Harambee stars, as the Kenya senior football team is affectionately called will be making their long awaited return to Africa’s premier football tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) after a near 14 year absence.
Paired in group C alongside a physically imposing Senegalese outfit spearheaded in attack by Liverpool superstar Sadio Mane, a reigning UEFA champion’s league winner and premier league golden boot winner with 22 goals, the Senegalese outfit poses a serious threat in the group.
A resolute Algerian side also lies in wait boasting an array of stars plying their trade in some of Europe’s most prestigious leagues with the likes of Manchester City Riyad Mahrez right winger, with a defensive wall bark that is hard to break down.
Completing the group will be an inexperienced Tanzanian team that doesn’t look anything special on the surface but put in a performance for the ages during the qualifying campaign to book their spot in the finals, Kenya surely are in for a baptism of fire.
Stars, under the tutelage of French born coach Sebastien Migne, who is 14 months into his job but has already endured a barrage of criticism from the media, pundits and fans alike, have come into their own as a team in transition.
They finished second in a group that comprised of 2010 world cup quarterfinalists Ghana on 7 points, conceding just a lone goal, proving to all and sundry that they are as effective defensively as they are offensively.
However, it is their match in Addis Ababa against Ethiopia that evokes a lot of memories and made them stand out as a team.
Faced with the adversity of coming up against an Ethiopian outfit backed by a boisterous crowd that provided a backdrop to an intimidating and electrifying atmosphere, they put together a masterpiece and salvaged a priceless draw.
The Victor Wanyama led outfit, showed great heart, grit and determination to come out of that match unstuck by not crumbling to any sort of pressure from a crowd that has been described by pundits as the most intimidating in African football.
It is these kind of performances that will put Kenya in good stead heading into the tournament in Egypt, especially after enjoying a near 3 week training camp in France where they have been fine tuning their preparations in readiness for the football showpiece and playing a couple of friendly matches as well.
Harambee Stars have faced fellow Afcon finalists Madagascar, in a preparatory match where Captain Victor Wanyama led by example by slotting home a well taken penalty to salvage a 1 all draw against the islanders.
They concluded their preparations in Madrid, Spain where they pitted their wits against a DR Congo side that heads to the tournament as one of the dark horses and managed to put up a united front, playing to a 1 all draw, with Michael Ogada Olunga scoring a morale boosting goal.
Japanese based, towering forward Michael Olunga will shoulder the responsibility as the source of goals having also plied his trade in the Spanish La liga. A lot will be expected from the former Gor Mahia striker as just like his teammates will be making his Afcon debut and will have to hit the ground running.
Captain fantastic, Tottenham hotspur midfield maestro Victor Wanyama, will be tasked with dictating terms in the middle of the park with his nibble footwork and unmatched experience at the highest level. Having played for European giants such as Glasgow Celtic, Southampton and now Tottenham hotspur, the experienced Wanyama will have to carry the team on his broad shoulders.
Kogalo’s enterprising play-maker Michael Kahata has surely come into his own as an all-round play-maker, boasting an array of skills and gaining experience on the continent in the Confederation cup with his Gor Mahia, a lot will be expected from the team’s number 10.
It is heartening to note that the Football Kenya Federation have also come to the party as well and paid the players their outstanding allowances, which amount to 5000 dollars (Sh 509, 250) for each member of the 23 man squad.
According to the FKF, there are also replica jerseys which have gone on sale and they retail at Sh3, 500.
Fans will have the luxury to choose their favorite players jersey numbers whenever they purchase the jerseys and be the 12th man even if they do not make the long, arduous journey to the land of the Pharaohs.
The Afcon tournament which will see a host of football superstars descend on Egypt will kick off on Friday 21st June; Kenya will get their campaign underway with a clash against Algeria on June 23rd.
By Maranatha Mdluli