The year 2016 marked a new dawn in Kenyan football; a change in administration renewed hope that Kenyan football, which was on its deathbed, would have a new lease of life.
No sooner had the new regime gotten its house in order than the first assignment for the senior national football team, Harambee Stars, came calling. Newly appointed coach Stanley Okumbi, who had been called upon against all odds to replace Bobby Williamson, would kick off his reign with a two-legged African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifier against Guinea Bissau.
Harambee Stars lost both matches to the West African nation in the space of four days, a rather harsh induction for the youthful coach to the senior ranks.
An 11 - match unbeaten run thereafter would rekindle hope that Okumbi was the right man for the job, but somehow, Stars would occasionally fall short when it mattered.
Paul Put, who boasted a rich CV having led Burkina Faso to the final of the African Cup of Nations in 2013, would later be appointed just as Kenya was gearing up for the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup in 2017.
Put led Stars to the seventh CECAFA Senior Challenge title, on home soil following a nervy win on post - match penalties over Zanzibar in the final that had ended 2-2 in regular and extra time. His reign, however, only lasted three months, with the Belgian stepping down in February 2018, citing personal reasons.
Put was replaced by former Congo Brazzaville coach Sébastien Migné, who has since been tasked with leading Kenya to a first appearance at the African Cup of Nations since 2004, set to be held in Cameroon in June 2019.
Group F of the 2019 African Cup of Nations qualification round sees Kenya trail second placed Sierra Leone by three points. With five more rounds to go, coach Migné still has a realistic chance of delivering the much coveted berth at the continental showpiece. His future success and that of his successors, however, will depend on Football Kenya Federation’s investment in youth development.
The Federation has constituted age group national teams aimed at forging a conveyor belt of talent to the senior national team.
First to be assembled, through the Youth Development desk which falls under the Federation’s Technical Department, was the national U13 team, which took part in the inaugural Southampton Cup in the United Kingdom in August 2017.
The team is a product of the ongoing FKF U13/15 leagues at the sub branch level, which have seen close to 30,000 players from 1500 teams in 54 sub branches get a chance to showcase their talent.
Players scouted from the leagues are drafted into eight regional all-star teams which contest the National Youth Championship, whose inaugural edition was held in April 2017 in Nakuru.
The most outstanding players from the tourney got a chance to don the national team colors at the inaugural Southampton Cup in the UK, where Kenya came up against Chelsea and FC Porto’s junior sides among others.
The 2018 edition of the championship, which will feature the U15 category for the first time, is set to be held in August in Laikipia.
These leagues not only provide a platform for young players to showcase their talent but also keep them actively involved in their early years of football. Quality players within the required age bracket can consequently be scouted for the junior national teams, which form the backbone of the senior team.
For the sake of continuity, FKF also has in place a national U15 team, which actively participates in local tournaments and friendly matches in an effort aimed at keeping the players engaged in football. The team, largely comprising of players who took part in the inaugural Southampton Cup, pitches camp at the Juja Preparatory and Senior School over the holidays.
Also in place is the national U17 team which most recently took part in the CECAFA U17 Championships held in Burundi in April 2018, under the tutelage of FKF Deputy Technical Director Michael Amenga and Kibera Black Stars coach Godfrey Oduor. The Junior Stars finished fourth in the eight nation tourney behind Tanzania, Somalia and Uganda, with Coach Amenga noting that the competition went a long way in giving the players a chance to experience international matches at a young age.
“CECAFA (U17 Championship) gave us an opportunity to test our young upcoming footballers on the international stage. This experience is in line with our long term agenda of giving the youth a sporting chance early in their football development cycle,” said Amenga, as quoted on the Federation’s official portal. The team is currently gearing up for the 2019 Africa U17 Cup of Nations qualifiers set to be held in Tanzania in August 2018. Kenya will come up against hosts Tanzania, Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda with the best placed nation set to grace next year’s junior continental showpiece alongside Tanzania, who gained automatic qualification by virtue of being the hosts.
Christened the Rising Stars, the team gave a chance to players scouted from the Chapa Dimba na Safaricom youth tournament, whose curtains came down on March 25, 2018, with Kapenguria Heroes emerging champions. Also given a chance, were budding players who had already broken the ranks in top Kenyan Premier League and National Super League sides.
The team was in camp for the better part of March and April 2018, for an Africa U20 Cup of Nations Qualifier against Rwanda. Kenya lost on aggregate to the Rwandese, having been held to a barren draw in Kigali after the first leg had ended 1-1 in Machakos.
Several talents, however, were on show, among them Yussuf Mainge, who has since broken into the AFC Leopards first team. Vincent Wasambo, who turns out for Kariobangi Sharks in the top tier KPL, also played a crucial role in midfield in both legs, going on to earn a call up in coach Sébastien Migné’s senior team that took home Silver in the 2018 Hero Intercontinental Cup in India.
Under the tutelage of Mathare United tactician Francis Kimanzi, who also sits on the senior national team, Harambee Stars’ technical bench, the Emerging Stars edged out Uzbekistan 2-1 in an international friendly match, away. Kenya would lose 1-0 in the reverse fixture played three days later, but there were a lot of positives to be picked.
Such players as Sofapaka’s new acquisition Pistone Mutamba, who scored seven goals for Wazito FC in the first leg of the 2018 Kenyan Premier League season, have since made a step up to the senior team.
Mutamba made his debut in Harambee Stars’ 0-1 loss to Swaziland in an international friendly match played at the Kenyatta Stadium Machakos, and would three days later, score the lone goal as Kenya edged out Equatorial Guinea 1-0.
He went on to command a regular starting place in Stars’ campaign at the 2018 Hero Intercontinental Cup in India. AFC Leopards defender Michael Kibwage has also made the step up.
Kibwage, who partnered Joseph Okumu against Uzbekistan, played in the first half of Stars’ 1-0 loss to Swaziland. He was called upon in the second half of Kenya’s 1-0 win over Equatorial Guinea, and went on to be a mainstay in Harambee Stars backline during the Hero Intercontinental Cup.
FKF Centers of Excellence
Besides having age group national teams in place, FKF has also invested in Centers of Excellence, aimed at honing young talented players’ football and academic skills. The Federation, in October 2017, entered a Memorandum of Understanding with Juja Preparatory and Senior School, making the institution the first ever Football Center of Excellence.
FKF committed to providing equipment and trained coaches while the school creates a conducive environment for the players to also gain academic growth. Laiser Hill School would later be initiated as the second Center of Excellence.
15 students have since been enrolled in the program, a step FKF Education Officer David Ouma terms noble.
“Our aim is to combine education and elite football. We need football players who are intelligent and understand what coaches ask of them,” said coach Ouma, who also doubles up as the national women’s team, Harambee Starlets, head coach.
“Most of the students we have in these centers are from humble backgrounds, but with exceptional talent. It is noble that FKF has given them a chance to not only grow their football careers but also their academic credentials” added the FKF Education officer.
The future is bright
It is evident that the future of Harambee Stars largely depends on the structures FKF lay today. The age group national teams, Centers of Excellence and the ongoing FKF Youth Leagues will go a long way in giving young players a chance to be actively involved in football from a young age. The ongoing coaching courses, offered free of charge by FKF at the branch level, are also necessary as they aid in ensuring that junior players are handled by qualified tacticians.
These structures will ensure the junior players are actively involved in football throughout their early development cycle and also have a feel of international matches earlier than has been the norm, as it builds self-confidence as well as ensuring that the players are not only physically fit but also match fit for Harambee Stars’ future international assignments.
*This piece originally appeared in the 13th edition of the Soka magazine