NAIROBI, April 14 (Xinhua) -- Weeks of suspense among passionate Kenyan football supporters turned into the excitement of possibility when the country's national team Harambee Stars was drawn in Group C of the Egypt 2019 CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals on Friday night in Cairo.
Stars joined a pool containing 2002 FIFA World Cup quarterfinalist Senegal, North African giant Algeria who won the 1990 AFCON on home soil and East African neighbor Tanzania who are returning to the biannual continental showpiece for the first time in 39 years.
Kenya have now been pooled thrice against Senegal in the AFCON finals, having also played the Lions of Teranga first in 1992 and then on their last appearance at the high table of African football in Tunisia in 2004.
At Senegal 1992, the tournament hosts blanked Kenya 3-0 on Jan. 16 before repeating the same result when they lined up in Tunisia 14 years later as Kenya failed to advance past the group stages at both tournaments.
Algerians on the other hand, have never forgotten what the now five-time AFCON finalists did to them during the France 1998 FIFA World Cup qualifiers where Stars shocked the Desert Foxes 3-1 in Nairobi on June 2 before going on to restrict the hosts to a 1-0 victory in Algiers on June 14 that sealed a shocking 3-2 win on aggregate for Kenya.
Algeria, who made national history at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when they made the knockout stages for the first time ever in their fourth appearance at the global Mundial before losing 2-1 after extra time to eventual champions Germany, were ranked the 46th in the FIFA rankings when they were humbled by the East Africans.
In Egypt, the intense football rivalry between Kenya and Tanzania that travels back to the inaugural Gossage Cup - the oldest regional tournament in Africa now known as CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup - in 1926 will play out in front of a continental audience for a maiden time.
Therefore, on June 30, long-suffering Kenyan football fans will paint the entire nation red, green and white when their beloved team opens their Egypt 2019 campaign against the Desert Foxes before taking on regional archenemies Taifa Stars four days later.
French head coach Sebastien Migne and his charges will round off their Group C fixtures on July 1 with arguably the sternest test against Senegal, the 2002 AFCON silver medalists in a match that could decide the winners of Group C.
Since the outcome of the draw, AFCON fever in the notoriously underachieving but football mad nation has reached a crescendo, with conversation around the possible fate of Stars in Egypt dominating mainstream and social media.
In fact, some football figures at home and elsewhere in Africa have already tagged Stars as the dark horses of Group C, with high optimism that Kenya can stir the pot and clinch a place in the knockout phases either by finishing among the top two or as one of the best third placed team from across all pools of the expanded 24-team competition.
Critics on the other hand, argue that Stars do not possess the quality required to outwit the might of Senegal and second favourites Algeria underlining their fiercely contested regional derby against Tanzania can go either way.
Musa Otieno, the retired defender who captained Stars at their last AFCON tournament 15 years ago in Tunisia urged the current side to leave nothing to chance if they harbour hopes of announcing their return to the tournament with a bang.
"Group C is not easy; it's actually very tough and challenging. Any team can progress to the next round. We will play Senegal who are among the best teams in the continent.
"Our match against Tanzania will be a derby, so we have to be very cautious because the neighbours are out to earn the regional bragging rights," said Otieno who made his name at the heart of South African side Sanlam Santos defense challenged.
Current Stars captain, Victor Wanyama of English heavyweights Tottenham Hotspur FC, ex-Chinese side Guizhou Hengfeng striker, Michael Olunga and Belgium based midfielder Ayub Timbe are among the notable players with the potential of making an impact for their country in Egypt.
"Senegal have Sadio Mane and Harambee Stars have Wanyama, I think the fear will be cancelled out. I believe Wanyama's presence will be a big morale booster to Kenya in their clash with Tanzania who are their fiercest rivals," retired Namibia international goalkeeper, Ronnie Kanalelo said on African satellite pay television, SuperSport after the Cairo draw.
Feared Senegal standout marksman Mane has excelled as the focal point of 18-time English league winners, Liverpool FC this season, with 17 goals in 29 appearances in the league and three in eight in the UEFA Champions League.
Kanalelo has previous history with Stars, having played a starring role when Namibia punched a memorable ticket for their first ever AFCON finals at Burkina Faso 1998 behind Cameroon from a qualifying group that had Kenya and Gabon.
Namibia completed a smash and grabbed 1-0 victory in Nairobi on June 21, 1997 in a match where their goal-keeping hero and former captain made a string of outstanding saves to deny Kenya who created 35 scoring chances on target in the penultimate round of the qualifiers before a 1-1 draw at home to Gabon sent them to Burkina Faso.
Speaking on the same terrestrial channel, retired Nigeria international, Victor Ikpeba, who was in the feared Super Eagles squad that was held to a 1-1 draw in Nairobi during a France 98 World Cup qualifier in what was branded as an upset warned the Group C favorites to be wary of Kenya.
"Senegal and Algeria should have reasons to be afraid, from what we saw in the qualifiers Harambee Stars are no longer underdogs in Africa," the former striker who won the Atlanta 1996 Olympics gold medal and the 1994 AFCON title with Nigeria cautioned.
While most agree Kenya has promise to deliver an upset or two in Egypt, Otieno who played for Stars from 1993 to 2009, earning a record 105 international caps in the process, called on the country's football chiefs to refrain from scuttling their AFCON chances by mismanaging the squad.
One of the reasons Stars have failed to hit the heights a country of their talent deserves is poor handling of the team with unpaid allowances and bonuses besides skewed squad selections top of the malpractice list.
"During our time, motivation was a problem and we did not receive even allowances," he added.
"However, we did our best and I feel honoured to have steered the team to Tunisia despite the problems we underwent. The federation has done its part by paying the players, and motivation is high," Otieno said.
To their credit, perhaps having learned bitter lessons from the past the sitting Football Kenya Federation (FKF) administration led by Nick Mwendwa has strived to ensure the players and coaches are paid their allowances in their 2019 AFCON qualifying run.
The team is scheduled to travel to France for a three-week training camp in May with the domestic league and cup calendar abridged to end earlier to ensure home players in Migne's plans are free to join their foreign based contingent to prepare for the finals.