OPINION: Qualifying for U17 Women's World Cup is Kenya's gateway to African supremacy

By |

If Kenya's Junior Starlets edge Burundi in the two-legged day, they will book a spot in the prestigious FIFA U17 Women's World Cup for the first time

As the clock ticks away, anticipation builds for the upcoming do-or-die 2024 FIFA U17 Women's World Cup qualification matches featuring the Kenyan national women's U17 team (christened Junior Starlets) and their Burundi counterparts.

The two-legged tie's aggregate winner qualifies their nation for its first-ever participation in a FIFA-organized global football tournament at the junior and senior levels.

On June 7, 2024, the Junior Starlets will travel to Burundi for the first leg of that encounter, and on June 14, 2024, they will return home to host the second leg.

Kenya Women's U17 has had a smooth sailing to this stage of the competition. They received a bye to the second round of the qualifiers after their opponents, DR Congo Women’s U17, withdrew. Following a 0-0 draw away to Ethiopia Women's U17 in the first leg of their Second Round tie, they secured an emphatic 3-0 victory at home, securing a Final Round tie with Burundi Women's U17.

Even though it is the expectation of every Kenyan that the Junior Starlets should easily prevail against Burundi Women’s U17, it would be dangerous to underrate them as they seem to pack more punch than Ethiopia Women’s U17.

While Kenya Women’s U17 did not compete in the First Round due to the withdrawal of DR Congo Women’s U17, Burundi Women’s U17 defeated Botswana Women’s U17 6-1 on aggregate in the First Round after following up a 4-1 home victory with a 2-0 away win. The two matches took place in Gaborone, Botswana, and during their two-leg Second Round matches against Djibouti Women's U17 in Addis Ababa, Burundi Women's U17 felt even more at home in the Ethiopian capital. They followed an 18-0 “home” win with a 6-0 “away” triumph for an aggregate victory of 24-0.

To this stage, the nature of Kenya Women's U17 and Burundi Women's U17 highlights what has become a staple of women's junior football in Africa: teams receiving byes or winning matches by cricket scores.

The Burundi Women's U17 team's victory over Djibouti Women's U17 and Kenya Women's U17's bye to the Second Round, following the withdrawal of DR Congo Women's U17, demonstrates the scarcity of competitive teams in women's junior football in Africa, as well as the sport's neglect and lack of seriousness.

At least that is what is evident in the preliminary stages of FIFA Women’s U17 World Cup qualifiers on the African continent. FIFA even raised concern about teams withdrawing from qualifiers in 2013.

Over the years, this aspect of women's football at the junior level has guaranteed some countries on the continent easy passage to the FIFA Women's U17 World Cup, but due to a lack of seriousness on its part, Kenya has never taken advantage of it.

Ghana Women’s U17 and Nigeria Women’s U17 have featured in six of the seven editions of the FIFA Women’s U17 World Cup hosted so far. They are Africa's most-represented team in that competition, among the legion of eight countries from the continent that have featured in the FIFA Women's U17 World Cup. The others are Cameroon (2), Gambia (1), Morocco (2), South Africa (2), Tanzania (1), and Zambia (1).

The West African duo also holds the record for Africa’s best performance in the competition, with third-place finishes for Ghana Women’s U17 and Nigeria Women’s U17 in the 2012 and 2022 editions hosted in Azerbaijan and India, respectively.

While some countries blamed their withdrawal on a lack of finances, rarely has that reason been used to explain Kenya’s failure to honour FIFA Women’s U17 qualification matches.

The Dominican Republic will host the 8th edition of the FIFA Women's World Cup this year, but Kenya is only entering a team in the FIFA Women's U17 qualifiers for the second time.

Kenya did not enter a team in the 2008 New Zealand competition and withdrew from the qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA Women's U17 World Cup, which Trinidad and Tobago hosted.

In 2012, Kenya entered a team, but a 5-0 aggregate loss to Nigeria Women's U17 in the First Round killed the dream of featuring at the 2012 FIFA Women's U17 World Cup in Azerbaijan.

Despite entering a team for the qualifiers of the 2014 FIFA Women’s U17 World Cup, which Costa Rica hosted, Kenya Women’s U17 gave Equatorial Guinea Women’s U17 a walkover after they failed to travel to the match due to what FKF alleged was a communication breakdown between them and their Equatoguinean federation. Later, FKF's administrative lapse resulted in the delayed processing of players' passports.

FKF did not form a team for the 2016 FIFA Women's U17 World Cup qualifiers, which saw teams compete for a ticket to Jordan.

Kenyan representation was absent from the 2017 FIFA Women's U17 World Cup in Uruguay due to FKF's withdrawal from the qualifiers. They stated that they couldn't field a team because most of their players were preparing for their end-of-year exams during the scheduled qualification period.

In 2020, Kenya did not enter a team but that had no consequence; that year’s competition, which was scheduled to be held in India, was postponed to 2022. However, when 2022 came, Kenya could not participate in the qualifiers owing to a FIFA suspension.

Like Kenya Women’s U17, the qualification for the 2024 FIFA Women’s U17 World Cup is Burundi Women’s U17’s second attempt at qualifying for a global competition at this level.

Tanzania Women's U17 eliminated Burundi Women's U17 in the second round of the 2022 FIFA Women's U17 World Cup qualifiers. Tanzania Women's U17's qualification for the tournament in India underscored Kenya's significant neglect of women's football.

In 2006, FIFA conducted a survey that revealed Kenya had over 7 000 registered footballers, making it one of the highest in the world at the time. The number has definitely increased since then, but Kenyan women's absence from global football tournaments at both junior and senior levels should not have lasted that long.

Kenya Women U17 has an opportunity to change that trend in June 2024 with qualification to the 2024 FIFA Women's U17 World Cup. With FIFA recently announcing that the competition will be held annually and will expand to 24 teams, the onus is now on FKF to ensure that women's football in Kenya is elevated to a level where the country does not miss out on qualifying.

Currently, only three teams from Africa qualify for the FIFA Women’s U17 World Cup tournament, which comprises 16 teams.

However, the number will rise to five for the first expanded tournament in 2025, which Morocco will host. After 2025, the North African nation will also host four editions of the competition.

The Ministry of Sports has a deliberate and structured intention to improve the standards of youth football through the Talanta Hela program, which has U19 teams for boys and girls. Although the program's alignment with FKF's youth football projects remains unclear, the current state of women's youth football in Africa should serve as a wake-up call for both parties, highlighting the potential benefits for Kenya should Kenyan girls secure regular spots at the FIFA Women's U17 World Cup, beginning with a victory over Burundi Women's U17 next month.

Qualification to this year's FIFA Women's U17 World Cup presents Kenya’s best chance to establish itself as a powerhouse in women’s youth football in Africa, and over time, that can translate to global dominance as the senior women’s team also feels the ripple effect of that effort.

Reader comments

Live Updates