Most Kenyans will consider it a crime against the football loving nation if Harambee Stars, with the galaxy of stars currently in their ranks, fail to clinch the top spot in Group J.
The last time Kenya's national football team, the Harambee Stars, graced the Africa Cup of Nations finals was in 2004 when Tunisia staged the continental football bonanza.
Hitherto, Kenya had featured in four other finals (1972, 1988, 1990 and 1992). In 2004, Kenya bade the games farewell in the first round after finishing third behind Mali and Senegal, while Burkina Faso tailed the Group B teams. Kenya lost to Mali and Senegal by three goals apiece, while also flooring Burkina Faso by the same margin.
Since then, Harambee Stars have missed the continental action three times in a row, something that has not gone down well with the football loving Kenyans, a country which is to athletics what Brazil is to the football world.
Do Kenya have the ability to top a Group J that has Angola, Uganda and Guinea Bissau and qualify for the 2012 AFCON finals? Why not? But again, will it be a walk in the park? Let’s now separate fact from fiction.
The Orange 2012 AFCON qualifiers kick off officially this weekend, with 44 teams expected to take to the field. 132 matches will be played, climaxing at the end of October 2011, by which time 14 teams will emerge from the 11 groups to join the two co-hosts Gabon and Equatorial Guinea at the final phase.
The first team of each group will automatically qualify, together with the second team of Group K, which has five teams. These will be joined by the two best second-place teams of the 10 other groups.
The two best runners-up of the groups of four will be determined by their results against the first and the third teams of their respective groups, ignoring their results with the last teams of their groups in order to permit Group F, which has just three teams (Burkina Faso, The Gambia and Namibia), to stay in the competition for the two best runners-up.
In the case that Group F is reduced to four teams in the course of the competition, only the first place team of the group will automatically qualify for the ACN. The second team will have to run for the three best second-placed teams.
In this arithmetic, Kenya must work hard to top their group or at worst ensure they have finished second with good aggregate points and goals to fight for the best team spots.
Group Team FIFA Rankings
On the strength of positions in the monthly FIFA World Rankings, Uganda emerges as the best in Group J. The country which neighbours Kenya are placed in position 69 in the latest rankings followed by Angola in 87th. Kenya are ranked poorly, in position 116, while Guinea Bissau stand at the tail end of the world rankings in 188th. If the rankings are anything to go by, Kenya stand no chance of clinching the top spot in the group.
Furthermore, besides highly rated Angola, Uganda have emerged as the main tormentor of Kenya in regional championships in the recent past. In two consecutive years, Uganda have brushed Kenya aside to win the regional Cecafa championship, while two months ago they eliminated Harambee Stars' home-based players in the CHAN finals in Sudan. Only on Sunday, Uganda's U-20 team won the Cecafa championship held in Asmara Eritrea. Kenya's youngsters finished second runners-up. This statistics makes Kenya’s bid for a spot in the 2012 look near impossible.
The Star Players Parade
Looking at the players in the four teams, there is little in terms of the stature of the players who will be paraded by Kenya, Uganda and Angola. But Kenya get a small head start because two of their players are currently plying their trade with teams taking part in Europe’s top flight league. In Harambee Stars' ranks is Inter’s MacDonald Mariga, who last season won a treble with the Italian giants. Dennis Oliech of French club Auxerre has already qualified for the Champions’ League group stages.
Lawrence Olum turns out for Austin Aztec, who partake in the United States Soccer Federation Division Two Professional League, Curtis Osano is on the books at Reading but is currently on loan to Rushden and Diamonds, Robert Mambo (Umea, FC-Sweden), Victor Mugabe (Germinia Beerschot , Belgium), Patrick Osiako (Mjalby, Sweden), Arnold Origi (FK Moss, Norway), Ibrahim Shikanda (Azam, Tanzania) and Taiwo Atieno formerly of Rochester Rhinos, are some of the players who will lead Kenya’s qualifying bid.
Angola also have a galaxy of stars but most of those who were called to camp for the clash against Uganda play in highly rated domestic leagues. Foreign based players include Vunguidika (Colonia FC of Germany), Gilberto (Lierse of Belgium), Manucho Goncalves (Bucaspor of Turkey), Kivuvu (CFR 1907), Zuela (Paok FC Mikras of Greece), Geraldo (Coritiba of Brazil) and Djalma Campos (Marítimo of Portugal). FC Porto's young goalie Aldo Monteiro “Kadu” also received a call-up.
Uganda’s foreign based legion include Hearts forward David Obua, Vincent Kayizi (Srem in the Serbia), Tony Mawejje (IBV in Iceland), Hassan Wasswa (Altay Izmir, Turkey) and Ibrahim Sekagya (Red Bull Salzburg, Austria) among others.
Unlike in the past, this time Kenya managed to to organise friendly matches ahead of their qualifying matches. Harambee Stars played Taifa Stars of Tanzania to a 1-1 draw away in Dar-es Salaam last month during the FIFA friendlies day. A week later, the home-based players hit Ethiopia 3-0 away at Addis Ababa.
Luckily for Kenya, the players are match fit for the first qualifier because the local premier league has been going on and Europe based professional players have also had pre-season matches and a few league matches. The Ugandan league will kick off later this month while the Angolan Girabola is also going on.
Harambee Stars' Challenges
Unlike most teams, Harambee Stars are yet to find a long term coach. One of the main things that cost the team a spot in the last tournament held in Angola and even a place in the South Africa for the World Cup was the persistent squabbles on the technical bench.
Little known Germany tactician Antoine Hey was hired in controversial circumstances. The coach abandoned the team after a few months in acrimonious circumstances, thus throwing the team into disarray.
Since late last year the lucklustre local coach Swaleh Muhiddin has been at the helm on an interim basis. But even as recently as last week, his appointment on caretaker terms has caused consternation in the federation, with top officials exchanging words over his secretive appointment. The stalemate of not finding a long term qualified coach may cost the team again this time around.
Harambee Stars are one of the most poorly funded national teams in the region. Although the government sometimes bails the team out when the federation is unable to foot some of the bills, there is no proper financial arrangement for the team. The team lacks basic things like uniforms and other playing kits.
More appallingly, because of the persistent wrangles in the federation, the team has lacked a corporate sponsor for a very long time, hence they do not have a strong financial base to make adequate preparations.
What are Harambee Stars Chances?
More than any time before, this time around, Harambee Stars have a good chance of qualifying for 2012 Gabon and Equatorial Guinea games.
For once, they are in a group with teams that are not billed as top dogs in the continent. Angola qualified for the last games as the host but performed dismally in the World Cup qualifiers. Although they qualified for the second round of AFCON games, their performance was at most average.
Uganda have not qualified for the AFCON games in the last 32 years! While they have fared impressively in the regional games, the continental games have proved a huge mountain for them to scale. And the less said about Guinea Bissau the better.
With the galaxy of stars at the disposal of Harambee Stars, it will be criminal for the team to fail to qualify for the 2012 AFCON games.