Kenya is among 190 countries battling for 48 places at the 2026 Fifa World Cup which will be hosted in 16 cities across the United States, Mexico and Canada.
But on evidence of Harambee Stars’ performance and result against Gabon in Franceville in the 2026 Fifa World Cup qualifier on November 16, qualification will be a tall order. Very.
Stars, seeking a first ever appearance at a Fifa World Cup, lost 2-1 to the hosts in the opening Group ‘F’ match, and in disappointing fashion, after leading in the match for a considerable spell via a Masud Juma first half strike.
The result leaves Kenya, managed by the talkative Turk Engin Firat, third bottom of the pool that also has bigwigs Cote d’Ivoire, Burundi, Gambia and Seychelles.
Burundi beat Gambia 3-2 in Bujumbura in the group’s other match. Cote d’Ivoire, considered the favourites to land the group’s automatic qualification spot, humiliated Seychelles 9-0 to go top and show they mean business.
“You could see the inexperience in some players leading to a bit of panic in decision-making,” observed former Stars coach James Nandwa.
“This was already classified as a tough outing for Kenya (before the match was played). But to stand a chance at qualification (to the World Cup), these type of fixtures, when you travel away to face Gabon, we should be getting something. At least a draw.”
In some of the incidents from the game that left the team’s fans cursing, defender Johnstone Omurwa, who is based in Portugal, fumbled what appeared a harmless high ball, allowing Gabon midfielder Dennis Bounga a free run and shot at Patrick Matasi’s goal for the hosts opening goal.
Later, with two minutes of regulation time remaining, Guelor Kanga let fly a screaming shot into Matasi’s net from 30 yards. But Firat will have to conduct a post-mortem on how two holding midfielders in the frame of Anthony Akumu and Richard Odada allowed Kanga the time and space to execute his mission. Understandably, Firat was missing a couple of dependable players including defenders Joseph Okumu and Eric ‘Marcelo’ Ouma. But the fact that the team struggled in their absence further highlights the deficiency in quality.
At best, Kenya has to top this group to book a ticket to the World Cup.
Else, finishing second in the pool will offer Kenya another chance, which includes navigating a play-off with possible matches against national teams from Asia, Oceania, South America and North and Central America.
So, overall, what are Stars chances?
“This is a tricky draw. We are somewhat lucky to have avoided a North African opponent. But our campaign includes three trips to West Africa, which to me is the home of football in sub-Saharan Africa. To stand a chance, we need to plan for the basics. Win all home matches, then try and snatch victory away to Seychelles and Burundi, then a pick draws versus Gambia in Banjul,” added Nandwa.
This, though, is easier said than done on evidence of the outing against Gabon.
In the previous qualification matches for the 2022 Fifa World Cup, Kenya fared dismally, winning one of her six engagements versus Mali, Uganda and Rwanda.
The win came at home to Rwanda in a dead-rubber match.
That campaign, in which the side was handled by coaches Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee and Firat, was statistically among the worst in the team’s history, as witnessed in the 5-0 drubbing away to Mali in Morocco and a 1-0 home loss to the same side.
So bad was that campaign that Football Kenya Federation (FKF) president Nick Mwendwa is remembered for conceding in an interview on NTV that the Mali squad comprised too many quality players and Kenya literally had no chance of competing against them. Never mind that Mali too, eventually did not qualify for the World Cup.
Further back, it was same script, different cast in the qualifiers for the 2018 Fifa World Cup as Kenya, managed by Scot Bobby Williamson was eliminated at the first hurdle after losing 2-1 to Cape Verde in the preliminaries in a match characterised by embarrassing travel arrangement to Praia by then FKF president Sam Nyamweya.
And finally, in the qualification games for the 2014 World Cup, Kenya finished third in a group consisting Nigeria, Malawi and Namibia, with the results including one win in six matches, and a home loss to the West African bigwigs, plus, without an away win.
So what should be done differently?
Kenya engaged in several friendlies ahead of this tournament, producing mixed results.
Stars beat Qatar 2-1 in Doha in September before drawing 2-2 with Russia in Turkey in September and October respectively.
But there were some below par returns in between, including the shocking 1-0 loss at home to South Sudan, and an identical defeat to Mauritius in Port Louis.
“Friendlies help me determine the quality of players I have and how I can use them in difference scenarios,” said Firat after the draw in Turkey.
“I know there are some Kenyans who wanted me to lose this game but it is important we pull in one direction to motivate the boys and ensure they are at their best mentally and physically,” he added.
Even though Cote d’Ivoire are deemed favourites to qualify for the World Cup from Kenya’s group, Stars players should be motivated by a number of factors, including the Sh250 million bonus awarded to each team that qualifies for the tournament by Fifa.
Kenya, alongside Uganda and Tanzania will host the 2027 Africa Cup of Nations and gracing the World Cup a year prior will offer the country, and the football industry the best possible boost ahead of the extravaganza.
Meanwhile, this will be the first World Cup to comprise 48 teams, an expansion from the previous 32.
It will also be the first World Cup since 2002 to be hosted by more than one nation. That edition was co-hosted by Japan and Korea. The tournament will also be making a return to the USA after 22 years.