East Africans keep dropping the ball when it comes to football

Saturday January 15 2022
Africa Cup of Nations

Tunisia's coach Mondher Kebaier (right) protests against Zambia referee Janny Sikazwe during the Group 'F' Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) 2021 match between Tunisia and Mali at Limbe Omnisport Stadium in Limbe on January 12, 2022. PHOTO | ISSOUF SANOGO | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The Africa Cup of Nations is being battled over in Cameroon, and this time there isn’t a single country from the East African Community zone.

After a long drought, where the odd EAC nation occasionally popped up in the final, the zone made its best showing in 2019 with Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda making an entrance in Egypt to seek the crown. They were all sent home empty-handed.

Since the tournament was first played in 1957, no country that is currently in the EAC has won it, with the closest sniff coming in 1978 when Uganda was runner-up.

The picture is brighter when we look at Greater East Africa, with Sudan and Ethiopia making a better accounting of themselves in the past, and both again playing in the finals this year.

As for the FIFA World Cup, that is something the EAC watches on TV. When it was revealed that Rwandan referee Salima Mukansanga would become the first-ever female to officiate a game at AFCON, a Rwandan tweep summed up the EAC’s misfortunes perfectly, saying the country (and he might have said the region) should perhaps just concentrate on producing referees.

So why are EACians not football conquerors? The region produces some of Africa’s most formidable armies, keeping the peace all around the continent. It has some of the continent’s best airlines.


East Africa is building some of the continent’s best ports. It has some good universities, some of the continent’s best writers, technology innovators, and pre-Covd-19, the continent’s best-performing economies.

It rules the world in long-distance running. It’s now becoming a powerhouse in cycling. It can play rugby, basketball, and has even found its swimming mojo. The list is long.

When it comes to football, it loses its conquering ways. Looking at the finalists’ list this time, and indeed previously, there are some patterns. And they are just that, patterns, not causes, for AFCON successes.

Of the 24 finalists in Cameroon, 15 are from majority Muslim countries, with nine being majority Christian. The situation is different in other parts of the world, but it seems in Africa the chances of a country making both the AFCON and the FIFA World Cup is higher when the majority of its citizens are Muslims. I could speculate why, but I would be banned from appearing in any publication so will let it pass.

Also, the majority of the finalist countries, barring Malawi, are from western and northern Africa. Only three — Comoros, Ethiopia, and Sudan — are from eastern Africa.

It seems that having a coast along the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, are somehow good for football, and the Indian Ocean waters and the Red Sea bring less luck.

The west coast of Africa was blighted by the slave trade. On the Indian Ocean, there was some slave trade, yes, but mostly it was spices, silver, chinaware, and the women have the most serious henna.

Additionally, except Ethiopian, East African cuisines aren't exciting. They don’t hold a candle to those fiery West African cook-ups, Berber dishes, Shakshouka, felafel, name it.

Who knows, maybe we have simply eaten ourselves out of AFCON and World Cup glory.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3