East Africans suck at football, and it is not our fault; blame it on the cows

Monday January 22 2024

Though East Africans have utterly hopeless footballing legs, they use their legs in ruthlessly effective ways elsewhere; when it comes to long-distance. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

It is that time in the cycle. It’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) is taking place in Ivory Coast. This means it is time for East African heartbreak and grumbling.

As one long-suffering East African football fan noted, Southern Africa is represented by four countries — Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia — five if you count the Democratic Republic of Congo. The wider West Africa by a whole 11 (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal). North Africa by almost all the countries of that region — Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia.

The Great East Africa, including the Horn, 12 countries, have only a single representative (Tanzania’s Taifa Stars)! As the elders of years gone by might have asked, who bewitched East Africa and stole its footballing legs?

Many reasons have been given, but it seems to come down to the fact that East Africans can’t kick a ball and chew at the same time. Which begs the question, why can’t they?

Read: BUWEMBO: Afcon might restore confidence in EAC project

We will go wild here because there is no science and thoughtful research which has gone into this East African football malaise. First, some shout-outs. Though East Africans have utterly hopeless footballing legs, they use their legs in ruthlessly effective ways elsewhere; when it comes to long-distance (marathon, 20km, 10km, 5km, 3km, down to 800 metres. And the steeplechase). Between Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, they rule the world, setting and breaking world records back-to-back.


They are also very good when they have to use their legs in combination with their hands. Kenya and Uganda play decent rugby. Uganda is a small regional star in cricket. The Eritreans are Africa’s cycling kings, and Rwanda is a rising powerhouse too. The women, especially, are very good at using their hands. The Ugandan netball team is currently the highest-ranked in Africa.

But when it comes to football, we have feet of clay. At this rate, when Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda jointly host Afcon in 2027 (if we pull it off), we risk being the page boys at the African football wedding.

So, back to why we suck. I asked an East African rogue who holds unorthodox views about these kinds of things. His main explanation was that Homo Sapiens originated in East Africa.

“We spent so many years in the trees, where the arms are queen and king. When we came down to live on the ground, we left the best of us in the trees. On the ground, there were hostile creatures everywhere, so we had to get very good at flight for long distances. When we win marathons and all that, we are still running a race that we started nearly 240,000 years ago,” he said.

“World-beating running is not good for football. Look at Morocco. They won the Afcon in 1976. Then they became quite good at long-distance running. That steeplechase champion of theirs, Soufiane el Bakkali, has made a hobby of humiliating East Africans at an event they had ruled for 60 years. The result, however, is that they have forgotten how to win at Afcon”, he said.

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“Tell me, you read a lot about these things, which country in the world has leading long-distance runners and is also a football power. Just one,” he asked with a wicked look in his eyes.

I gave it some thought for several seconds, then threw my hands in the air in resignation.

“None,” I said.

“There you are!” he declared triumphantly.

I liked where he was going with it. It was wacky but very comforting.

He also blames cows. Everyone blames cows.

“East Africans are cattle people. South Africa, Botswana and Namibia might be leading beef exporters, but they have nothing on us when it comes to cattle herds.

“Ethiopia has nearly 70 million head of cattle. I don’t know how many were eaten in the recently ended war in Tigray, but that was an African record."

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“Look you Ugandans, with your Ankole cattle and their long horns. I hear that the horns of President Yoweri Museveni’s favourite cows are polished. I see the Banyarwanda make beads and head decorations for their cattle. Who does that?”

I wasn’t quite sure what that had to do with our lousy show at Afcon, so I pressed him.

“Well, if you love your cows that much, you are likely to freak out if you are wearing leather boots and violently kicking a leather ball,” he said.

I prodded him a little further, asking if he thought coffee and tea had something to do with it. I thought I had heard him mumble something about coffee and tea.

“I am still investigating the link between coffee and tea. East Africa, if you have noticed, grows virtually all of Africa’s coffee and tea. I thought there might be something there, but world football superpower Brazil is the globe’s leading coffee grower,” he said, adding, “Colombia too, a big coffee nation, is good at football. Maybe our mistake is to grow both. We should just have stuck to coffee.”

He got into other things, about how our region has been corrupted by the abundance of water, like Lake Victoria, the Congo River, Lake Tanzania, and Lake Kivu. He mentioned something about mountains, all the tallest mountains in Africa being concentrated in East Africa, but he had lost me at that point. If he is right, then it means we are doomed.

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