Until recently, Jesse Were’s place in the national side had barely been up for discussion.
Indeed, perhaps the move to Europe—or even to the PSL—never came for the 29-year-old, but he’s remained one of East Africa’s most accomplished forwards.
However, despite being a regular presence in the Kenya setup since making his debut in 2013, Were was unceremoniously dropped by national-team selector Sebastien Migne ahead of the recent Afcon qualifier against Ghana.
Despite being introduced to the squad as a late replacement for injured Japan-based striker Michael Olunga—who will lead the line for Kenya in Egypt—Were was axed before Migne settled on his final 22-man party.
Migne explained his decision by pointing to the striker’s goalscoring record with the national side where, quite surprisingly, he’s still waiting for his first international goal.
“Some of you can speak of Were, I don’t know, maybe you’ve some interest with him, but how many goals has he scored with the national team?” Migne asked journalists, as per the Nation, in the aftermath of Kenya’s 1-0 defeat by Ghana.
“Never even one goal in 26 call-ups, that’s the beginning of my answer,” the coach continued.
“At the highest level, it’s not a matter of just having a good guy with discipline in the team, but because you have to be efficient if you want to compete at this level.
“I am here to make some choices that I think are good,” Migne concluded. “We are one staff and we decide our options.
“It’s not easy, but if I was to pick Jesse, you would’ve asked me for Masud [Juma], tomorrow if I select someone else, you will still ask for another player, its football life.”
Indeed, while Were apologists could defend the striker based on his showings in the KPL, or with ZESCO both in Caf competitions and with the national side, it’s hard to argue against Migne’s assessment of his miserable international goalscoring return.
Were’s toil for the national side is a concern, although there are caveats.
He hasn’t played a competitive game for the Harambee Stars since 2016, and a 1-1 draw with Zambia during Nations Cup qualification, with his previous competitive showings—between 2013 and 2016—coming at a different stage of his career.
Of the 38-man squad Migne originally named for @Football_Kenya vs. @ghanafaofficial, the following didn't feature: Were, @VictorWanyama, G. Odhiambo, Wanga, Oluoch, J. Omolo, Ouma, C. Miheso, B. Mandela, Mariga— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) September 11, 2018
Also Missing: Timbe
A LOT of talent to come back into the side! pic.twitter.com/ql0fmBX3qb
Should Were’s failure to find the net as a younger player in African Nations Championship qualifiers, or in CECAFA competitions four years ago, really be used as a stick to beat him with now?
Similarly, of his 26 appearances with the national side to date, many have come when the Harambee Stars wore a different guise and occupied a different standing within the African game to today.
Between August 2014 and March 2016, Were played in nine matches for the national side, of which they won just one—a CECAFA group game against Uganda. The Stars, with the forward in the side during this period, lost seven of nine, and there was an overall concern about their quality in attacking areas.
Should Were really be punished today because he led the line for a struggling team all those years ago?
If Migne focuses his criticism just on recent years, then he certainly would have a point, although it’s worth noting that Were’s last 10 matches have all been friendly games, which are played at a different tempo and often with a much shuffled side.
Tellingly, perhaps, only one of Were’s 26 goalless international games have come under Migne’s watch—the 1-0 victory over Malawi in September, in which, admittedly, the Zambia-based forward did miss an opportunity to break the deadlock.
Perhaps Were’s omission is due to the fact that he doesn’t fit into the coach’s system; this is the opinion of former Kenya international Boniface Ambani.
“Each and every coach has his own system of play, and maybe Migne thinks Were doesn’t fit in his system,” Ambani told The Standard Sports, “but I think he deserves to be in the team because he has been consistent with his club Zesco; both in the Zambian League and CAF [competitions].
“This clearly shows that he’s nowhere in the picture for Afcon finals, and this is quite frustrating as [he’s] a player who’s been doing quite well with his club and everybody expects him to play for the national team.
“This decision might affect his career.”
It was a decision that didn’t go down well among large swathes of the Kenya fanbase, and prompted Ambani to question the decision-making procedure among national-team selectors.
“I really don’t know who is calling the shots at the team because Were has been active throughout the season.
“I’ve been in that situation and I know how frustrating it is, but since we are going to Egypt, don’t be surprised to see more of these as people search for caps for their players.”
Another explanation might be that Migne’s assessment—based on training—is that Were doesn’t have the cutting edge of the likes of Pistone Mutamba, Ovella Ochieng or Juma, although do any of this trio really have outstanding goalscoring records at international level?
Mutamba has one in eight, having scored in a friendly against Equatorial Guinea in May, Juma has three in eight, although two of these came in the CECAFA Cup, while Ochieng has two in 17, of which one was also in that final draw with Zanzibar.
They might be bright prospects for the future, but to date they’ve scored against Zanzibar, New Zealand, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda and Mauritania at international level.
Better that Were, perhaps, but hardly setting the world alight internationally, nor at club level, where Mutamba has been struggling with injury and Juma for gametime in Libya.
The older player, by contrast, has demonstrated that he can trouble Africa’s best defences in Caf competitions while wearing the colours of ZESCO.
As well as being a KPL golden boot winner, Were is one of the most celebrated sub-Saharan African strikers still based on the continent, having become United’s all-time top scorer earlier this year.
As well as passing the all-elusive 65-goal mark, Were has scored freely in the Zambian Premier League, and has been a threat in the continent too.
He netted against Asante Kotoko in the Confederation Cup group stage, bagged three in the double-header against Kaizer Chiefs in the playoff round, and also scored against AS Sonidep of Niger in the Champions League earlier in the campaign.
Were is tried and tested at this level; he bagged four in the 2016 Champions League as ZESCO reached the final four—defeating Al-Ahly and ASEC Mimosas, and drawing with Wydad Casablanca on the way.
In 2017, he crucially scored the winner against Smouha has United finished top of their Confederation Cup group.
His international record may be poor, but can Kenya really afford to take the risk and leave this seasoned striker at home this summer?