East Africa collectively winced as their teams were shamed consistently by better sides. Ethiopia and Sudan were swept aside by better teams, crushed by the giant elephants by obscenely large margins.
Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania were nowhere to be found, having missed out on qualification to the prestigious tournament. It was a massive headache for East African football, and CECAFA did not have any Advil.
The competition in the African Nations Cup was diverse. A North African side and a West African team butted heads in the final as Central Africa looked to sneak wins past the favourites. Southern African sides showed their promise for the future. And East Africa…
…CECAFA sent only two representatives to the African Nations Cup.
The first, Ethiopia, barely qualified out of Group K in African Nations Cup qualification. Their last game saw the Walias getting hammered by a dominant Ivory Coast. Luckily for the Ethiopians, Madagascar tied with Niger, giving Ethiopia second place and subsequent qualification. Fans of the Ethiopian team were optimistic. Although they were not contenders by any means, the Ethiopians would have a chance to show how good their players were.
The second, Sudan, qualified out of Group C in second place ahead of South Africa. The whole qualification phase was super tight, boiling all down to a do-or-die matchday six. Sudan, needing a win to advance, easily defeated South Africa 2-0. After the final whistles were blown, an ecstatic Sudanese crowd whooped. It was a celebration, but it was a sign of hope. Was this the start of a new era of Sudanese football, and were the days of complacency finally behind them?
East Africa accumulated, combined, two points and three goals in the tournament proper. It was pathetic, miserable, yet somewhat expected. From their missed opportunities in 2018’s World Cup qualification to CECAFA’s collective failure in the 2021 African Nations Cup qualification, they are disappointing fans with their result.
“It is not about selecting players and holding them in the training camp and assuming that just because you have been in the camp, you can get a World Cup slot. It is a real journey, a journey that requires joint effort,” former Kenyan national team coach Francis Kimanzi reasoned.
After Sudan and Ethiopia failed while smearing CECAFA’s credibility again, questions were posed. The most-asked?
Why is East Africa so far behind when it comes to African football?
Training and tolerance
It all boils down to a lack of proper facilities and patience. East Africa has the talent to go toe-to-toe with Africa’s heavyweights, are not many opportunities to make it big as a footballer in East Africa as in the West.
“You simply won’t find elite footballers in any large numbers in East Africa,” professor Tim Noakes told Guardian columnist Brian Oliver in a 2004 article.
“European clubs are desperate to find ‘strong, muscular, aggressive types’, according to one scout, and they look in any part of the world where they can find them,” Oliver explained. Thus, it was no surprise that East Africans rarely joined European clubs. It is more of the same eighteen years later.
One notable difference is former Spurs defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama. The Kenyan stands at six feet and can be compared to a brick wall on defense. Now a Montreal player, he is a trailblazer for East African football. Center-backs Joseph Okumu and Youssouf Ndayishimiye are following in Wanyama’s steps.
But beyond a couple dozen more players, the list stops there. It is because East Africa does not have the facilities of its Western counterparts. European scouts players like Erling Haaland and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Much training is needed to mold East African players in their image.
Yet East Africa’s inability to stick to a vision for the long-term may hurt CECAFA even more than the lack of facilities. Switching from coach to coach makes for difficult times, so boards and fans need to be more cautious when rallying for a manager’s removal.
Case in point? Uganda’s failure to qualify for the African Nations Cup. Following a series of humiliations in the African Nations Championship, then-Uganda manager Johnathan McKinstry was sacked 17 months before his contract expired. The Ugandan governing football body tossed the keys to assistant coach Abdallah Mubiru in hopes of salvaging a worrying African Nations Cup qualification campaign.
Mubiru’s side only earned a point out of a possible six in his tenure, costing the Cranes an African Nations Cup bid.
Ethiopia and Sudan
Yet meanwhile, in the African Nations Cup, Ethiopia and Sudan did well for a nation of their stature.
Sudan had a winless record that stretched from their 2-0 loss to Morocco. No one expected them to do good. They started their campaign with a scoreless draw against Guinea-Bissau. They netted their only goal against Nigeria via Al-Hilal attacker Walieldin Khidir’s late penalty a game later. They ended their African Nations Cup stint with a whimper, losing 1-0 against Egypt. The African Nations Cup brought a rare sense of peace to Sudanese fans watching from home: something rare in the war-ravaged country.
Ethiopian striker Dawa Hotessa scored early in a 4-1 rout against Cameroon. Legendary attacker Getaneh Kebede equalized against Burkina Faso to secure the Walias only point a game later. Although their tenure in Cameroon was pretty pathetic, it brought hope to a nation torn apart by wartime.
A glimmer of hope
“Recent developments in East African football show promise,” QuartzAfrica writer Priya Sippy reported. Hope. Although East Africa recently came off a big disappointment in the African Nations Cup, the seeds of hope were still safe in the soil. With numerous leagues earning investments and increased attention from European sides, East Africa has the chance to finally showcase its talent.
“French football club Olympique Lyon entered a deal with Rova Sports Academy in Kenya to support amateur footballers to get to a professional level. Tanzania’s league has seen increased investment,” Sippy listed. But even more astounding is the fact that East African youth are shining.
Last year, the Africa U-20 Cup of Nations sent a signal that East Africa was preparing for the future. Although they played dismally, the Tanzanian U-20 team’s qualification was a big accomplishment on its own. Uganda made a Cinderella run in the tournament, beating sides like Tunisia and Burkina Faso to earn silver.
Steven Sserwadda, a New York Bulls II midfielder, headlined Uganda’s lethal team. Described as a nifty player, it is likely that he will breakthrough into the first team soon. Genk U21 player Kelvin John and Novatus Miroshi, a Maccabi Tel Aviv loanee, were the headliners of the Tanzanian side. It will be comforting to CECAFA that they have young prospects to rely on for the future.
In the CAF Champions League and the CAF Confederations Cup, East Africa hosts clubs counted as sleeper candidates to win trophies. Tanzanian club Simba SC recently triumphed over Ivorian club ASEC and rest at the top of their group. Sudanese clubs Al-Hilal and Al-Merrikh pulled out shocking results in the Champions League. East African clubs have the potential to disrupt the African football hierarchy. The question is, can they?
East Africa looking to bloom in time for World Cup
Come March, the main focus of African football will be on the vital home-and-away ties that will seal World Cup qualification. Preliminary qualifiers for the 2023 African Nations Cup will unsurprisingly go under the radar. But for CECAFA and others, the first step towards the African Nations Cup will be vital.
Four CECAFA members will play in the March two-legged ties, a third of the entire confederation. Success in the preliminary matches will be vital to boosting East Africa’s chances at securing a bid.
Although there will be no East African representatives in the Qatar-hosted World Cup, federations can look forward to youth competitions. Bolstering the club sides competing in continent-wide competitions is also a must.
Even though the African Nations Cup may have been disappointing for CECAFA, the seeds of East African football are still ready to be planted. They will bloom soon with time, care, and the right amount of patience. If East Africa has all of those, you could see players like Wanyama and Kenyan legend and retired Inter player McDonald Mariga join European teams.