There has been a shortage of strikers in the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) and Kenyan football at large in the recent past paving way for an influx of foreign players to the domestic league.
Though KPL has produced some clinical homegrown strikers in the past few years led by the in-form Kashiwa Resyol talisman Michael Olunga (Japan), Zesco United’s duo of Jesse Were and John Makwata (Zambia) alongside newly signed Napsa Stars forward Timothy Otieno, the effects of failing to develop players in the striking department is slowly but surely catching up with the country.
All the four players have at least left a legacy in the domestic league before turning professional. While Olunga,26, won the 2015 KPL best player award after his 19 goals inspired Gor Mahia to a third consecutive title with an unbeaten record. Were bagged the coveted golden boot after scoring 22 goals the same season.
Makwata clinched the golden boot in 2016 with 15 goals as Otieno also scored 15 goals to finish top of the scoring chart in the abandoned 2019/2020 season.
But even as Olunga, who is scoring goals for fun in Japan, appears to have perfectly filled the boots left by legendary Dennis Oliech who retired from international football in 2016 after an illustrious career (34 goals in 72 appearances), many feel it will take time for Harambee Stars to get the current J-L League top scorer’s replacement.
For many years, the national team Harambee Stars has lacked a back-up striker with most of the time banking on attacking midfielders playing in an advanced role to score goals.
Apart from lack of structures and academies to nurture talent, the current crop of strikers has been criticised for their physicality, inconsistency and profligacy in front of goal.
And it is for this reason that some of the KPL coaches have turned to other African countries for clinical finishers.
While the presence of the foreign players has made the local league competitive, there are fears their dominance could affect the performance of the national team.
But for a team like Gor Mahia, it is because of their superb transfer policy on foreign players that they have been able to dominate the newly renamed FKF Premier League for years.
The on-ongoing KPL transfer window is a true reflection of what has been happening in the domestic scene in recent years.
Foreign strikers are literally scattered throughout the league. From Burundian Jules Ulimwengu and Ugandan-born Tito Okello at Gor Mahia, to Michael Karamor who recently joined his Nigerian counterpart Promise Chinoso and Ghanaian Ameyaw Nana at Sofapaka, South Sudanese David Majak at Tusker and many others, it is a clear indication that KPL coaches are leaving nothing to chance to achieve their targets.
It is expected that the foreign stars will follow in the footsteps of their predecessors like Dan Sserenkuma, Jacques Tuyisenge, Meddie Kagere, Umaru Kasumba, Bob Mugalia, Fiston Razak, Joseph Emeka and Patrick Kagogo, who all came, saw and conquered.
Even though Sofapaka has been in the frontline of going for foreign talent, head coach John Baraza, who lifted the KPL golden boot four times after scoring a combined 70 goals (2001, 2009, 2010 and 2012), says current Kenyan strikers cannot withstand the pressure that comes with performance.
“It is not that Kenya is lacking clinical strikers as you are aware most of our strikers are going for greener pastures in other countries. Most of the experienced strikers we have are plying their trade abroad, that’s why we need to give those around time to grow,” Baraza told Standard Sports.
“We have a few strikers around but the problem is that they can’t withstand the pressure of delivering in each match. As a striker you are not required to play five matches or so without scoring, that’s the pressure that overwhelms most of our players.”
The three-time KPL winner, who scored in Kenya’s 3-0 win over Burkina Faso at the 2004 Afcon finals in Tunisia, further stated that Kenya is currently experiencing a generational change and that it will take at least two years before quality strikers pop up again.
“Remember, strikers are always on demand and that’s why when our players leave we have to look for their replacement. Striking is different from other positions and one gets better with age and experience. At the moment we are experiencing a generational change in KPL and a new crop of strikers are coming up, but it will take time before they get the experience and adapt to the demands of playing in a topflight league,” the former Kenyan international said.
“I think we will have another group of quality strikers in the next two years or so because most of them are still young and learning the ropes.”
But for former Kenyan international Nicholas Muyoti, who is currently coaching Kakamega Homeboyz, strikers’ crisis in the league could have a ripple effect on the national team.
“We’ve all seen what happened after Oliech (Dennis) left then Wanga (Allan) before Olunga filled the void. We are talking about a national team going out there without a bench power of strikers who can come in to change the game. You realise there is always a gap when Olunga is not there. That simply tells you we are lacking backup,’’ said Muyoti.
“We are even worried who will be the next lead striker after Olunga exits the scene. Most of the upcoming strikers have not shown intent that they are finishers. Even looking at the margin of goals in KPL matches initially the score line was not high. In Kenya, we’ve so many midfielders, defenders and goalkeepers but for strikers we can name those we’ve had in the recent past. Every generation has come up with not more than five strikers. But I think this is something that can be taken care of especially if coaches concentrate on working on that area.”
The former AFC Leopards captain said there is need for local coaches and academies to change their tact in training with more focus on grooming the ‘on-demand’ strikers.
“I feel we have a shortage of strikers in the Kenyan football at the moment. With the few we’ve, I have realised that we are not giving them the right training. But most of the coaches just focus on the physical aspect of the game. I’ve personally experienced that with a lot of training that includes scoring practices they get better,” said Muyoti.
“I would urge coaches starting from the academies to clubs to try and nurture more strikers because this is what the market is looking for. We need to start specialising the players in terms of positions while they are still young.”
Asked about the difference between the current crop strikers and the past, Muyoti said: “Honestly, there is a big difference in terms of physicality; during our time most strikers were huge and showed a lot of presence in the game. They were not that skilled like the current strikers, but they were tough, strong, pacy, direct and very clinical. They were typical finishers. Unlike Rupia (Elvis), who is a direct player, most of the current strikers are more skilled and good at build-up play as opposed to being direct.”
Though former Harambee Stars captain Musa Otieno is encouraged by an upward spiral of players seeking for greener pastures abroad, he is concerned with the structures back home.
“We need to do a lot of homework; it took us 14 years to go to the Afcon finals in Tunisia then 15 years to Egypt. I honestly believe we have a lot of talent around. But for us to achieve this, we must have strong leagues and structures. We must frequently participate in all the big tournaments, be it for women or men,” said Otieno.
“The more players we have abroad the better for our football because one day we will need them. I’m happy with what is happening with the Harambee Starlets players. That experience from different leagues will be invaluable to our national teams soon. At least things are changing and we can now compete with the best in the continent without parking the bus like we did in the past.”