The four Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (Cecafa) teams that qualified for 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) tournament have a lot of homework to do if they are to measure up to the big boys in the 32nd edition of the championship to be held in Egypt from June 21 to July 19.
Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi have some similarities as they head into the biennial continental championship. One, it is the first time the four Cecafa teams are appearing in the competition at the same time since inception of the tournament in 1957.
Secondly, four coaches in charge of these Cecafa teams will be making their debut in Africa’s premier football tournament barely a year since taking the jobs.
Kenya and neighbours Tanzania were pooled in Group C alongside Senegal and Algeria while Uganda landed in Group A with the hosts Egypt, DR Congo and Zimbabwe. Burundi are in Group B with three-time champions Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and former Harambee Stars coach Paul Put-led Guinea.
Save for Uganda, the other three Cecafa teams qualified as runners-up in their respective groups and are direct beneficiaries of the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams.
The four will be looking to upset the big boys in the tournament, among them unprecedented seven-time champions Egypt, reigning champions Cameroon who have won the title five times, four-time winners Ghana, and three-time champions Nigeria.
But what must these teams do to achieve this? Harambee Stars coach Sebastien Migne is arguably the luckiest of the four coaches, having already planned a pre-tournament camp in France. Migne, 46, must utilise the three-week camp to build team cohesion and lay out strategies and test them through friendly matches.
To finish in the top two, Migne will need another magic, the kind he used to shock Ghana 1-0 in September that rekindled Kenya’s hopes of qualification, to upset Senegal and Algeria in Group C and stand a chance of reaching the knock-out stage.
Kenya are winless in four meetings against Senegal, with just a single game between the two teams ending in a draw – the 0-0 stalemate in March 1990.
Kenya has played Algeria seven times, winning thrice, losing thrice and drawing once.
Tanzania could be Kenya’s Achilles heels in the group. The two teams have met 60 times with Kenya winning 24 times, while 17 games between them have ended in a draw.
Despite breaking a 39-year jinx to book a ticket to Afcon, Tanzania’s Taifa Stars are yet to finalise their pre-tournament plans due to lack of adequate funds.
Nigerian coach Emmanuel Amunike, who replaced native Salum Mayanga at Taifa Stars bench last August, managed two draws and two wins in Group ‘L’ of the qualifiers to advance from the group alongside Uganda Cranes, whom they beat 3-0 in their final qualifying match.
“It’s a good draw, all we need is confidence in what we do but we need to work because we have to be realistic. All teams which have made it here are good,” admitted the 48-year-old Amunike, who won 1994 Afcon with Nigeria.
In 2007, Tanzania lost 4-0 to Senegal in the 2008 Afcon qualifiers and drew the reverse fixture 1-1. They got a 7-0 drubbing at the hands of Algeria in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers in Algiers, something they will be keen to avoid in Egypt.
The two teams drew 2-2 in the return leg in Dar es Salaam, but Taifa Stars again went down 4-1 to Desert Foxes in a friendly match last year.
Debutants Burundi are yet to get funding for Afcon preparations, but coach Olivier Niyungeko is hopeful of quick intervention from the government.
Captain Karim Nizigiyimana believes that they can battle the likes of Nigeria, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire and finish in the top two despite being underdogs.
“We played the likes of Gabon and Mali to qualify. Nothing is impossible if we put up a spirited fight because we’ve played Cote d’Ivoire before and we watched Guinea play Rwanda, so we know them,” said Nizigiyimana.
Burundi’s Swallows will count on Algeria-based striker Abdulrazak Fiston’s scoring touch to bang in the goals. During the qualifiers, the former Sofapaka man finished second on six goals behind top-scorer Nigerian Odion Ighalo (seven goals).
At the same time, Uganda will be out to put to use valuable lessons they picked at the 2017 edition in Gabon after making a second consecutive appearance.
They will be on a revenge mission against hosts Egypt who were in Group D at the 2017 Afcon. Pharaohs won 1-0 and lost by a similar margin in Kampala in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
“We have quality. We shall play with maximum effort and give 100 per cent to get a good result,” Uganda coach Sebastien Desabre offered.