Although Kenya have already been eliminated from qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and no longer have a chance of making it to the finals of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations next year in Gabon, Harambee Stars' fans have something to cheer about.
A look at the FIFA/Coca World Ranking sees the east African team ranked 86th in the world – their best placing since January 2009, when they were considered the 84th best team in the world. They were 129th just last month, and their leap of 43 places was only bested by New Zealand (up 54 places to 93rd) and Puerto Rico (up 46 to 112th).
The coach overseeing the improvement is local Kenyan Stanley Okumbi, who took over from Bobby Williamson in February of this year. Surprisingly, Okumbi is only 36 years old - the youngest ever to lead Kenya - and followed an unusual path to reach the status of national team coach. “I did not play football at the highest level,” he told FIFA.com. “I was playing in the lower leagues and we did not have a coach, so I offered to take over the role.”
Okumbi did well enough to work his way up to head coach for domestic top division club Mathare United, where he earned a reputation as an inspiring and stubborn figure. He said that the success of the national team is a mark of his inspiration for the job. “When the national team came calling earlier this year, I knew that I could not turn down their request. I signed a three-year contract, and I have not looked back since.”
A big win after a tough start
Thrown into the deep end, Okumbi was in charge as the Harambee Stars took on Guinea-Bissau in back-to-back AFCON qualifying matches at the end of March. Kenya lost 1-0 in Bissau and disappointingly, were defeated by the same score in Nairobi. It was a baptism of fire for Okumbi, who found himself criticised by the local media. Undeterred, the coach decided to organise two friendly matches in short succession ahead of the team's next competitive match, which was an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Congo.
But before the Harambee Stars took on the Diables Rouge they faced Tanzania and Sudan in the friendly matches. Although Kenya were held to two 1-1 draws at home, extending Okumbi's winless streak to four matches, the coach is sure that the games helped the team.
“Giving the players a chance to play international matches makes them stronger and although we were missing many of the overseas-based players, it boosted the confidence of those that played,” Okumbi said.
Against Congo, a stronger Kenyan side took to the field and even though the home side no longer had a realistic chance of making the finals, they were determined to give Okumbi a first win as national team coach. They went behind early on through a Prince Oniangue penalty, but fought back bravely and Ayub Timbe equalised shortly afterwards before Eric Johanna found a winner midway through the second half. What made the result even more remarkable is that a victory would have seen Congo in the driving seat to win the group, but the defeat ensured them being knocked out and gave Guinea-Bissau an historic place at the finals.
Finding a connection
One of the things that Okumbi believes has led to the remarkable turn-around for the Harambee Stars is an aspect of his coaching philosophy that he holds very dearly. “I spend a lot of time speaking to the players individually," he said. "I make time to talk to them and I think that builds up confidence and a rapport.
“Another thing that I do is go to as many Premier League matches as I can, which allows me to see the players in action. Then we can work with them to improve. I try to do the same with our players who play outside of Kenya, getting their videos.”
Okumbi believes the future of Kenyan football, despite the disappointment of losing out on the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations is positive. “We have the players, and I can see a lot of improvement. I think we can go places.”
A look at the world ranking would certainly suggest that Okumbi is right.