Does Kenya's busy youth and grassroots football in 2023 point to a change of tack?


FOOTBALL Does Kenya's busy youth and grassroots football in 2023 point to a change of tack?

Mark Kinyanjui 20:21 - 29.12.2023

A look into all national junior side's performances in 2023, as well as the initiatives taken to invest in youth and grassroots football suggest that Kenya is finally getting serious

Is Kenya finally taking youth football seriously? This is a question many football fans and journalists have been pondering over the last couple of months after several youth tournaments and initiatives took place in 2023.

The Kenya national U18 side Junior Stars took part in the CECAFA U18 Boys’ Championships, reaching the final where they lost 1-0 to Uganda. 

Boy wonder Aldrine Kibet won the top goalscorer award with three goals.

There was also the African Championship CECAFA U15 Championships that took place earlier this month with the Kenya U15 Girls Select and Boys Select finishing second and third, respectively.

Both teams got the fair play award, Lindey Weey Atieno stood out in the tournament and received the best player of the tournament award.

The Junior Starlets also nearly qualified for the CAF U20 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations but also fell short of qualifying at the final hurdle to Cameroon, having dispatched Angola very easily in the first round.

Even though there were varying levels of success, as well as an even share of disappointments, there was a sense that in 2023, Kenya finally decided to take youth football seriously. The only question remains is whether the initiatives laid this year show that Kenya is finally taking it’s future seriously.

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During the Talanta Hela finals, Sports CS Ababu Namwamba insisted that for Kenya to become a mainstay at the AFCON and the World Cup, investing in grassroots football would go a long way in deepening the pool of national team players.

It would also be in line with President William Ruto’s bottom-up philosophy of building from the ground.

"We have demonstrated that if you are deliberate, intentional, and structured, you can create a talent pipeline,” Namwamba said.

“This is how Morocco made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup, by investing in youth football and grassroots. They have proven that it can be done.”

The junior side that managed to get to the CECAFA U18 Boys Championships was made up mostly of players who shone at the 2023 Kenya Secondary Schools Sports Association (KSSSA) games in Kakamega.

Players such as Kibet and Amos Wanjala, who played pivotal roles during the tournament, were some of the standout names at the school games, and their efforts playing for St Anthony’s Boys Kitale won them a sports scholarship to Spain’s Nastic Soccer Academy, where they have been honing their skills since.

There was also the inaugural Talanta Hela U19 football tournament which turned out to be very successful, as it gave several boys and girls chances to showcase their skills and also win scholarships with the Spanish academy, as Namwamba recently confirmed that the government had struck a partnership with the sports institution to help grow Kenyan football.

“We have agreed on a robust partnership with NSA to grow Kenya's youth football,” the CS wrote on X.

"I am extremely proud. I am happy for the young people who have had the opportunity to showcase their talents on the grandest stage nationally.

"More importantly, they have been watched by top scouts. We have invited the top leadership from the Nastic Soccer Academy in Spain and they have been here for two days. 

“We have an arrangement on how we can get more young people to join the Academy," he continued.

"This is huge for the future of football in the country. On day one in office, I announced that for Kenya to get to the high table of global football, there is only one route; investing in youth and grassroots football, essentially from the bottom up. 

“We designed this tournament to allow every Kenyan child to be seen and express themselves," he averred.

The year also marked the return of the Safaricom Chapa Dimba tournament after a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tournament, which has helped identify talents such as Gor Mahia striker Benson Omala, Kakamega Homeboyz’s Moses Shummah and ex-Tusker striker Henry Meja, is ongoing, and there is optimism more players, who could play a key role for the national teams in future, will be unearthed.

As Kenyan football prepares to usher in 2024, there is hope that continued unearthing of grassroots talents, as well as youth football will strengthen all the junior sides, and subsequently, the senior national teams, both men and women.