In Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi, the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (Cecafa) boasted four representatives at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, marking a significant upturn in the zone’s participation at the continent’s high table.
Contextually, this was a major reason for celebration.
Cecafa has struggled to compete with the continent’s other regions at the Nations Cup.
The only two African champions to come from the zone—Ethiopia (1962) and Sudan (1970)—are from Northeast Africa and distant memories, while the 14 tournaments prior to 2019 have produced only seven qualifiers from the area.
Indeed, since Uganda were the runners-up in 1978—pipped to the title by Ghana—East Africa has never produced a semifinalist, let alone a genuine contender.
No East African side had ever progressed from the group stage following the tournament’s expansion in 1992, while until Uganda’s progress this year, Sudan’s 2012 generation were Cecafa’s only representation in the knockouts.
However, this year, there was reason for optimism.
Burundi qualified for the first time, progressing ahead of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon, no less, while Tanzania and Kenya returned after significant absences.
The Harambee Stars last featured in 2004, while the Taifa Stars haven’t been present among the continent’s biggest sides since 1980.
It was little wonder that qualification for this quartet prompted talk of an East African football renaissance, with Uganda coach Sebastien Desabre, among others, lauding the improvement in the region’s teams.
However, the tournament proper has brought harsh realities.
Despite being pooled alongside fellow debutants Madagascar, Burundi were eliminated after claiming zero points—and failing to score—in their three matches.
Tanzania, too, were sent packing without a single point.
Taifa Stars fans may point to their tricky group, and it’s worth noting that they led Kenya twice in their pair’s East African derby on matchday two.
Kenya, in truth, were fortunate to still be in the running after their three group matches, although they too were eliminated after results in other pools meant they weren’t among the top four third-placed teams following the conclusion of the Group Stage.
The Harambee Stars didn’t truly represent themselves as they ought to have done at the Nations Cup, and injuries—and selection decisions—certainly cost them the chance to make a bigger impact.
However, while they were outclassed by Algeria and Senegal—at least after their hour-long resolve was broken—they were perhaps flattered by being pooled alongside Tanzania, which gave them the opportunity to take three points and remain in the hunt.
Would they be departing with a win under their belt if they’d been drawn against a stronger Pot Four team?
The resume of Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania’s performance in Egypt doesn’t make for positive reading; nine games played, one win (against another East African team), and eight defeats is a poor return.
Offensively, while Tanzania caught the eye, they appeared naive defensively, while Kenya were among the bottom five teams both in terms of expected goals conceded and expected goals.
It’s hard not to feel that the trio were flattered by the tournament’s expansion to 24 teams, giving a false perception of their growth or otherwise.
Tanzania toiled through one of the easier qualifying groups, taking just one point from two games against Lesotho, and only qualified due to a 3-0 victory in Dar es Salaam against a Uganda team who were without several key players and had already guaranteed their ticket to the tournament.
They, like Burundi, only advanced as runners-up from their group, while Kenya benefited both from the tournament expansion and the disqualification—mid-qualifying campaign—of Sierra Leone.
Admittedly, the Harambee Stars defeated Ghana 1-0 during qualification, but this is not a vintage Black Stars team, and Sebastien Migne’s side demonstrated little of that defensive rigour in Egypt.
Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi’s qualification for the Nations Cup brought optimism, and prompted talk of renaissance, but the reality is that they’re still a world away from being as competitive as they ought to be at this level.
However, there is reason for hope, and it comes in the form of Uganda—both today and tomorrow.
Unlike their Cecafa brothers, the Cranes have progressed—and from a tricky group no less.
Sebastien Desabre knew that four points would be enough from their opening two games, leaving the match with hosts Egypt to be of little consequence, and while they were helped by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s medical-report fiasco before the tournament—and were able to catch the Leopards cold—few could argue that they didn’t deserve to go through.
There’s clear progression with this Uganda side.
Previously, Milutin Sredojevic played to their strengths and made then organised, disciplined and competitive, while Desabre has subsequently made them more expansive and adventurous.
The Serbian convinced the government of the benefits of a successful national side who could truly be the pride of the country, and the whole set-up has been professionalised as a result.
Uganda defeated Egypt during World Cup qualification, and have now reached the knockouts of the Nations Cup for the first time in 40 years.
Yet they, like their Cecafa brothers this time around, fell at the first hurdle upon their return to the tournament in 2017.
'Micho' may have ended their wait to return to the competition, but Uganda struggled to offer much in Gabon, scoring just once—against Mali—and taking just one point—also against Les Aigles.
After that elimination, people may have seen it as the high watermark for the Ugandan game, and questioned whether they would ever be truly competitive at the tournament.
Only two-and-a-half years later, they’re into the knockouts and preparing for a showdown with Senegal—one which they may well win.
If Kenya, Tanzania, and even Burundi, are to ensure that their appearance in 2019 is a launchpad for further success—and for the growth of the region as a whole—then they must take note of Uganda’s example.