refusing to travel with the team to Nigeria until he received his salary which is paid quarterly and upfront! Then after the Mozambique defeat, he failed to travel back home with the team choosing instead to fly back to Germany for a well earned rest.
Hey also seems to have put huge distance between himself and KPL. Despite a clutch of eye catching young players showing great artistry in the league, Hey has pointedly ignored them.
That he has no room for KPL’s top scorer John Barasa or the exciting Gor Mahia duo of Ibrahim Kitawi and George Odhiambo, Sofapaka’s defensive lynchpin James Situma or Tusker’s midfield general Jerry Santos is baffling.
For FKL though, the dream is still on.
First vice Chairman Titus Kasuve recently said that he believed that Kenya can still make it to South Africa.
“We must win all our remaining matches against Tunisia and Nigeria because I have a feeling that Tunisia will drop points and if we do that we shall be in the world cup because the Carthage Eagles will drop points.”
But with Kenya playing Tunsia in Rdaes, that may sound far fetched.
Kasuve however does acknowledge that Hey has at times let down the team.
“Him failing to travel with the team in June because of the salary was understandable but his decision to travel straight to Germany from Mozambique was not good for the team.” We will certainly look at the issue,” Kasuve says.
But he maintains that Hey is the best coach for the country: “Hey has very good plans. Its just that he is still settling in but he has a good plan which the players like and he wants to use the home based players for the CHAN championships which starts next year.
Kasuve further begs for time saying Hey should not be subjected to the brutal analysis and blame as the media has since the Mozambique defeat.
FKL must however do more than lip service. They must take it upon itself to revive the dream. To ensure that Kenyans can get that feel good factor about the team, its performance and results.
Tall order indeed.