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History-making Gor Mahia put Kenyan football on African map

by Kimathi Kamau NAIROBI (Xinhua) -- Having defied all odds to make the CAF Confederations Cup quarterfinals, Kenyan club Gor Mahia FC can dare to dream of adding a second African club football trophy to their loaded cabinet.

For the second time in successive seasons, the record 17-time domestic champions were relegated to the second-tier continental tournament after being eliminated in the first round of the CAF Champions League by Nigerian outfit Lobi Stars FC.

Under Cypriot-born Turkish head coach Hassan Oktay, who took time to be accepted by the club’s demanding supporters when he succeeded the popular and charismatic two-time title winner Dylan Kerr at the start of the season, Gor made the last eight in the most bizarre of fashions.

Needing to beat visitors Petro Atletico de Luanda to qualify, the Kenyan team bulldozed an extraordinary 1-0 victory in Nairobi on Sunday, despite playing with nine men for the last 26 minutes at the 60,000 seater Kasarani stadium.

Midfield lynchpin and Kenya international Ernest Wendo was the first to be sent off, before Oktay talked himself into a red card when the home boss vehemently protested what he deemed to be biased officiating by Moroccan referee Redouane Jiyed in the first half.

Undaunted, the Kenyan titleholders came out in the second half to take the lead through a penalty from Rwanda international Jacques Tuyisenge, who notched his fifth of the campaign in the 58th minute.

Ugandan wing back Shafik Batambuze, who has been instrumental in supplementing the attack with his pinpoint deliveries from the flank, then received his marching orders for a second yellow card.

Gor withstood a siege on their goal from the Angolans and held on to record a historic victory that saw them join Cairo giants Zamalek FC in the quarterfinals from Group D.

"My team showed me and the entire country something extraordinary.

"I knew they had the fight but the extent to which they pushed it was nothing short of amazing," the ecstatic Oktay said after the nail-biting win that came at a huge cost.

Gor will play at least the first leg of the Confederations Cup quarterfinals without Oktay in the dugout, and will also be missing Wendo and Batambuze as well as lethal marksman Tuyisenge and captain Harun Shakava, who will be suspended for accumulating five yellow cards in the tournament.

But that is a problem for another day for the Kenyans, who are hoping to enhance their rich history by tasting continental glory for the second time, having won the now-defunct African Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987.

That time, Gor shocked Tunisian giants Esperance de Tunis in the final to lift the trophy on the away goals rule, following a 2-2 away draw that was followed by a 1-1 tie at home.

"I want to thank our thousands of passionate fans who heeded my call and came out to show their support.

"We couldn’t have done it without you," Oktay said, hailing the club’s devoted supporters who helped turn Kasarani into a fortress.

Apart from their troubles in the field, Gor pulled the victory out of the hat despite a simmering dispute between players and management over delayed allowances and bonuses - an all-too-familiar tale that has blighted the team in the past few seasons.

Oktay was forced to travel for a league game on March 13 with only 15 players, after some of his biggest stars reportedly declined to travel unless they were paid their dues, though the official line is that the missing players were rested for the Atletico clash.

Gor went on to come from 1-0 down to sink Kakamega Homeboyz FC 2-1 in a show of their ability to dig deep and pull off a win in the face of adversity, with further reports suggesting the players considered boycotting the game altogether.

Kenya record goalscorer Dennis Oliech, who joined the club in January and has since made a resounding impact, then allegedly wrote to the club to terminate his contract over non-payment, before he was talked out of quitting the team by club patron and former Kenya Prime Minister Raila Odinga on March 15.

Add to that a punishing schedule that has seen the team play an average of one game every three days, and their odds to become the first Kenyan side to make the revamped Confederations Cup quarterfinals looked woefully short.

But Gor are not your ordinary side, and their hunger to surpass the achievement of the revered 1987 side by bringing home the African title has inspired the squad to surpass all expectations.

Qualification to the quarterfinals has netted the club a cash prize 380,000 U.S. dollars from CAF, the governing body of African football, with the club having made 27,000 U.S. dollars for making the group stages.

Gor and Zamalek will join RS Berkane and Hassania Agadir of Morocco, Tunisian sides CS Sfaxien and Etoile de Sahel, Al Hilal of Sudan, and Zambia’s Nkana Red Devils in the first knockout phase of the competition, with home and away legs to be played between April 7 and May 26.

Gor will know their next opponents after Wednesday’s draw in Cairo.

           

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