NAIROBI, April 9 – According to the English dictionary, the noun ‘preparation’ simply means “the action or process of making ready or being made ready for use or consideration/something done to get ready for an event or undertaking.”
Following Wednesday’s 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) draw in Cairo, Kenya has just over two months to prepare adequately for the challenge of 2012 champions, Zambia, Congo Brazzaville who impressed earlier this year and Guinea Bissau, rank minnows in Group E when qualifiers open in June.
Due to the revised qualification format, only 13 group winners and the hosts are assured of places in the Gabon finals with two other teams relying on the lottery of being best runners-up across all pools to complete the 16-nation tournament.
It sounds rather straight forward- win the group and you’re in- but for a country ranked 118th in the world and 34th in Africa according to Coca-Cola Fifa Rankings released Thursday, Harambee Stars have their work cut out, with only the Guineans (131/39th) below them on the football tree.
Congo (49/ninth) and Zambia (59/14th) are streets ahead in the rankings placing Kenya as third seeds in their group.
“The draw in which Kenya is grouped is not easy at all because teams like Zambia and Congo are regulars at Afcon meaning first the federation should ensure all the issues surrounding football in Kenya are sorted amicably then preparations must be intense and we’ll coordinated,” Stars captain and Southampton FC star, Victor Wanyama told SuperSport.com.
Aha, there goes ‘preparation’ again, a simple noun that has since October 28, 2011 when they came to power; proven to be Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi or ancient Cuneiform or Greek text to the gentlemen and ladies at Football Kenya Federation (FKF) headquarters at Nairobi’s Nyayo Stadium swimming pool.
For the risk of being branded unpatriotic, Stars chances to top a relatively winnable group will not be compromised by lack of talent, commitment or spirit among a gifted group of players under the experienced Scottish head coach Bobby Williamson.
Rather, Kenya’s bid to return to the high table of African football since 2004 in a tournament they unsuccessfully bid to stage will be stymied by FKF unless, they take literal meaning of Wanyama’s wise counsel “preparations must be intense and well co-ordinated” to heart and act accordingly.
The dispiriting elimination from 2015 Afcon by Lesotho, a nation whose population cannot fill Nairobi in the second round of qualifiers forced Kenyans once again to adopt the Ivory Coasts, Ghanas, Senegals or Bafanas to support as Equatorial Guinea (EQ) hosted the finals in January and February.
At the time, reports of unrest in the technical bench that ultimately led to the exit of Belgian Adel Amrouche, interference ‘from above’ in squad selection, perennial allowance hiccups and late assembly of the squad and arrival of foreign based players combined once again as Stars lame charge ended.
With the rest of the world playing in the Fifa international window in the past fortnight, Kenya only mustered a low key Under 23 friendly with Seychelles as neighbours Uganda for example, played against Nigeria.
– Possible solutions-
FKF and its band of supporters accuse critics of being too quick to throw stones at but not offer possible solutions to the shared goal of ensuring Stars take pride and place among Africa’s elite.
Congo Brazzaville and Cape Verde whose rise from obscurity to seasoned Afcon campaigners as the likes of record time winners Egypt and 2013 holders Nigeria missed out on EQ offer Stars hope that with a huge tilt, qualification is possible.
The reported but yet to be officially unveiled partnership between FKF and Chinese digital television providers Startimes for rights to the national team said to be worth Sh270m ($2.9m) over five years will come at an opportune moment for the side often constrained by finances.
However, nothing will come out of it if financial prudence is not observed and money diverted to any other purpose apart from ensuring coach Williamson, who has allegedly not been paid since November, and his players are kept happy.
There is need for the technical bench that has respected former Stars captain, Musa Otieno as the assistant and former midfield stalwart Simeone Mulama in the Team Manager role to call up locally based players to camp for intense preparations as early as Monday week to give them enough time to gel as a team.
Williamson is reported to be keen on using the bulk of the Under 23 squad and season them with a few foreign based players and on paper, it sounds exciting but for a qualifying campaign where there’s little room for error and experiment, a rapid transaction from experienced players to emerging talent could be counterproductive.
Instead, integrating youngsters as the qualifiers progress and weaning out seasoned players gradually should be a balanced way of twitching the side without causing collateral damage.
According to skipper Wanyama, it is important for FKF and the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) who are coming off a bruising battle over control of the top flight to unite for Stars and just like Lesotho did before they stunned Kenya, re-organise their league fixtures to give the national team priority.
It worked before in 2008 when KPL ‘lent’ then Mathare United head coach, Francis Kimanzi and bankrolled the team for the twin 2010 World Cup and Nations Cup qualifiers although, Kenya failed at the final hurdle when German Antoine Hey took over during the last round of qualifiers after ugly politics once again reared their heads.
– International build-up-
Kenyans recall the last time Stars went to Afcon under Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee, the team spend a month in foreign training at Bolton Wanderers FC, then of the English Premiership and Qatar, gaining invaluable experience and more so belief to compete at high level when they narrowly lost 4-3 to a side that had the likes of current West Ham captain, Kevin Nolan, Nigerian legend Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, France World Cup winner, Youri Djorkaeff and feared Brazilian and FC Porto striker Mario Jardel.
The Trotters were then in their third season at the English top flight under reputed boss Sam Allardyce now at West Ham and training with such players gave a team led by Otieno and record scorer Dennis Oliech at his prime the motivation to make Tunisia 2004 and they duly beat Cape Verde in Nairobi 1-0 to take their place, going on to thumping Burkina Faso 3-0 in their final pool match to register a first and only win at the finals.
Playing matches with KPL sides or the recently established FKF-PL side for build-up that has recently been the norm will only lead to another limp exit, especially when other countries are now breaking an arm and leg to get the best competition for their teams in friendlies.
Lastly at least, Stars’ selection should not reflect the KPL and FKF-PL divide following the same spirit of the Under-23 side.