Kenya on the cusp of a new era

As the hour mark approached in Kenya’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Angola last weekend, the match and the campaign seemed to be slipping away from the Harambee Stars. But, down a goal and realistically in need of all three points to move back into Group J contention, the east Africans confirmed their determination and their promise by equalising through Jamal Mohammed and finally claiming a winner in the dying minutes.

Long after the final whistle, Kenyans inside and out Nyayo Nairobi Stadium wildly celebrated MacDonald Mariga’s screamer of a shot that settled the match 2-1 for the hosts. All over the country, poverty-stricken residents had trekked to watch the contest in shopping malls or restaurants, and they were rewarded with a true moment to savour - one that points to bigger possibilities for a country hungry for success.

Captain of the team, Denis Oliech, whose spilled shot set up the first goal, put words on the emotion. “This win is for Kenya. It is not only for me or a few people, it is for 30 million people,” said the Auxerre player before looking ahead to June’s next qualifier in Luanda. “We showed a lot of character to fight until the end, but we must focus for the next game. But at least now we are one step inside the bus. For us the target is 2012, and our next game is away and there's everything to focus on.”

Good news in Nairobi
Despite a friendly loss to Nigeria on Tuesday, the victory over the Palancas Negras, who reached the FIFA World Cup™ just five years ago and advanced to the quarter-finals of the last Nations Cup at home, has been seen as something of a tonic for Kenya, who have made their way to the continental finals just once in the last two decades. Coming on the back of a home draw with group leaders and neighbourly rivals Uganda in October, football-mad Kenyans are right to feel that their national team is finally moving in the right direction.

Qualifying started badly with a loss at Guinea-Bissau, and, prior to Saturday, the last time Kenya registered victory in a qualifier was in June 2009 when they beat Mozambique in Nairobi. Again, Mariga made the difference that day by netting the winning goal, but it would turn out to be the Stars’ only three points in the final qualifying group for last year’s FIFA World Cup and Africa Nations Cup.

We are one step inside the bus. For us the target is 2012, and our next game is away and there's everything to focus on.
Kenya captain Denis Oliech

“It’s been a long time since we won at home,” said a relieved Mariga after the contest. He was nonetheless displeased that he would miss the next match after getting sent off for a second yellow card, handed to him when he removed his shirt in celebration after scoring the winner. “I did a stupid thing, and I was punished, so I think I have learned,” he admitted. “Next time it will not happen. I just forgot the first yellow.” 

Interim coach Zedekiah ‘Zico’ Otieno, himself a former national team defender, is optimistic of the future. “We needed to win to put ourselves back in contention, and we have done it in a very special way against a very strong team,” he said. “I’m happy for the boys because they kept pressing despite conceding in the early stages.”

Finding stability
But Otieno, who also coaches last season's Kenyan Premier League (KPL) runners-up, Gor Mahia, knows there is still much work to be done. The fourth national team coach in two years, Otieno says he is under no pressure with the Harambee Stars and that the key to the team’s success is “good organisation.”

They will need to improve that part of their game after a wasteful Angolan attack exposed a defensive frailty that was only mitigated by a top performance from goalkeeper Arnold Origi. The Norway-based player is one of a handful of foreign legion that also includes Oliech (Auxerre), Mohammed (Kazma in Kuwait), Mariga (Inter Milan) and his younger brother Vincent Mugabe (Germinal Beerschot in Belgium), and they make up the core of a side that will host Guinea-Bissau in September before what could be a crunch visit to leaders Uganda in October.

The KPL has undergone a resurgence in the last few years as a partnership with television giant SuperSport has given welcome constancy, and that has allowed local fans to enjoy some quality competition. But this new era is a slow one coming in terms of producing new players able to compete at an international level and thus reaching supporters’ high expectations.

One player expected to pay immediate dividends was Congolese born Bob Mugalia. His sparkling displays in the KPL had led to a clamour to naturalise him, but the wide player was anonymous for most of the match against Angola. But surely patience and hard work will be the difference for a new generation of players learning their trade. “I believe our local players are missing a lot,” former international great, Dan Shikanda, observed. “We need to stabilize the national team’s technical bench and raise coaching standards at club level.”