Change, but what Change?March 25, 2016
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Those were the iconic words of French novelist Alphonse Karr so many years ago that still undoubtedly reverberate and echo through the ages. The events on Wednesday night at the Estadio 24 de Setembro in Guinea Bissau served as a stark reminder of the above, just in case we had become lulled into forgetting. Our national team Harambee Stars (we really need to get a new moniker) in a pitiful, limp, tepid, languid and half-hearted show went down 1-0 to Guinea Bissau in the 2017 African Cup of Nations Group E qualifier that probably has put to bed any realistic chances we had of making it to Gabon. All this bearing in mind that we had expected a turn in fortune after the recently held Football Kenya Federation elections that supposedly heralded a new dawn in Kenyan football.
We should have seen it coming, ladies and gentlemen. We really should. The signs were ominous right from the time Mr. Nick Mwendwa and co of the so-called ‘Team Change’ swept into the national football federation offices to great fanfare and excitement. First order of business was to terminate/sack/get rid off/do away with then national team coach, Bobby Williamson. To be honest, I didn’t understand how sensible a decision it was to dispense with the Scot given the main reason cited was ‘he was too expensive for us’. I mean, if your coffers are running dry and you’ve got a coach in your books on top dollar, isn’t it financially irresponsible to sack him and hence have to pay him a hefty severance package on top of what you have to pay the replacement? To be even more honest, I was actually happy this decision was arrived at – finally someone at the helm quick to make the hard decisions. The only way, surely, is up, or so I thought.
In came Stanley Okumbi to the hot seat. I won’t lie; it’s a decision that up to this very moment I haven’t been able to wrap my head around. I mean the guy comes into this job with zero credentials whatsoever, apart from a short stint in the top flight coaching Mathare United which actually ended rather unflatteringly for him. But then again, you think to yourself, ‘this is a new administration which is all about change, and even Pep Guardiola got his first big job when literally almost unheard of before. Maybe this is our version of Pep. Let’s see what stuff he’s made of.’ So with that, I patiently waited for his first dive in the deep end in Bissau to see whether Okumbi would take to it like a duck to water or whether he would be exposed as the lame duck we’ve suspected him to be.
First impressions are everything, everywhere in every aspect of life and living. As a coach, the first impression people are going to have on you has everything to do with your team selection. Get that right and much may not matter even if the result turns sour. Get it wrong however, and even with a win, doubts will still linger. Stanley Okumbi’s debut line up looked like this: Arnold Origi – Musa Mohammed, David ‘Calabar’ Owino, Brian Mandela, James Situma – Patillah Omotto, Victor Wanyama – Eric Johanna, Johanna Omollo, Clifton Miheso – Michael Olunga. Now obviously Olunga was the first name I looked for and having confirmed that, naturally everyone’s confidence gets a lift. He is our hottest property, after all. But then you look at that backline and you shudder. Musa at right back, Situma at left back. I’m seated on the couch trying do virtual calculations on how Okumbi arrived at those choices. Musa at Gor Mahia last season was an immovable object in the heart of the defense alongside Haroun Shakava so to see him at full back felt rather odd. You would think that there being no natural right back, it would be Calabar holding fort there. I mean, he’s actually performed there for both club and country with distinction. That would have freed Musa to play in his more natural central role and it was no wonder that goal that did us for came as a result of him being ‘sucked’ into the central position all the while oblivious of the runner ghosting past him from his designated right back position to head in past Origi in goal. I’m not absolving Musa of blame, but really he shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place. Don’t get me started on the decision to field Situma on the left of the defense. Why have a naturally right-footed player in a position as specific and specialist as the left back…more so if you have Dennis Odhiambo on the bench who had played well enough in recent internationals.
That said, the choice that really rankled many was that of thrusting Patillah Omotto into the thick of things in a hugely important international assignment. This is a lad who’s been plucked from second tier obscurity in Kariobangi Sharks and expected to marshal the midfield of our national team. Of course, it duly backfired spectacularly – he had to be taken off. The real question is how does someone only good enough for second tier Kenyan football find his way to the first XI of the national team, especially when he hasn’t been exactly raising the roof nor setting tongues wagging at his level? As I would learn, Kariobangi Sharks is chaired/owned by the FKF president, Mwendwa. Ah, it adds up. Is this the change we were led to elect and put our hopes and aspirations in? A change where the president’s club has to be represented, even if the representatives are evidently out of their depths? To even begin to think that a player of the caliber of Anthony Akumu was benched for this malaise! This is madness.
The Bissau game is one that we should have won, make no mistake about that, and not only because they are ranked some 43 places below us worldwide. But anyone who knows about the intricacies of football is aware that it is a game of very fine margins. Things change very fast. You cannot make such fundamentally flawed choices at the very high level of international football and not be punished, even if you’re up against minnows. Sometimes just by looking at the line up you can tell if you’re going to win or not. This was one such time.
Luckily for Okumbi, a shot at redemption comes soon enough. This Sunday we host Guinea Bissau in Nairobi for a chance to at least chalk up our first win in the qualifiers. Will things be different? Your guess is as good as mine. I know that was just Okumbi’s first match we should be more considerate. Maybe that’s right. But this is high level international football. We don’t have time to be considerate. He doesn’t have the luxury of a 30 or 38-game season to fall and recover. He knew what he was signing up for. The frauds who hired him knew the kind of bed they were making for him and themselves. A win at Bissau would have given us a realistic chance of qualifying for Gabon, but thanks to absurd choices, we are where we are – essentially just playing for pride. We deserve better than this.
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