The dream narrative got its happy ending. On the day Kenya celebrated 50 years of independence, the national team delivered a gift by winning the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup.
The 2013 edition of East and Central Africa’s regional football tournament was hosted in Kenya and the final conveniently arranged to coincide with the colourful celebrations that were going on in and around Independence Day. As such, the hope was that the 12th of December would see the Harambee Stars contesting in the final. They did not disappoint.
That however points to something much more. Before the shenanigans of management and mismanagement mix to conspire another era of frustratingly needless disappointment, the CECAFA Cup win signalled the serene mood that is the usual occurrence whenever there is slight victory by the country’s national football team.
For the time being, there is hope for a great footballing future.
That hope is centered on Adel Amrouche, the Algerian born coach who is at the helm of the Harambee Stars. Appointed early in the year, he has overseen some impressive performances — none more so than the draw away to African champions Nigeria. And while he has had his fair share of faults — particularly with rumours that regard players heading for trials in the Middle East and Eastern Europe at his behest — there is enough evidence to show that he might be taking the Stars on the right track.
For the first time in a very long time, here is a manager who seems intent on establishing a distinct playing style. The Stars no longer seem confused and there is now an accepted mainstay that 4-2-3-1 is the staple formation. It is the one used in the most gruelling of circumstances with an occasional shift to 4-3-3 when it is deemed that the opponents are there for the taking.
At the heart of this at the CECAFA tournament was the double pivot midfield axis of Anthony Akumu and Peter Opiyo. Their performances ensured that the midfield displayed that precious balance between defensive solidity and attacking instigation. Akumu sat deeper more, delivering short passes and acting as a release pass for the defenders while Opiyo had more freedom to be creative with his range of passing as well as his forward movement.
Behind them, an impregnable defence held fort as it did not allow a only a single goal throughout the whole tournament. Of surprise was that the hardworking David Owino was played at center back. The Gor Mahia right back who has on occasion played as a left back displayed his utility and solidity alongside the experienced Jockins Atudo. Together, they formed a defensive partnership that was unbreachable.
Wide of them, James Situma and Aboud Omar created the essence of full backs who fully understood their roles. In a way, it worked to perfect balance, as Aboud was more attacking down the left hand side, leaving Situma most of the time shuffling across to maintain a defence that could not be easily outnumbered in the event of a counter-attack. There were also appearances from James Mulinge and Musa Mohamed in these positions and while it showed depth, it also showed that the squad members understood their roles.
Duncan Ochieng’ in goal was magnificent, seemingly buoyed by the confidence installed in him by his manager. Despite not having had as good a club season as his deputy, Jerim Onyango, Ochieng’ was the undoubted number one and he fully repaid that confidence. Starting Ochieng’ showed continuity in a crucial position on the field, and Jerim it seemed was content to ensure that the team spirit and morale of the side was high. He constantly appeared whenever the Stars were celebrating or huddled up in prayer after victorious games. He played a part hugely important in the dynamics of a team sport.
Upfront however was where the excitement came. While Kenya has lacked a deadly striker for some time now, it was good to see Jacob Keli donning the national team jersey. His runs were incisive and created passing options from midfield counterparts and even though he should have scored more than he did, he did well to find himself in goal scoring opportunities on a number of occasions and in a variety of circumstances.
Allan Wanga was however the man who stepped up to display the quality that hides itself behind him. The gamble to hand him the captain’s armband so as to inspire confidence in him totally paid off as he eventually became the man whose brace decided the final.
Adding onto that, the pace and directness of Noah Wafula and Cliffton Miheso provided options to compliment the positionally disciplined Edwin Lavatsa down the flanks.
Linking all this up was the majestic Francis Kahata. The left footed playmaker was the force behind Kenya’s fantasy. His silky first touch, accompanied by peerless vision gave Kenya that creative edge from midfield. His ball distribution was fantastic and his movement created spaces in and around the penalty area, dragging defences with him along the way. It is by no stretch of the imagination that his artistry was crucial to Kenya’s resolve for attacking ingenuity.
All this it seems has been harnessed by the tactics of Amrouche to get the most out of the team. And while many will be sceptical about the path to the Final which included facing an experimental Ethiopia; an inexperienced South Sudan; a non- FIFA ranked nation in Zanzibar and a fading Rwanda — one cannot deny that the momentum garnered was enough to see them past Tanzania and Sudan.
So when the dust settles and the pieces picked up, one can only hope that this will finally be the moment that everything changes. That the usual shenanigans steer clear and that the foundation set is not tampered with. For even as Kenya reached 50 years of independence, winning the CECAFA title was more than just a celebratory achievement. It could provide the platform for the start of something special.