Harambee Stars’ long overdue redemption worth of rejoicing

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The heroics of Posta Rangers custodian Patrick Matasi of saving three penalties in the final against Zanzibar earned Kenya’s national soccer team, Harambee Stars, the regional tournament. It also gave new Belgian born tactician, Paul Put his first silverware before a rapturous home crowd in Machakos. Witnessed by among others, Deputy President William Ruto, Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua and Football Kenya president Mr Nick Mwendwa. While it seemed funny seeing the senior politicians present while they have neglected the game of soccer, this did not spoil the party.

Route to the final

The Harambee Stars kicked off the tournament with a lackluster 2:0 victory over Rwanda at the newly refurbished Bukhungu Stadium in Kakamega County. Goals by Masud Juma and a spectacular volley from Atudo Jockins Otieno set the tempo for stars who went on to draw their next two games against Libya and Zanzibar. The latter two games were barren draws that exposed how technically poor this selected team was. Fans were unanimous in condemning the team, players could not string five or more passes and even the ball control was wanting.

Zanzibar and Uganda displayed excellent football artistry and endeared themselves to the locals. Players like Issa Mohammed and Suleiman of Zanzibar and Derrick Nsimbambi of Rwanda wowed fans with their skills. Whyvonne Isuza of Kenya was the home team’s standout player in the tournament. His solid displays of linking the central defence and attack was a joy to watch. It then came as no surprise that he would score the winner in injury time in Kisumu against Tanzania to help Harambee Stars book a final’s date with Zanzibar.

CECAFA win is a foundation of success to build on.

With experienced Belgian tactician at the helm as Harambee Stars coach, a lot was expected especially being the home team. Despite being new with the team, Coach Put can be commended with assembling a defensively solid side. This was evident as Harambee Stars conceded no goal in the entire tournament until the finals.

The team at times, however, was bereft of ideas and not even the passionate crowds could inspire them and as such, the new coach has work up his sleeves. The major concern amongst football lovers was how our neighbours Uganda and Zanzibar could play beautiful possessive football while we only managed the kick and follow football. There was no ball control and Harambee Stars never managed to string five to six passes amongst themselves during the entire tournament.

Yes, there were many bright spots that encouraged. First, Coach Put must be commended for being bold and starting Patrick Matasi over the usual Boniface Oluoch in goal. While the latter is slightly technically gifted over the other, he does thrive in making occasional but costly blunders. Matasi on his part repaid the faith by putting sterling performances, which included saving three penalties at the ultimate stage. One can expect stiff competition for the number one jersey because Boniface will not just leave his position without a fight. It was good to see a coach who rewards merit over name as our national team coach.

Captain and defender Musa Mohammed too needs special mention. He was a pillar at the back alongside Jockins Atudo.  Mohammed’s leadership qualities and levelheadedness was a much-needed gift especially when we played Zanzibar in the group stages. Ernest Wendo offered the all needed cover for the defence from central midfield. He tackled and won the ball against opposition midfielders; he provided a solid buffer and allowed his midfield partner, Patillah Ommoto to be adventurous with pinpoint long balls.

While the creative spark many expected from George Odhiambo was not very visible, it was all due to the defensive set up by coach Put. The midfield of Wendo and Ommoto were clearly under instructions not to be adventurous, Isuza had the arduous task of connecting this midfield with attack. It was thus not surprising that coach Put substituted George Odhiambo on most occasions. His game plan was to soak pressure from opponents and either use an Ommoto long ball or Isuza to carry the ball forward.

Upfront, Ovella Ochieng amazed the fans with his direct football. His brilliant tournament was capped by an orgasmic free kick in the final for Stars’ opening goal. The boy had an amazing tournament and so did the Kenya Premier League 2017 top scorer Masud Juma. The burly striker proved his worth by banging two goals in this tournament, one in the opening game and another in the final.

To win the CECAFA came with cool Sh3 million-prize money from the organizers. The deputy president added another Sh5 million and the Machakos Governor Sh1 million. Tuskys Supermarket gave each member of the Harambee Stars team Sh10, 000-shopping voucher.

While these gestures must be applauded, it also shows the tokenism with which the current government views sports. They have failed on their elections pledges of building stadia and sports continue to suffer because the Sports CS views sports especially football as a useless activity which the government can ignore forgetting how football not only creates jobs but also helps keep most of the youth from drugs and crime.

With the victory now behind, it is now time for the technical bench to put its house in order. Instances of players being called to the national team must entirely be on merit and players’ allowances must not only be paid in time but the amount must reflect the fact that the players are representing the nation.  A respectable amount and not peanuts is not much to ask after all, the players are ambassadors of the country.