The ‘curse’ of Kenyan football that continues to haunt local fans
A man and a woman wearing old designs of the Harambee Stars jerseys are sitting in a restaurant sofa, head in hands.
In front of them is a half drunk bottle of soda and their eyes are fixed on the television high above the spot in front of their table.
Just then, the image of Julius Wobay scoring Sierra Leone’s first goal against Harambee Stars appears on the screen. The man holds his head in his hand.
Shortly afterwards, Kenya’s Brian Mandela receives a red card for a bad tackle on Alhassan Kamara. The woman slumps on her seat. And then just before the game is over, Umaru Bangura converts a penalty for Sierra Leone.
The woman, unable to hold off any longer, drops on her knees and begins shouting repeatedly, to no one in particular: “What did we do to offend the footballing gods!”
The day is Saturday June 10, 2017 and Kenya has lost 2-1 to lowly ranked Leone Stars in their opening match of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
In that match, Kenya conceded in the 22nd minute due to woeful defending, and fell further behind in the 68th minute when Leone Stars captainBangura converted a penalty for the hosts.
China-based striker Michael Olunga turned in a brilliant free kick before full time, but its beauty and significance counted for nothing as Stars recorded another bad start in the continental qualifiers.
Apart from an early concession, several things went wrong in that match. The playing surface at the Siaka Stevens Stadium looked far from ideal, and it was made worse by the ensuing rains that are a characteristic of the current planting season in Freetown.
The weather conditions were also unfavourable that day, and the players had to contend with a persistent drizzle in the second half of the match.
More than that, the Leone Stars were cheered on by a capacity crowd at the Siera Leone national stadium which can host up to 45,000 spectators.
Nigerian referee Ferdinand Udoh and his helpers were also strict to the letter, and would not let any minor violation of the law go unpunished under their watch.
Twenty minutes after conceding the first goal, Stars were reduced to ten men as Maritzburg United defender Brian Mandela got sent off for a dangerous tackle striker Alhassan Kamara, and Stars had to play the entire second half with ten men.
In the 68th minute, left back Eric “Marcelo” Ouma brought down an advancing John Kamara inside the box, necessitating the penalty that further exasperated the Kenyan side.
Captain Bangura converted the penalty and that loss shattered Stars’ 11-match unbeaten record, and complicated Kenya’s chances of qualifying for the next Afcon edition scheduled for January 2019 in Cameroon.
It also kept them away from the Sh3 million winning bonus promised to them by FKF partners SportPesa and inflicted even more feelings of disappointment to the long suffering Kenyan football supporter.
Upon arrival from Freetown on Tuesday morning, coach Stanley Okumbi explained that despite the loss, the team had played well and could have won if only they had been more clinical upfront.
“We didn’t play badly. We had four open chances. If we could have converted these chances we could have won the game. The strikers just need to be more clinical especially in one-on-one situations.
“Kenyans shouldn’t feel low. We are not the only team that lost. Several other teams including Nigeria also lost so we need to accept the results and encourage the boys to do better next time,” he said.
The 2-1 defeat has left Kenya on third position in Group F behind Ghana and Sierra Leone, tied on points with Ethiopia who received a comprehensive 5-0 thumping by Ghana at the weekend.
This means that Stars must now win at least four of their remaining matches if they are to make a fifth appearance at the continental showpiece.
But what made Saturday’ defeat even more excruciating is that the new Football Kenya Federation regime, powered by a substantial amounts from online betting company SportPesa, had succeeded in inspiring hope that Kenya will not only qualify for the next Afcon edition, but also make a maiden appearance at the Fifa World Cup in 2022.
To strengthen that perception, Stars had flattered local football enthusiasts by putting together a lovely unbeaten record incorporating 11 games.
In addition, everybody seemed deceived by the outward shape of Sierra Leone: a country ravaged by disease, political rife, a nation virtually collapsed local football league system and one that lies 39 places below Kenya in world Fifa rankings.
But pundits and reputable coaches, like Gilbert Selebwa and Jacob “Ghost” Mulee, believe that Stars can team can still qualify for the Afcon finals, but they are also aware that achieving this feat will require extraordinary character from the Kenyan team.
“Looking at that group and considering our record against teams like Ghana and Ethiopia, Kenya should have bagged three points against Sierra Leone. The loss means that we now have to make sure that we beat them (Sierra Leone) at home and then beat Ghana home and away.
“We have a strong squad, and obviously there is still a chance to turn this around. We missed Jesse Were at the frontline and Masoud Juma, although he is a very good player, is a bit inexperienced at this level,” said Mulee, who was Stars coach in 2004 when Kenya last appeared at the Afcon.
Selebwa, a football pundit and former AFC Leopards coach, was a bit mire harsh in his analysis, but was more confident that the team can collect up to 12 points from their remaining five games.
“What we are lacking is consistency. We were outplayed completely in that match, especially in midfield. Perhaps the weather played a part, but they were better than us technically.
“I think that they should utilise foreign based players because they are much better than our local players. In fact, I cannot understand why Arnold Origi has not been receiving call ups yet he is one of the best goalkeepers we have around. Boniface (Oluoch) has a problem with cross balls and aerial balls.
“That said, Ghana is no longer a powerhouse if their results against Uganda in recent times are anything to go by. Its possible to get a point away against Ghana and squarely beat them at home. Ethiopia is beatable both home and away. With good tactical organisation, Afcon 2019 is still very much in sight,” he said.
But if it is any consolation for Kenya, it turned out that of the eight Cecafa countries in the ongoing Afcon qualifiers, only Burundi and Uganda managed wins against their opponents.
Tanzania drew 1-1 against Lesotho at home but Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia all lost against Central Africa Republic, Burundi, Madagascar and Ghana respectively.
Uganda, who appeared at the Afcon early this year, began their campaign on a winning note, beating Cape Verde 1-0 away despite having arrived in Praia just a few hours to kick off.
Stars will get a chance to avenge that loss to Sierra Leone at home after 16 months as their next Afcon assignment will be at home against Black Stars of Ghana in March next year.
After that, they will face Ethiopia away on September 5, 2018, before returning home to host the Walia Ibex of Ethiopia again four days later.
They will welcome Leone Stars at home October before wrapping up their qualifying campaign with another meeting with Ghana in Kumasi come November 2018.
Group F Standing:
Team P W L D GF GA GD PTS
Ghana 1 1 0 0 5 0 5 3
Sierra Leone 1 1 0 0 2 1 1 3
Kenya 1 0 1 0 1 2 -1 0
Ethiopia 1 0 1 0 0 5 -5 0
Kenya vs Ghana (March 23, 2018)
Ethiopia vs Kenya (September 5, 2018)
Kenya vs Ethiopia (September 9, 2018)
Kenya vs Sierra Leone (October 12, 2018)
Ghana vs Kenya (November 9, 2018)