Saruni earns first slot in Harambee Stars as Okumbi faces Congo in friendly

By alex wafula
Oct 04, 2021
  • Harambee Stars focus on building up for the Cecafa Senior Challenge championship in December. (Photo by Shutterspeed)

Building a team for the future is the focus for Stanley Okumbi, the Harambee Stars coach as he faces  Congo’s Red Devils on Tuesday night.

The team is out of contention in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, whose third round matches are being played this weekend. Instead Okumbi has his immediate focus on the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup at the end of the year.

For this friendly match, the coach named eight local-based players in his final squad of 19 players that travelled to Congo, with Ulinzi Stars’ goalkeeper James Saruni earning his first ever slot in the final team.

“This is a very important match because first it affects the FIFA rankings and secondly, we are looking to build a team for the future. We have AFCON 2019 and World Cup 2022 qualifiers coming up and most immediately we have CECAFA. Such matches will help us prepare the team better,” Okumbi noted.

He added the team will play two other high-profile matches before the year ends. Okumbi will be without skipper Victor Wanyama. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder could not get a flight in time to Congo after playing for his English club on Sunday against Manchester City.

“The best flight I got arrives in Lubumbashi midnight Monday and that means I won’t have enough time to rest especially after such a tough match over the weekend. I have asked the Federation to allow me not to come for this match,” Wanyama said.

Okumbi holds faith

Also missing is Belgium-based duo of Ayub Timbe and Johannah Omollo who are injured. But despite the absence of the three key figures, Okumbi holds faith the team will do well in Kinshasa. He has called up Finland-based Amos Ekhalie as a replacement for Wanyama.

Ekhalie who turns out for IFK Mariehamn in the Finland top tier will be making his first ever trip with the national team. Anthony Akumu, Ismail Gonzalez and Rama Salim are expected to fill up in midfield.

“It is a tough match because Congo is one of the best teams in Africa with very good players. It will be a good opportunity for us to measure up and see what we need to do to improve,” Okumbi explained.

Florent Ibenge, the Congo head coach has named a strong side for the friendly to prepare for their World Cup qualifier against Libya four days later.

A huge chunk of the squad that won the African Nations Championship in February have been included.

Foreign based stars including Everton’s Yannick Bolasie, Hull City’s Diumerci Mbokani and Newcastle United’s Chansel Mbemba have also been included.

Harambee Stars squad for Congo friendly

Goalkeepers: Bonface Oluoch (Gor Mahia), James Saruni (Ulinzi Stars); Defenders: Haron Shakava, Eric Ouma (Gor Mahia), Joakins Atudo (Posta Rangers), David Owino (Zesco, Zambia), David Ochieng (New York Cosmos, USA), Brian Mandela (Maritzburg United, South Africa), Aboud Omar (Slavia Sofia, Bulgaria); Midfielders: Ismael Gonzalez (Las Palmas, Spain), Anthony Akumu (Zesco United, Zambia), Victor Majid (Chemelil Sugar), Amos Ekhalie (IFK Mariehamn, Finland), Rama Salim (MFK Topvar Topolcany, Slovakia), Eric Johanna (Mathare United), Paul Were (Archanaikos, Greece); Strikers: Jesse Were (Zesco United, Zambia), John-Mark Makwatta (Ulinzi Stars), Michael Olunga (IF Djugardens, Sweden).