For the first time in history, four East African national football teams qualified for Total 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) final, a tournament to be played in Egypt from June 21 to July 19.
Since the inception of the competition 62 years ago, the region will be represented by four countries in Ugandan, Tanzanian, Burundian and Kenyan national teams.
Never in the history of the competition have the four nations, three being the original founding members of the East Africa Community Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania played in the same Africa Nations Cup.
Considered Africa’s weakest footballing region in terms of standards of the game, the four teams from CECAFA region will play at the biennial championship at the same time.
“Previously we were the whipping boys. We struggled to have a team in the finals. Today we have four,” CECAFA general secretary Nicholas Musonye told Kenyan publication Daily Nation.
“We have to build on this and ensure that in future we produce a continental champion,” he added.
Uganda Cranes remain the most successful East African national football team as far as the Africa Cup of Nations is concerned. They finished fourth at their first appearance in 1962 and went the way to the finals in 1978 where they lost 2-0 to Ghana in final.
The Cranes have also played at the finals of 1968, 1974, 1976 and most recently in 2017, they were knocked out in the group stage of the competition.
In the run-up to the 2019 finals, the Cranes topped their group that also had fellow East Africans, Tanzania who finished second. The other teams were Lesotho and Cape Verde.
The foundation set by Serbian coach Milutin “Micho” Sredejovic played a key role in the team’s qualification campaign, a job that was finished by current coach Sebastien Desabre. The Frenchman retained a chunk of players that broke the 37-year jinx to qualify for the 2017 Afcon in Gabon.
South Africa-based shot-stopper Dennis Onyango brought stability in goal, with Nicholas Wadada, Godfrey Walusimbi, Hassan Wasswa and Murushid Jjuuko completed the back line in a number of qualifiers.
“This has been the highest point of my coaching career,” said the 42-year-old Desabre, who has enjoyed coaching stints with clubs in Cote d’Íviore, Cameroon, Tunisia, Angola, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
For Kenya, this will be their sixth appearance in the competition, the last one being in Tunisia in 2004 where the Harambee Stars, under coach Jacob “Ghost” Mulee. Then, they won their first ever game, beating Burkina Faso 3-0 in the final group match. Before 2004, they qualified in 1972, 1988, 1990 and 1992.
This time round, Kenya edged Ghana and Ethiopia at home to finish second in the group but were also partly aided by the disqualification of Sierra Leone from the competition by CAF due to government interference in football matters.
“We have done our best to compete at this level. We faced several challenges along the way, so this is a fantastic result,” Kenya’s coach Sebastien Migne told Daily Nation after his side’s qualification.
For Taifa Stars, their last time to feature at AFCON was in 1980 in Nigeria, it took them 39 years to return to the competition. Coach Emmanuel Amunike, who was appointed in August last year, was on the wheel as Tanzanian achieved the feat.
Tanzania edged Uganda 3-0 in the final group game in Dar es Salaam to qualify as Group L runners-up, a result that was aided by the barren draw in Cape Verde involving the hosts and Lesotho.
Taifa Stars foundation is attached on a strong youth academy of Azam football club which plays in Tanzania’s Vodacom Premier League.
Azam system nurtured close to 12 players in Tanzania’s 18-man squad that defeated Uganda Cranes 3-0 in the return leg match of their final Group L match.
Goalkeeper Aishi Manula, Erasto Nyoni, Aggrey Morris, Shaban Iddi Chilunda, Farid Musa, Himid Mao, Michael Gadiel, Yahya Said and John Bocco. Mudathir Yahya, Shomary Kapombe and Mnata Metacha are the others who passed through the Azam system.
Tanzania President John Pombe Magufuli gifted each Taifa Stars player and members of the technical staff with a piece of land and a US$5,000 thanking them for qualifying.
“We know we are not the title favourites, but that does not mean that we are not capable of doing well in Egypt,” Taifa Stars head coach Emmanuel Amunike told journalists in Tanzania.
But the pride of place will always go to Burundi, the smallest economy in the region, but will be one of the new kids on the continental block when the Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in June.
The Burundians have all reasons to celebrate as their national team, Intamba mu rugamba (the swallows) made a historic qualification to the Africa Cup of Nations.
Nobody had given Burundi any chance of qualifying when the draws were done considering they were pitted against Gabon led by Arsenal star Pierre Emerick Aubemayang and Mali, perennial campaigners in the competition.
But Burundi collected points away in Mali and Gabon and added the two wins at home and away against South Sudan to make qualification possible.
Burundi only needed a point to qualify after thrashing South Sudan 5-2 in Juba last November to remain in second place of group C.
Mali had already qualified with a game in hand topping the group with 11 points, that left Gabon needing a win against second-placed Burundi to qualify.
“Having a patriotic coach (Niyungeko) who understands his players helped us achieve this historic moment,” Burundi captain Karim Nizigiyimana told Nation Sport.
“Most of us play in foreign leagues which partly contributed because we brought in international experience which is vital in such qualifiers,” he added.
The 24 countries that will play at the Afcon are; Egypt (hosts), Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Madagascar and Mali.
The others are Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Benin and South Africa.