What’s stopping you, Kenya?

Sudan aside, there’s a glaring geographical gap at this year’s African Cup of Nations. Andrew Crawford has a few ideas why:

Watching the current African Cup Of Nations (ACON), it is somewhat tellingly awkward how there isn’t a stronger presence from countries from East Africa, although the same could be said for almost every ACON and since it began.

The harsh reality for teams from that region is that for all the players they might have, what often trips them up is perpetual incompetence of the football administrations of these countries. With bickering in the upper echelons of the footballing set-up, the final product on the pitch is often scrappy and beset with constant managerial changes and poor organisation.

I saw the problems faced by an East African team looking to qualify for a tournament outside of the region for myself during my time spent living in Kenya as ‘the Harambee Stars’ attempted to qualify for the 2010 ACON and the World Cup later that year in South Africa.

Kenya had a reasonably solid pool of players to choose from, notably Auxerre’s Dennis Oliech and McDonald Mariga, but what let them down at the time, as it probably did before and after that ill-fated qualification run, was the constant interference from the Kenyan Football Association (KFA).

The rot that scuppered the side in 2009 effectively started as far back as 2004, the year Kenya last made in ACON, when rival factions within the KFA tussled for overall control of the national team and the political infighting resulted in an international ban from FIFA.

Then in July 2006, the newly appointed national team coach, Bernard Lama, resigned after two months and one game (a 2-1 home defeat to Eritrea), citing several disagreements with KFA. Later that year, several top-flight Kenyan clubs led by Canadian, Bob Munro, chairman of Nairobi-based, Mathare United, attempted to form a breakaway league in protest of the KFA’s corruption and incompetence. Another FIFA ban was slapped on the country whilst Munro, a twenty-year resident who had set up and funded several sports projects in Nairobi’s slums, was threatened with deportation by the country’s then sports minister, Maina Kamanda for stirring the pot.

Kenya - Harambee Stars - East African footballDespite their reintroduction to the world stage in 2007, complete with a new governing body, the sinisterly-named Football Kenya Limited (FKL), chaos continued to reign. Lama’s ‘long-term’ replacement, Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee quit after only a year whilst Francis Kimanza was sacked twelve months later despite taking Kenya to the final of the 2008 CECAFA Cup (a tournament for Central and East African nations).

Following the sacking of Kimanza in early 2009, the KFA quickly hired the well-travelled German manager, Antoine Hey, who by all accounts had never been to Kenya or the East African region itself. A journeyman midfielder who had reasonably successful spells with Schalke and Fortuna Koln, he had managed a variety of small African countries; Lesotho (2004-2006), Gambia (2006-2007) and Liberia (2008-2009) before arriving in Nairobi after his spell with the Lone Stars.

The German quickly made it clear that he wasn’t going to be messed around and even refused to fly to Nigeria until the FKL could prove they actually had the money to pay his wages (this was not unprecedented- two previous Kenya managers left their jobs without being paid in full). After losing in Lagos and then away in Tunisia and Mozambique, alarm bells started ringing after a 5-0 defeat to Kuwait two weeks before Kenya’s home game to Nigeria.

The FKL, fearing a public backlash at Hey’s inability to win a game during qualification, took the decision to go behind the German’s back and recalled a number of players to the national side. Amongst the new inclusions was Oliech, dropped by Hey for several poor performances, Jamal Mohammed, who didn’t have a club after being released several months earlier by Swedish side, Enkopings, and Emanuel Ake, who had not played for Kenya in five years .

This was the final straw for the German, who got on the first plane back home without telling anyone. The FKL only found out what had happened when they got a phone call telling them to pick up Hey’s abandoned car from Jomo Kenyatta airport.

Left holding the baby, assistant manager Twahir Muhiddin, who had already acted as an interim coach in 2004, strode the touchline for the crucial tie with a squad whilst a plucky Kenya team fought hard against their hosts but lost 3-2 after goals by Obafemi Martins and Yakubu.

Mulee came back to the national team for a fourth time in 2010 and was impressively brash when discussing the future of the Kenyan national team:

‘For me, [the 2012] African Cup of Nations football is our right and then after that, we should be aiming for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil’.

Yet three months later, Mulee quit after the team’s terrible performance in the CECAFA Cup and the FKL, who shouldn’t have allowed the coach back (he resigned after a day in his second spell in 2005) then hired Zedekiah Otieno. He lasted a year before being sacked after Kenya inevitably failed to qualify for the ACON. Kimanza is now back for another go at leading his country to any sort of success, although how long he lasts is anyone’s guess.

As someone who holds Kenyan football very dear to his heart, the plight of the national team at the hands of its administrators is both painful and shocking to see. A country that is passionate about football deserves to have a fighting chance of making a big international tournament but that opportunity is forever denied to them by the actions of a handful of protected bureaucrats. The same could be said of many of the countries in East Africa but it stands out the most in Kenya. Until changes comes to the board room of the Harambee Stars, the country’s population will be watching other teams chase glory and wishing it could be them.

Andrew Crawford is a columnist for Just Football specialising in East African and Chinese football. Read more from Andrew here.

(photo credit: Jacobus van Eeden on Flickr)

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