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2018 AWCON: Will Starlets change their pecking order in Ghana?

Kenya’s three internationals are expected to anchor team in Africa Women Cup of Nations.

Kenya’s women football has been on the rise since national team, Harambee Starlets, made their African Women Cup of Nations (AWCON) finals debut in Cameroon two years ago.

It remains to be seen if they can continue the good showing in the AWCON finals in Ghana from November 17 to December 1.

Despite losing all their group matches, the national side will have another chance to grace the continental tournament after Football Kenya Federation successfully lodged an appeal against former African champions Equatorial Guinea for fielding six ineligible players in their two-legged final qualification round.

The West African nation had won 3-2 on aggregate before the Confederation of African Football (CAF) upheld FKF’s appeal a few weeks ago.

Equatorial Guinea’s disqualification presented another great chance to the Kenyan players to showcase their talents to the continent and the world at large.

After years of negligect, women’s football is now making impressive strides, with a number of players making a breakthrough in Europe.

Three Harambee Starlets players recently returned to the country after the expiry of their short term (three-month) contract with Swedish Division 2 league side Dalhem IF.

The trio of Teresa Engesha, who turns up for FKF Women Premier League champions Vihiga Queens, Gaspo Youth winger Mary Kinuthia and Makolanders midfielder Christine Nafula were instrumental in their Swedish club’s relegation survival.

Dalhem IF finished third from the bottom in the 10-league team with 19 points, three points ahead of IFK Lindigo FK.

The three players were the first ever Kenyan women footballers to be contracted by the Swedish club.

During their stay in Sweden, they managed to score a combined 28 goals for Dalhem.

Despite their short stint in Sweden, the trio really enjoyed the experience of playing abroad.

The players shared their experience with Standard Sports upon their return to the country.

According to Nafula, the Swedish Division 2 league is more competitive, consistent and organised than the FKF Women Premier League.

“Despite being the lower league, the level of completion is high and also the consistency is massive. We played matches every weekend with all teams honouring their matches. I was impressed with how the league is managed,” said Nafula.

Harambee Starlets’ Teresa Engesha (left) drible ball past Cecilia Nengono of Equaitorial Guinea during AWCON qualifier at Kenyatta stadium Machakos County on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Despite joining the side in the second leg where they had played three matches and lost all of them, the experienced midfielder said their warm reception motivated them to push the team out of the relegation zone.

“The experience was great. We arrived in Sweden on a Thursday morning and had our first match on Saturday afternoon. All of us made it to the starting team. We enjoyed our debut with each of us scoring a goal. I scored one goal, Mary scored a brace while Teresa scored four times to inspire the team to huge 8-0 win,” said Nafula.

“Their warm reception made work easier for us. We were able to integrate well with our teammates from the first match and the technical bench was very supportive. In Kenya we have good footballers but if you get a chance to play professional football, give your best because the chances come once. There is no time for laxity. You need to give 100 per cent to prove that the opportunity you were given has been well utilised.”

Engesha, who recently got a call up to the Harambee Starlets, said despite having hard times to adapt to the weather, it was a good experience all the same.

“We faced challenges in communicating and adapting to the environment as well as their different approaches to matches. But with the help of our teammates and coaches, we settled down quickly and enjoyed life there. At the end of it all, we managed to avoid relegation,” said Engesha.

On her part, Kinuthia, one of the longest serving members of the national team, said Kenyan leagues have special interests compared to Sweden.

“Though we played in a lower league, that is a place that one can build on her career. Kenya needs to borrow a leaf from established and successful teams in women’s football. But bottom line is, we need to start from the grassroots,” said Kinuthia.

“Having a stable league where at least a player gets something to go home with at the end of the match is a big morale booster to the players.”

Former Kenyan international Robert Mambo, one of the assistant coaches at Dalhem, said they are considering offering the three players new contracts after helping the team avoid the drop.

“I think it has been a good experience and exposure for the girls both football-wise and lifestyle-wise. Their contribution was largely felt because they brought in confidence, new spirit and energy in the team. They had a big impact on our results having scored 28 goals in seven matches between them,” said Mambo.

Though the trio had attracted interest from a number of clubs, Mambo said they were working hard to ensure they gave them new lucrative deals.

“They got some offers from other teams but they have chosen to stay with the team ahead of the next season. They are good and talented footballers who can play at least one or two more levels up in the top league in this country,” he said.

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