Engin Firat casts net wider in search of formidable Harambee Stars team

Engin Firat

Harambee Stars head coach Engin Firat addresses a press conference at Two Rivers Mall in Nairobi on March 19, 2024 ahead of the Four Nations tournament set for Malawi. 

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Firat is strict and straight firing and does not shy away from courting controversy.
  • The 53-year-old Turk has dreams of taking Harambee Stars to the World Cup.

Harambee Stars’ Turkish coach, Engin Firat, stands out for many reasons.

He is a strict and straight firing tactician, who does not shy away from courting controversy.

His press briefings are rather unique. Almost always, he turns up with a projector and writing materials that he uses to explain his points.

The 53-year-old Turk has dreams of taking Harambee Stars to the World Cup.

Meanwhile, he has already written history by becoming the first Stars coach to call up the most number of Kenyans with mixed nationality in an effort to forge a formidable team.

Since his appointment in 2021, the Turk has called up nine players who would have the option of playing for another country because of their parentage.

The players are defenders Daniel Anyembe, born to a Kenyan father and Danish mother; Viborg Nabilai Kabunguchy, who was born in the United States of America; Vincent Harper who was born in Kenya but migrated to England, Ismael Gonzalez whose father is Kenyan but his mother is Spanish, and striker Jonah Ayunga, born in England to a Kenyan father and English mother.

The others are Alfred Scrivens, whose father is English but with Kenyan mother, England-based midfielder Clarke Oduor, Wilkims Ochieng, who has represented Belgium at youth level, and US-based Philip Mayaka.

Ayunga, 26, is the latest player to earn maiden Stars’ call-up, as Firat seeks to build a competitive national team that will also fight for African Cup of Nations qualification.

Travelled to Malawi

The striker is part of the 23-man Kenyan squad that travelled to Malawi on Thursday for a four-nation tournament that also involves the home nation, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

“This is a great opportunity, hopefully I will impress the coach and play in the tournament. My focus is to give my best in the tournament and earn myself the right to come back in June,” said Ayunga, who plays for Saint Mirren FC in the Scottish Premiership.

Captain Michael Olunga, Benson Omala and John Avire are the other strikers in the Stars squad.

Firat said last year that the Kenyan leagues did not have enough quality players and he would thus try to convince players with Kenyan parentage abroad to accept to play for Harambee Stars.

“There are some high-profile players with Kenyan roots, but to convince them to play for Kenya is another story,” said the coach.

Engin Firat

Harambee Stars coach Engin Firat gives instructions to his players during a training session at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani Annex on November 13, 2023.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“After March, I will travel to Europe to talk to some of the boys there but this needs time. It cannot go through with one call because you have to explain to them, and show your personal trust to them. It is a very delicate situation but if we have a good start, and find everybody, then for sure we will have some surprising players,” he said.

As he ensnared these players Firat said on Tuesday that lack of a proper scouting structure in the country was impeding talent identification.

Anyembe, Scrivens and Ochieng were first called to Kenyan camp in March last year ahead of Stars’ friendly match against Iran in Tehran.

Right-back Anyembe, 25, plays for Danish top flight side Viborg. He has appeared 20 times for Denmark at Under-17 and Under-23 level.

He made his international debut for Stars in their 2-1 win over Qatar in a friendly match in September.

Scriven, 26, who plies his trade with Norway’s IL Hodd, did make the cut for the Malawi tour.

Ochieng, 21, who plays for Koper in the Slovenian Prva Liga has represented Belgium at youth level. He was an unused substitute in Kenya's friendly match against Iran.

Kabunguchy, 26, who plays for Orlando City B in the Major League Soccer Next Pro, wore Kenya colours for the first time on November as he helped Harambee Stars crush Seychelles 5-0 in a 2026 World Cup Group “F” qualifier at the Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan.

He was introduced late in the second-half while Harper, 23, who currently plays for Exeter City in League One, was an unused substitute in Kenya's 2-2 friendly draw with Russia in October at Mardan Sports Complex in Turkey.

Oduor, 24, who plays for Bradford City in EFL League Two, was first called up by former coach Francis Kimanzi in October 2020.

Under Firat, he came in as a substitute in the 1-0 loss to South Sudan in September last year at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani in Nairobi.

Firat said he would call up as many players as possible and create a big pool of internationals.

“We will try some new faces and some new options because for me it is still the process of making a team. Football is not all about 11 players,” he said.

According to Fifa rules, any player who has not featured either in full or part in any official competition as a senior is eligible to play for a new representative team.

But the player must meet one of the following rules -- be born in the territory of the relevant association, one of his/her biological parents or grandparents must have been born in the territory of the relevant association, has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant association.

Will this new strategy of looking beyond the borders work for Kenya that has steadily slide down the Fifa world ranking to now lie at a lowly 211? Time will tell.