Football in East Africa: Light at the End of the Tunnel

Football in East Africa: Light at the End of the Tunnel

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The recent failure of Uganda to qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations tournament means another Cup of Nations will pass featuring no teams from the East African Community. This is in stark contrast to the success of West Africa, which will be represented by Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. The 2010 World Cup, the first to be hosted in Africa, also saw no East African representation, despite no shortage of enthusiasm for the game in the region.

Internal problems

The countries in the region have had a host of football problems, including regional powerhouse Kenya which, until recently and after a protracted struggle involving the Court of Arbitration for Sport, had two Football Associations claiming to represent it. The consequence of this debacle led to Kenya being banned from international competitions in 2006 and damaged the domestic game as a whole. The crisis ended in 2010, but with Kenya ranked 132 in the world, it was an unnecessary sideshow which only added to the difficulty of improving domestic and national football.

Indeed, it is not just Kenya’s fortunes that are bleak – the whole region is suffering on the field. Tanzania is alone in the region in having risen in the FIFA rankings recently. Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Burundi, Eritrea and Somalia are all falling in the tables.

West is best

The failings of East African teams are in stark contrast to their West African counterparts, who not only have a plethora of players plying their trade in Europe’s best leagues for the world’s top club teams, but also boast some of the region’s most successful national teams.

Ghana reached the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup and, had it not been for a controversial handball, may well have reached the last four. Nigeria won an Olympic gold medal in 1996, came away with silver in Beijing 2008, and has qualified for the World Cup Finals on four of the past five occasions. And many of Africa’s top footballers past and present derive from West Africa – note, for example, Premier League winners Michael Essien of Ghana and Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast, the Ivorian Touré brothers both at Manchester City, and the Malian Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita. These players all have international appeal, medals and recognition unrivalled by any East African player, not even the region’s only Champions League winner McDonald Mariga.

One crucial difference underlying this vast gulf in the footballing fates between East and West has been the distinction in colonial legacies between Francophone and Anglophone nations. Unlike Britain post-independence, France and Belgium have taken an interest in and invested in the sporting infrastructures of countries like the Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal, while French and Belgian clubs have actively scouted these countries for talent. Seydou Keita, for example, moved from Mali to French football club Olympique de Marseille at the age of 17.

The Ivory Coast’s most successful team, ASEC Mimosas Abidjan, which has developed several players who have gone on to star at the top level in European teams – the likes of Kolo and Yaya Touré, Salomon Kalou, Didier Zokora, Gervinho, Romaric and Emmanuel Eboué – was set up by former French international Jean Marc Guilou and has several scouting links with Belgian and French domestic teams.

Domestic progress

Where it has not been international interest, the common factor linking successful footballing nations in Africa has been domestic investment from the grassroots up. Since the 1980s Cameroon’s government has taken efforts to set up a football development programme including a football school of excellence and a system whereby the most promising players could be identified early and developed through common age groups until reaching full international status. Impressively, the Cameroon national team has qualified for every World Cup Finals but one since 1990 and won the African Nations Cup four times since 1984.

Similarly, investment in the domestic league and creation of youth development projects in Botswana has been largely responsible for its surprise footballing revolution on the international stage. This year, Botswana not only broke its duck of never having qualified for an international competition, but became the first team to qualify for the 2012 African Nations Cup.

Building for the future in East Africa

There are promising signs that East African nations are beginning to emulate some of their African counterparts. After several years of declining football standards, Rwanda is showing signs of resurgence thanks to domestic investment in facilities and programmes for youth players. In a Fifa-backed move, a number of youth academies have been set up in the past few years and the Amavubi Academy which opened in January 2009 was responsible for training and nurturing the majority of the country’s Under-17 team which shocked many by managing to become the first African team to qualify for the World Cup in Mexico.

And there is hope that similar progress could be made in the Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania where, promisingly, investment has stepped up in recent years. After a decade of mismanagement and stagnation, the Kenyan Premier League recently secured a five-year sponsorship deal with Super Sport worth $5.5 million with the potential of a further $16.5 million up to 2016 to develop the league into a local brand. Local Kenya companies have also invested in individual clubs, such asAFC Leopards which has gained funding from Mumias Sugar. Similarly, the Ugandan League signed a deal with Uganda Telecoms in a bid to develop football in the nation and improve its profitability. While after years of grave concerns over the fate over the domestic game in Tanzania, large investments have seen the creation of a 60,000-seater National Stadium, improved footballing infrastructure and state of the art training facilities.

It will be some years before the effects of these developments bear fruit but if investments are used to foster grassroots actions, youth programmes and training academies, the likes of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda may soon come to rival their West African neighbours and countries around the world.


This article was simultaneously published on The Think Africa Press: