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World Cup Qualifiers: Where did it go wrong for ‘optimistic’ Harambee Stars?

9:23 am AEDT 18/11/21
Kenya vs Rwanda.
Kenya's target was to make history by reaching the 2022 World Cup finals, only for them to fail...again

When Football Kenya Federation President Nick Mwendwa came into office, he exuded extreme confidence that he had the wherewithal and the script to oversee Kenya’s participation at the World Cup finals for the very first time.

He set Qatar 2022 as the edition at which Harambee Stars would make their debut at football’s biggest bonanza.

After winning his second term, Mwendwa told GOAL on October 20, 2020: “I don’t know how we will achieve it, but I am sure we will make it, in the next four years, I want to see Kenya in the World Cup.

“I don’t know if it will be the men’s team or the women’s team but I want to see Kenya represented at the world stage.

“This will happen soon, I want to put more emphasis on national teams and I know with proper planning, everything we want will be achieved.”

Everything looked promising when Kenya made it for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Egypt within the first two years of Mwendwa coming into the office, and anybody who doubted the Qatar dream would be achieved could be rebuked for not seeing the steady progress over which he was presiding.

That promise notwithstanding, the challenges the Mwendwa-led office had started experiencing in 2019 were felt sharply when the draw for the preliminary round of qualifiers for Qatar was released earlier in 2021.

A group featuring East African neighbours Rwanda, Uganda, and Mali seemed like an easier one, with the West Africans appearing as the opponent that would pose some challenge.

Six matches later, Kenya’s dream of a World Cup place has been obliterated, with all hope evaporating with the mauling by Mali on matchday three.

So what really went wrong with the Harambee Stars that they went down without a fight, just winning a dead rubber fixture with Rwanda in the final group game?

GOAL reveals five areas that lay bare Kenya’s undoing in the qualification campaign for Qatar 2022.

'Technical instability'

There is no doubt that since Mwendwa took charge of the FKF, his administration has made the Harambee Stars coaching job a fast revolving door.

Engin Firat is the seventh man to take charge of the Stars in a short stint of just over five years, the Turk having been curiously offered a two-month contract after Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee left the role by “mutual agreement”.

The upshot of this high turnover of coaches means the team lacked that consistency from the touchline as the different managers come with different philosophies.

'Team selection inconsistency'

Harambee Stars have not been the same for most of the campaign in terms of the squad that has been involved and that has obviously been seen in how the team has performed.

Again, this stems from the fact the coaches have changed mid-stream.

The disconnect in performances has been as clear as day due to the fact that every international break has seen a different team named, and it goes without saying that it was always going to impact how the qualification campaign would progress in the direction of unsuccessful.

'Possible interferences in matchday planning'

This is a question that has been on the lips of many a Kenyan, with sources close to the powers that be suggesting the coaches were being interfered with regarding the decisions they made on who makes the starting XI during matches.

A case in point is the 5-0 away defeat to Mali, where it was alleged that coach Firat was given the line-up that he would field, with substitutions already mapped out.

Whereas those claims remain just allegations, there's evidence (from the performances) that something is not adding up.

Besides, there have been questionable selections and at some point, it was baffling to have two goalkeepers from the same team present with the national side.

'Administrative instability'

All has not been well and smooth at Kandanda House since October 2019 when the electoral process at the end of Mwendwa's first term faced serious legal challenges leading to the nullification of the polls twice.

There's no question that this has had an impact on the stability of the Secretariat operations, although it has not been in the public domain until recently.

GOAL can reveal the unending tussles between the government, the different stakeholders, including sponsors, have left a huge dent in the operational stability of the FKF.

It remains academic at this point, but the consistent investigations by the state agencies affected the psyche of the players who, as some of them have confided in GOAL, have not been sure of the country's fate if world governing body Fifa was to sanction Kenya.

That uncertainty and anxiety in the minds of players has definitely affected their mental preparedness for the games.

'Too many unrealistic expectations'

Kenyans have always been optimistic as a people, and not least when it comes to the hopes of their national football team.

That pressure on the Harambee Stars may have multiplied when the groups were announced.

Similarly, the fact that the federation had issues of their own, made worse by the high turnover of coaches, meant the players' mental preparations to handle the pressure of high public expectations may not have been given the attention it deserved.

It was the reason the team seemed to lack that strength and mettle to handle certain game situations that needed that mental edge.

All said and done, it is back to the drawing board for the national team, but that elusive first World Cup appearance now feels further away than ever before.