Struggles, missed chances and redemption hopes for Harambee Starlets


FOOTBALL Struggles, missed chances and redemption hopes for Harambee Starlets

Festus Chuma 19:30 - 22.12.2023

The year 2023 brought challenges and missed opportunities for Harambee Starlets in their quest for WAFCON qualification.

2023 will be remembered as a year of mixed emotions for Kenya's national women's soccer team, the Harambee Starlets. 

It marked the second successive time they failed to secure a spot at the Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWCON), but amidst these setbacks, there is a glimmer of hope for a brighter future. 

In their historic qualification for the continental showpiece back in 2016, the Starlets made a mark that resonated across Africa.

Battling hardships on the road to WAFCON

However, their dreams of a second appearance were dashed as they fell to a 2-1 aggregate loss to Botswana. The defeat stung, but it also served as a reminder of the challenges they face in a competitive arena.

The journey to WAFCON 2023 was a rollercoaster ride for Harambee Starlets. 

They lost 1-0 away to Botswana in December, and one moment that will haunt them was a missed penalty at the National Stadium in Gaborone, allowing the hosts to take the lead. 

The return leg was a nail-biting affair, with a goalless first half giving way to an enterprising encounter after the break. A 1-1 draw in Nairobi was not enough to turn the tide in their favor.

Coach Beldine Odemba's impact

Under the guidance of coach Beldine Odemba, who also oversees Rising Starlets and Kenya Women Premier League (KWPL) side Kenya Police Bullets, the team had shown glimpses of their potential.

Odemba's coaching prowess shone brightly when the Starlets defeated Cameroon, a West African powerhouse, in the 2024 Women African Cup of Nations (WAFCON) qualifications. 

They triumphed 4-3 in a post-match shootout of the rematch played at Nyayo National Stadium, overturning a 1-0 loss in the first leg in Douala. 

However, the road to success in women's football is paved with challenges. 

From the December FIFA rankings, Kenya plummeted four places, landing at 151st globally. It is a stark reminder of the fierce competition they face on the international stage with the team having participated in four WAFCON qualifiers.

Coach Odemba took charge in August, following the departure of Godfrey Oduor, who moved to work with Premier League side Nzoia Sugar FC.

 Odemba's appointment brought a unique perspective, and the players embraced the change.

“I stand at the touchline every day pushing men’s and women’s teams. The only difference in the national team is you play international matches, and in this case, what changes is the tag,” said Odemba.

Friendlies are essential for team cohesion and preparation, but the Starlets went into their matches without any. 

A planned international friendly against Albania, scheduled for April 11 in Tirana, was put off due to consultations between the Football Kenya Federation (FKF) and the Ministry of Sports.

FIFA's suspension of Kenya in February 2022 due to government interference further disrupted their international calendar, making friendly matches even more crucial.

One notable absence from the squad for the Botswana matches was striker Esse Akida, a prominent figure in the Kenyan women's national team for years. 

Her omission raised eyebrows, especially considering her impressive performances for Greece-based club PAOK Thessaloniki. Kilifi County, her hometown, questioned her exclusion, emphasizing her knowledge and experience of the game.

Coach Odemba took a bold step by naming a squad predominantly composed of foreign-based players. 

The hope was that their experience of playing in tougher leagues abroad would prepare them for qualifiers against stronger sides. 

 Players on the rise and Vihiga Queens' dominance

Among the players plying their trade abroad, Marjolene Nekesa, who left FC Minsk for Czech Republic’s Slavia Prague, remains one of the most informed players. 

For her, qualifying for the continental bonanza would be a monumental achievement.

“That will be one of the greatest achievements for me, the team, and the coaching staff. Of course, it's a good opportunity for us to get exposure, but it's also an avenue for us to make the women’s World Cup," she added.

Another player making waves abroad is Violet Wanyonyi, who has shone in her debut season in Morocco, representing Municipal de Laayoune alongside Enez Mango and Jentrix Shikangwa. The trio players represent the future of Kenyan women's football and are ambassadors of the talent nurtured on home soil.

In domestic football, Vihiga Queens continued their dominance in the Football Kenya Federation Women’s Premier League, clinching their fourth consecutive title. 

Janet Moraa played a pivotal role in securing the crown with a double in the last match of the season.

Vihiga finished at the top with 55 points, seven points ahead of Gaspo, who secured the second spot. This success at the club level bodes well for the development of women's football in Kenya.

Harambee Starlets have faced trials and tribulations in their journey to AWCON 2023, but they are far from defeated. With resilience, determination, and the support of passionate fans, they can bounce back stronger.

 The disappointment of 2023 serves as a stepping stone towards future triumphs, and as they continue to evolve, Kenya's women's national team carries the hopes of a nation eager to see them shine on the continental and global stages. 

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