NAIROBI, July 29- The national men’s football team Harambee Stars are long gone. Rugby sevens boys are struggling to put their act together before their qualifiers in November, incidentally, in South Africa.
That leaves Harambee Starlets as the biggest hope Kenya has at the moment of sending a team sport to next year’s Rio 2016 Olympics.
On Sunday, David Ouma’s charges who have gone through a trouble-riddled campaign, will take a step closer to featuring at the largest sporting carnival on earth for the first time when they play their return-leg qualifier against the giants from South Africa, Banyana Banyana.
After troubled travel to South Africa for the first leg of their third round qualifier, many expected Starlets to be steamrolled by the might of Banyana but try as they might, the hosts only managed to edge them out by a single goal deep into the second half.
Now, Starlets stand on the throes of history in their biggest game so far in Machakos; bearing a healthy chance of turning over the first-leg deficit to progress to the final round where titans Nigeria or Equatorial Guinea await for the final two-tie knockout battle for the coveted Olympics ticket.
Ouma’s girls have not stoked the kind of feverish interest accorded to their male counterparts but that has not impeded their resolve; especially after the Ministry of Devolution, under the youth empowerment programme, took off the huge burden of cost from cash-strapped Football Kenya Federation (FKF).
Before the ministry’s intervention, Starlets hit the headlines when they were forced to sleep in the men’s changing rooms at Safaricom Stadium in an incident, perhaps mindful of his bosses, Ouma downplayed as an act of ‘motivation.’
Chaotic travel plans following a visa hitch saw the team arrive in South Africa on match-day and had to take to the field before they could catch breath, let alone get a feel of the venue or acclimatise to the conditions.
In an interview with FKF Media on Wednesday, Ouma says the girls who have continued build-up without the glare that accompanies Stars are ready to complete the slaying of the visiting ‘Goliath’ in the form of Banyana.
“We are focused on victory on Sunday and determined to cancel the one-goal deficit, we are studying the clips of our first leg match and know which areas to improve upon,” the head coach who is also a CAF instructor is quoted.
On the visa problems that delayed their departure, the national governing body’s media mouthpiece opted to dismiss any idea of complacency by reporting the coach “attributed their hiccups to visa hitches, which is now a thing of the past.”
Ouma encouraged “Kenyans to turn out in large numbers at the Kenyatta Stadium, Machakos, to cheer their team to victory.”
As optimism pumps through Starlets’ veins, the enormity of Sunday’s challenge cannot be discharged since Banyana boast wealth of experience, facilities and resources Kenya can only dream of.
Their head coach, Vera Pauw, has added more fire power by making two changes to the squad that will settle for nothing less than completing the job.
A sizeable number of the team that arrives in Nairobi on Thursday have played for their nation over 70 times with the most-capped Kenyan featuring in only nine international matches besides Starlets having no foreign based talent in their squad.
Iceland-based Roxanne Barker makes her return after being released by her club, together with Busisiwe Ndimeni of Mamelodi Sundowns who has recovered from her injury in the potent changes in Banyana’s ranks for Sunday.
“We have no time to waste, this is a very crucial match and we know that it is going to be more difficult than the first leg considering how the two teams played in Dobsonville. But we are confident we will return home victorious,” Pauw told SuperSport.com after they reported to camp to plot a way past the stubborn Starlets.
Kenya tied 2-2 with Botswana on goal aggregate but progressed on the away goal rule in the second round after Starlets lost 1-2 in Gaborone before they overcame the Southern African side 1-0 in Machakos via a dramatic stoppage time strike.
On their way to the third round South Africa beat Gabon 3-2 and 5-0 in the first and second legs to complete a resounding 8-2 aggregate victory in a show of their undoubted power.
Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea are locked at 1-1 after the first leg of their encounter with the winner of the fourth round qualifier between Cameroon and Ghana meeting Ivory Coast.
The two top teams in the fourth round will qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Brazil.
Starlets’ match will kick-off at 3:30pm local time (+3GMT) with the team who have given an entire nation the audacity of hope out to face their date with destiny.