Victor Wanyama determined to overcome painful World Cup absence
Victor Wanyama has conceded that it's 'painful' to not be taking part in Africa's World Cup qualifiers this week, but is optimistic that Stanley Okumbi is the man to lead Kenya back among the continent's elite.
The Harambee Stars dispatched Mauritius 5-2 on aggregate in the first round of CAF's World Cup qualifying programme, but a 2-1 defeat by Cape Verde over two legs in the second round - despite an opening 1-0 win in Nairobi - cost the East African heavyweights a spot in the ongoing group stage.
The loss also extends Kenya's wait for a maiden appearance at a World Cup -- and indeed their first major tournament since the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations.
"It's really painful because it's been my dream to one day feature in the World Cup," captain Wanyama told KweséESPN at an event to launch Spurs' partnership with LEAGOO. "This time it hasn't happened, so it's really painful to see that.
"It hasn't been easy," he added, of an international career that began when the Spurs man made his debut as a 15-year-old in 2007. "We don't have a lot of professional players.
"Still, you need to try and motivate [them] to come and show up on the pitch, because we have a young team," Wanyama added, demonstrating exactly why Okumbi once referred to him as a "big brother" for many of the squad's younger talents.
"A lot of players play in the local league so they've never been tested before in big international games," he added. "It's important to motivate them and to make them ready."
Despite an underwhelming international record for such a continental giant - Kenya is Africa's seventh most populous country with just under 50 million inhabitants - the Harambee Stars' fortunes have improved markedly since Okumbi took the reins - initially on an interim basis - in February 2016.
The local coach, whose previous coaching roles were stints with Kariobangi Sharks and Mathare United, replaced Scot Bobby Williamson, who was deemed too costly by federation president Nick Mwendwa, and immediately oversaw an improvement in the team's fortunes.
Despite initial media and fan criticism, and opening defeats by Guinea-Bissau, Kenya duly embarked on a 11-game unbeaten run in all competitions under Okumbi - including two eye-catching victories over the Democratic Republic of Congo -- and didn't lose until a shock Nations Cup qualifying reverse in Sierra Leone in June.
According to Wanyama, a desire to silence the critics was at the forefront of the squad's mind during their strong start to life under Okumbi.
"When you are a new manager you get that," Wanyama said of the criticism. "People don't know you that well and you don't always get the benefit of the doubt.
"He's done well so far, and we still have a long way to go."
The reserved Okumbi represents something of a symbol of the future for Football Kenya Federation President Mwendwa - also appointed in February 2016 - and vowed to give the national side an identity.
Under him, the team chase lost causes, express themselves individually and compete with the kind of belief that had too often been missing under Williamson.
"He's a great manager," Wanyama gushed. "He's brought in team spirit and everyone believes that every game is important.
"When we go out there everyone believes that we can achieve something," the 26-year-old added. "[He also brought] a bit of luck -- because we didn't have that much -- and also the winning mentality.
"The boys have changed a bit and we have a winning mentality now."
Kenya will have to fare without Wanyama, who will be absent for the upcoming friendlies during the international break as he recovers from a knee injury sustained in preseason, when they take on Mozambique on August 31.
While Africa's top sides battle for a spot in Russia next summer, the earliest the Stars can reach the World Cup is 2022, but Wanyama is optimistic that Okumbi is the man to help Kenya assert themselves in the continental field...beginning with AFCON qualification.
"He's done well so far and we still have a long way to go," the midfielder added. "We still need to work hard, to try and win, and to try and qualify for the African Cup."
Indeed, given the choice, Wanyama would rather plump for AFCON gold in Cameroon in 2019 than a spot at the World Cup.
"I'd rather win the AFCON first," he concluded, "and then the other one will come later!"
Ed Dove is the Soccer Editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @EddyDove.