When the whistle is blown in June in Cairo for the first match of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Afcon, East Africans will be proudly living a historic moment in the region’s football history.
The tournament will be held from June 21 to July 19.
For the first time since the inception of the competition, the region will be represented by four countries: 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.
This time around, the three have made it, albeit in contrasting style while the biggest achiever is Burundi, qualifying for the first time ever. Tanzania is making a comeback after a 39-year hiatus.
Kenya will be making a sixth appearance in the competition, the last one being in Tunisia in 2004 where the Harambee Stars, under coach Jacob “Ghost” Mulee won their first ever game, beating Burkina Faso 3-0 in the final group match that had no bearing on who proceeded to the quarter finals.
Kenya qualified in 1972, 1988, 1990 and 1992.
This time round, Kenya beat Ghana and Ethiopia at home to finish second in the group, but were also partly aided by the suspension of Sierra Leone.
Uganda Cranes, the most successful East African national football team as far as the Africa Cup of Nations is concerned, finished fourth in 1962 and qualified for the finals of the tournament in 1978 where they lost to Ghana in the semi-final.
This year the Cranes will be making a successive second appearance. They played in the finals of 1968, 1974, 1976 and most recently in 2017, bowing out in the group stage of the competition.
In the run-up to the 2019 finals, the Cranes topped their group that also fellow East Africans, Tanzania finished second. The other teams were Lesotho and Cape Verde.
For Tanzania, making it to the Cup of Nations is a national pride and moment of glory to be cherished for years to come. It has taken Tanzania 39 years to qualify to the continent’s soccer extravaganza.
Egypt 2019 will be Tanzania’s only second appearance after their 1980 qualification where they only managed the group stage.
“It is a moment to savour,” said coach Emmanuel Amunike.
Amunike, a former Nigerian international, was the scorer of the two goals that saw Nigeria beat Zambia 2-1 to win the title in Tunisia in 1994.
“It was my burning desire to make it to the Nations Cup as coach. I have achieved it with Tanzania. It feels great,” he added.
Tanzania beat Uganda 3-0 in the final group stage game in Dar es Salaam to qualify as Group L runners-up. Uganda had already qualified with a game in hand.
But the pride of place will always go to Burundi, the smallest economy in the region, and now the new kids on the continental block when the Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in June.
Burundians have all reasons to celebrate as their country made a historic qualification to the Africa Cup of Nations.
Burundi drew 1-1 with Gabon in Bujumbura in their final game to finish second in Group C and secure a spot in the finals for the first time ever in the country’s history. Mali topped the group.
Cedric Amissi scored in the 76th minute as Burundi, who only needed a draw to qualify, looked to have sealed their place at Egypt 2019. The group had Mali, Gabon and South Sudan.
Nobody had given Burundi any chance of qualifying when the draws were done considering they were pitted against 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 that to wins at home and away against South Sudan making qualification possible. Which they did with a draw against Gabon at home.
The Council of East and Central Africa Football Association (Cecafa) secretary general Nicholas Musonye says the qualification of the four East Africa countries is a manifestation that the region’s football has come of age.
“Previously we were the whipping boys. We struggled to have a team in the finals. Today we have four. We have to build on this and ensure that in future we produce a continental champion,” Musonye said.
The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations will, for the first time, take place in June and July and will feature 24 teams up from 16.
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, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Benin and South Africa.
How they qualified
Tanzania can only be described as a football-mad country, with a highly competitive national league that features foreign players from around the continent.
Two unlikely wins by the national team, the Taifa Stars, has finally put the smile back on the faces of a football fans who for over three decades have been watching continental matches as outsiders.
Taifa Stars, secured qualification to the Africa Cup of Nations finals for the first time since 1980, beating the Uganda Cranes 3-0 to grab the runners-up spot in their qualifying group.
They only just pipped both Cape Verde and Lesotho, who could only manage a goalless draw in a match held simultaneously when an outright win would have seen one of them go through instead.
The only other time Taifa Stars made it to Afcon finals was 39 years ago, when current coach Emmanuel Amunike was a 10-year-old schoolboy in the host country Nigeria.
Amunike took over the coaching job of the Tanzanian team just seven months ago in August 2018, and was almost sacked after an abject group qualifying loss to Lesotho that appeared to have put paid to the team’s chances of progressing further in the tournament.
His popularity among Tanzanian soccer fans has remained low ever since, despite this eventual qualification, and it is now touch-and-go whether he will still be in charge when the Afcon finals kick off in Egypt in June - the first time the tournament is being held in mid-year after the Confederation of African Football (CAF) moved it from the traditional January/February slot. The draw for the finals will be held on April 12.
Taifa Stars’ achievement came on the back of an equally impressive feat by Simba SC, which in mid-March became the only East African club side to reach the CAF Champions League quarterfinal’s this year in equally fortunate circumstances.
Burundi’s moment of glory
Burundi’s national team, Intamba mu rugamba (the swallows) have qualified for the first time, and will be joining the other three East African countries.
“I can’t explain how I am feeling right now it is unbelievable I just want to thank God…we had a team spirit and we stayed united from day one and we did it today,” Saido Berahino, the Burundian striker who plays professional football in England for championship club Stoke City told The EastAfrican in Bujumbura.
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 leaving Gabon needing a win to qualify with two points adrift the second placed Burundi.
In a 26 degree heat in Bujumbura on Saturday afternoon Burundi’s hitman Fiston Abdul Razak the joint leading scorer of the qualifiers with six-goal, missed chances to break the deadlock in the first half as his free header effort was saved by Gabon’s shot stopper Didier Ovono.
Burundi chances to take the lead went begging yet again as Berahino’s free header in the second half went over the bar, with both teams playing attacking football.
It was not until in the 76th minute when Cedric Amissi slotted home from a beautifully curled cross to give the Swallows a lead, but the joy didn’t last long as Gabon equalised through an own goal by Burundi’s skipper Ngando Omar with less than 10 minutes to go.
Burundi had to hold on until the last minute as Gabon dominated the game playing in Burundi’s half. It was not until the final whistle of he game after three added minutes of injury time were over that the stadium exploded with joy as history was made. The country had qualified for Afcon 2019.
“There is God in heaven we put our trust in God and here he rewarded us and what helped us in the dying minutes when the pressure was high we’ve been praying against the spirit of fear which has been living in Burundi for a long time and now it is no longer in Burundi,” Burundi’s play maker Gael Bigirimana told The EastAfrican after the final whistle.
A draw was not good enough for Gabon’s Panthers. “It was not an easy match but we kept praying that this time around we deserve to go to the African Cup of Nations,” said a fan in Bujumbura.
Burundi’s Prince Louis Rwagasore Stadium was packed to the rafters hours before the match as hundreds of fans were blocked from entry.
Burundi, just like Kenya and Tanzania are relishing their qualifications and hope to make the most out of it. The draw for the tournament will be done in April.
-Reported by Adindo Ayieko in Nairobi, Bob Karashani in Dar es Salaam and Moses Havyarimana in Bujumbura.