Kenya must invest in youth and grassroots football to become a regular World Cup and AFCON side. This is why

Photo Credit: Football Kenya Federation

OPINION: Kenya must invest in youth and grassroots football to become a regular World Cup and AFCON side. This is why

Mark Kinyanjui 10:00 - 20.07.2023

If Harambee Stars is to qualify for its first ever World Cup and always go far at the AFCON, this is why it must invest in youth and grassroots football.

When the England U21s lifted the U21 European Championships for the first time since 1984 last Saturday, some questions instantly crossed my mind.

How did they end up becoming a national team that has performed so well at youth level? And is it any coincidence that their excellent performances at the youth international stage have spread onto their senior team performances?

And how can Kenya borrow a leaf if they are to make Harambee Stars become a mainstay at the AFCON and regularly qualify for the World Cup?

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The famed ‘golden generation’ of England players that emerged during  the late 1990s and the 2000s reached  the quarter-finals of three consecutive tournaments under Sven-Goran Eriksson (the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and the 2004 European championships).

After that, they failed to qualify for Euro 2008, got outclassed by a far younger, slicker Germany team at the 2010 World Cup and were exposed by Italy at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2012.

It got even worser over the next four years, as they finished bottom of their group at the 2014 World Cup and crashed out of Euro 2016 against Iceland in the round of 16.

Over that period (between 2008 and 2016) most of the golden generation of players like Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham) were getting past their peak, and the new generation of players emerging then were never capable of helping the country return to the heights of challenging in major tournaments.

Eleven of the 27 players called up by Roy Hodgson in October 2013 for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers were aged 24 or under. But of those 11, only Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker ended up winning 50 caps.

Most of the others won more caps than you might remember — Theo Walcott (47), Jack Wilshere (34), Ross Barkley (33), Chris Smalling (31), Phil Jones (27), Daniel Sturridge (26), Andros Townsend (13), Tom Cleverley (13) — but, whether due to form or fitness issues, none became a long-term fixture in the England team at a time when competition was far less intense than now.

At that summer’s European Under-21 Championship finals, England had finished bottom of their group, beaten by Italy, Norway and Israel. Of the squad Stuart Pearce took to Israel, only Jordan Henderson and Danny Rose won more than 20 caps for England at senior level. 

Only a handful of the others (Wilfried Zaha, who switched allegiance to the Ivory Coast, Nathaniel Clyne, Craig Dawson, Jonjo Shelvey, Nathan Redmond and, eventually, Jason Steele) went on to establish themselves in the Premier League.

The same summer, at the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey, England finished bottom of a group containing Iraq, Chile and Egypt. The under-19s and under-17s failed to qualify for their respective European Championship finals that summer.

English football was not developing enough players of the required caliber and when it did, there were concerns about both the lack of opportunity at Premier League level and the absence of a recognisable culture in the national team setup.

This caused then FA chairman Greg Dyke concern, and he set up a plan for the future of English football if the country was ever to return to the heights of being a side that could be a force to be recon with at the European Championships and World Cups.

The plan involved a serious commitment to developing talent at grassroots and academy those players the opportunity to flourish at first-team level and establishing a clearer identity and culture around the national team. He set up a commission to look for radical solutions to what he called “a serious and growing problem”.

 Dyke set English football two targets: to reach at least the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and to win the World Cup in 2022 — “oh, and by the way, to show we are making progress along the way, I’d like to see us do well in the Under-20 World Cup in 2017”.

Ten years later, it is safe to say that although not all targets have been achieved, English football is in a much better position.

Over the last six years, England have won the u17 and u20 World Cups (in 2017) , won the UEFA u19 Championships (in 2022) and recently achieved victory after years of dismay for the country at that level.

The triumph at under-21 level would probably have been met with more excitement had it been unexpected. But it is far more encouraging when it is a continuation of a successful recent trend. 

For Angel Gomes, Morgan Gibbs-White and Emile Smith Rowe, it was a second trophy success at international level, having won the Under-17 World Cup in 2017. 

Marc Guehi, Connor Gallagher, Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho were also part of that victorious under-17s squad and would still be eligible to play at under-21 level, as would Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka. It is a seriously talented crop of players. 

Back to Kenya

It has been a common theme for every new chairman or president of the football federation to say that they intend to make Kenya qualify for the World Cup and get past the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations, but how many times has Harambee stars achieved that feat?The country has only ever qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations 6 times, and on all occasions, they have never gotten past the group stages of the tournament. I do not need to tell you that it has never qualified for the World Cup, not even once.

Let us take a closer look at youth football.CAF hosts three youth tournaments, the u17, u20 and the u23 Africa Cup of Nations. How has Kenya featured generally?  

Kenya has never taken an u17 side to the tournament since its inception in 1985. Yes, you heard that right. Never. For the u20 tournament, Kenya only participated once, and it was the inaugural tournament of 1979. In 2015, it was disqualified from participating after qualifying.

Let us look at the u23 tournament which serves as a qualifying tournament for the Olympics. Kenya’s best achievement has been the second round qualifying position achieved in 2019 under the tutelage of then head coach Francis Kimanzi, when they lost 2-0 on aggregate.

Speaking to the media after that tournament, Kimanzi insisted that the team should not be disbanded and should be given more exposure through friendly matches.

“If we can keep them together, they will play better, they need more international exposure with some test matches and tournaments because there are some really special talents there.”

That squad featured players like Brian Bwire, Mike Kibwage , Johnstone Omurwa , Joseph Okumu ,Moses Mudavadi , Alwyn Tera, Peter Thiongo, Sven Yidah, Ovella Ochieng, Sydney Lokale, Jafari Owiti and John Avire.

One only imagines whether these players would have achieved even more success had they been exposed to  proper coaching and youth facilities from a young age.

One of Kenya's best right backs, Daniel Sakari started playing football while as a university student at the Masinde Muliro University of Science of technology  after originally being a rugby player at Maseno high school.

One only imagines if his newly found craft would have been discovered and nurtured earlier as a youngster (6-10 years).

Speaking before Harambee Stars jetted to Mauritius for the four nations series,  head coach Engin Firat  decried “a lack of youth set ups” to make his work easier in interviews, and has insisted that the few Kenyans that make it make it through luck and pure talent that God has gifted them.

"I don’t know how far Kenya can go. In Kenya, the problem is that there’s no scouting. I don’t know who I’ll find tomorrow. It’s very strange. In other countries, you know that from sixteen years on, you have an overview of all the talent.

"Like Moses Shumah…two months ago, nobody knew him…for me, it’s confusing. The problem is two-sided. Messi can be born here in Kenya and nobody will find him, or he can be directly in front of us tomorrow. It’s all about luck. I really don’t know the real potential we have. There’s no limit.

“We need to stop blaming each other and think about solutions. The talents are emerging through luck. They make the top only through the gift God has given them. Nothing is put inside, this is the reality.

“They have massive problems in terms of tactical nous. They are not ready physically and their mental pressure is too high. We have to think in that direction. People only think about what is going on on the pitch and not what goes on behind the scenes.

The talent is there. All it just needs is to be nurtured earlier. Football is not about talent alone. One may have  the passion and ability to play, but also need to be refined technically and most importantly, understand the fundamentals of playing in various tactical setups as England have done. 

That is where youth facilities and qualified coaches come into play. According to research, the human brain can absorb many new things from the age of 1-10 because it does not overthink (it can learn as many as  70 languages then) . 

From birth to age 5, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in life. And early brain development has a lasting impact on a child’s ability to learn and succeed in school and life. The quality of a child’s experiences in the first few years of life – positive or negative – helps shape how their brain develops.

This is why in England, kids are taken to the academy from early childhood years. If you look at Rugby, most Kenyan players start playing in high school or in some other cases, Campus. Collins Injera insists that core nations like Fiji start playing from as early as six years old.

The current generation of players Harambee Stars have can go far, but it would take mostly chance and luck. If Kenya wants to achieve sustainability, we need to start looking at the kids who are in primary school right now. They are the ones who are malleable enough to be taught and exposed to these kind of things. 

So, How can Kenya make the dream a reality?

The English say you cannot teach an old dog new tricks for a reason. Kenya, alongside Tanzania and Uganda bid to host the 2027 AFCON with a view of using it as a platform to upgrade facilities.

They should also use it as a platform to try and provide more facilities for the youth to use and grow, which is their mandate, especially with the new CBC Educational programme that now sees sports being integrated as a subject in school.

Veteran Bandari tactician Twahir Muhiddin, who has worked under some of the finest coaches the country has produced and achieved various success with clubs like Oserian, as well as the national team.

Muhiddin has been tasked with laying foundations by help overseeing a youth programme implemented at Bandari under the leadership of the new board, and he agrees that developing youth is the only way Kenya will go far and achieve the dream.

“I have worked with the youth from the early seventies. I know the importance of youth programmes because I have seen that most of the youth players that I trained have gone on to play professionally and also for the national teams.

“I know the fruits of implementing youth programmes. There is nothing new under the sun. The resources are in plenty and I would urge my management team to help bring that into fruition. We need to be patient because it is a process that takes up to five years for people to see something solid.

“For surety, things are about to happen if we come up with that youth development programme because rest assured, you will get the dividends.”

And so there you have it. If Kenya is to ever achieve sustainable success at the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations, It has to invest in the youth teams. It must borrow a leaf from England, and even neighbors Uganda, whose u20 side of 2020 reached the final of the CAF U20 Cup of Nations in 2021.

After all, isn't the current Kenya government spearheaded by William Ruto about "building from the bottom up?" Investing in youth football would be a good way.