Engin Firat spent 2023 shaping Harambee Stars in his image: Is the side ready for a monumental 2024?

Engin Firat spent 2023 shaping Harambee Stars in his image: Is the side ready for a monumental 2024?

Mark Kinyanjui 09:30 - 27.12.2023

With 2024 set to be a pivotal year for Harambee Stars given the 2025 AFCON qualifiers, the 2026 World Cup qualifiers and the 2024 CHAN on home soil, is the team ready following a mixed 2023?

2023 was a year that was very pivotal for Harambee Stars, and not just for one reason.

It was a year where the country was allowed to participate in a FIFA-recognized match after the ban was finally lifted on the country’s football by the world governing body in late 2022.

It was a year where Engin Firat was finally appointed on a permanent basis after taking charge on a probationary contract in 2021 as Kenya’s 2022 World Cup qualification berth went badly.

It was also a year where Kenya featured in historic friendly matches against opposition of high caliber, such as reigning Asian champions Qatar, Russia and Iran.

Stars were not able to compete competitively until November, when they got their 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign off to a mixed start, losing away to Gabon 2-1 before obliterating Seychelles 5-0.

In total, Firat took charge of the national team for eight games, and in fairness, there was plenty to deduce from the eight.

Overview of the eight matches

The first was against Iran in March. The side lost 2-1 after Michael Olunga (more on him later) put Kenya ahead, before the hosts managed to fight back to get the win, with both goals getting scored from set piece situations .

Even though there were dodgy refereeing decisions, eyebrows were raised on the performances of certain individuals, including veteran keeper Patrick Matasi, who scored a dodgy own goal after failing to deal with a cut back well and Duke Abuya, who looked like a rabbit in the headlights playing behind Olunga

There was also a sense that the side lacked cohesion in possession of the ball even though the shape off the ball was easy to decipher. The result however was seen as monumental considering they had not played with each other for over two years.

Next was a Mauritius Four Nations Tournament in June, which Kenya accepted after proposed friendly matches against two unnamed European nations  could not work out because the nation lacked enough funding to facilitate the trips.

Kenya played Pakistan, who they beat 1-0, before losing by the same scoreline to Mauritius thanks to a set piece situation. It raised concern that Kenya’s set piece defending needed work.

There was also concern that the side struggled to be decisive in possession of the ball, considering they dominated possession in both games, but struggled to create clear cut opportunities, with Michael Olunga registering just one shot on target in both games, and that was from an attempt outside the box against Mauritius.

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Next was the September international break,where Kenya played against Qatar and South Sudan. Against Qatar, they looked solid playing transitional football where they won the ball back quickly before stringing two and three quick passes together to find people in space.

There was also a record away fan attendance in that match played at the Al Janoub Stadium, with over 15,000 Kenyan fans attending the game to watch the Harambee Stars get one over the 2022 World Cup hosts.

When the side flew back to Kenya to play South Sudan at the Kasarani Stadium, optimism was replaced with pessimism after Stars lost 1-0 thanks to a Tito Okello goal after Joseph Okumu needlessly gave possession away.

They had most of the possession after that, but just like against Pakistan and Mauritius, they just could not unlock the door, and Firat himself did admit it was an issue he was trying to address.

“We totally dominated the game. South Sudan defended very well, but it has also to do with our playing, being forced to the sides. Our overlapping on the sides did not work how I wanted and in the creativity, we lacked sometimes.

“Of course, we had enough chances to win the match and in the end, South Sudan had not even a goal chance but they won, this is the reality.”

In October, Kenya played Russia and ran out a 2-2 draw with the nation ranked 39th in the world, with both goals due to unnecessary mistakes. 

It was also a blow as the side missed KCB keeper Byrne Omondi and rightback Daniel Anyembe, who had impressed in their previous outings.The result however showed that Kenya were confident against the big nations, and then the November World Cup qualifiers loomed.

The side missed Erick ‘Marcelo’ Ouma and Joseph Okumu against Gabon, although Marcelo was available again for the game against Seychelles, but had to withdraw after 45 minutes. It was a big blow for Firat, who looked like he had come up with a settled side after a long time, especially the back five.

What must Kenya work on to be ready for 2024?

2024 will be Monumental for Harambee Stars. Their third and fourth world cup qualifying matches will take place in June in Nairobi against Ivory Coast and the Gambia.

It will also be a year Kenya takes part in the AFCON 2025 qualifiers, with Firat himself making it clear that 2025 will be a tournament Kenya must make the knockout stages to help prepare for the home 2027 edition.

It is also important to note that the 2024 African Nations’ Championship (CHAN) is also allegedly to take place in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania next September, which should give Firat a chance to give local-based players a chance to stake their claims in the main squad.

It is clear that set piece defending needs work, as well as having players who can unlock low block teams considering Firat has tried and tested several players for the wide and number 10 positions.

Muguna, Abuya and most recently, Eric Johana Omondi have been given a crack in the number 10 position, and Firat has also tried two strikers in certain game states, such as Gor Mahia’s Benson Omala and Kakamega Homeboyz’s Moses Shummah.

Ayub Masika has come on as a substitute in several games, while Masoud Juma has been played out wide. On the right wing, Rooney Onyango has looked impressive as a touchline winger who whips crosses in.

Then there is captain Michael Olunga, who has divided opinion amongst the fanbase for his profligate performances infront of goal (prior to the Seychelles match where he scored a brace).

Olunga missed one on ones against Russia, South Sudan and Qatar, and even if he is valuable because of his hold up play, link play and that ability to bring others into the game as well as run those channels, he also has to become more clinical.

The forthcoming FKF elections could also decide Firat’s fate especially if Nick Mwendwa fails to run and win the seat again, but regardless, 2024 will be a pivotal year for Harambee Stars.