The invisible region of East Africa

On Friday June 11, 2010, the first-ever FIFA World Cup held on African soil will get underway in Johannesburg. Watched by fans across the world, it will be a bold statement of the continent’s determination to revive its fortunes after decades of marginalization. Whether the South Africans have the organizational and logistical skills to live up to this challenge remains to be seen. However, the recently-held African Nations Cup proved that the Africans have the necessary talent on the pitch to lift the tournament to another level. Well, at least Western African nations do. Because where is East Africa in all this?
L-R : Rwanda’s Haruna Niyonzima ;Michael Essien lead his Ghanaian teammates in warm-up before an international game ; Kenya’s McDonald Mariga
L-R : Rwanda’s Haruna Niyonzima ;Michael Essien lead his Ghanaian teammates in warm-up before an international game ; Kenya’s McDonald Mariga

On Friday June 11, 2010, the first-ever FIFA World Cup held on African soil will get underway in Johannesburg. Watched by fans across the world, it will be a bold statement of the continent’s determination to revive its fortunes after decades of marginalization.

Whether the South Africans have the organizational and logistical skills to live up to this challenge remains to be seen. However, the recently-held African Nations Cup proved that the Africans have the necessary talent on the pitch to lift the tournament to another level. Well, at least Western African nations do. Because where is East Africa in all this?

Think of a famous African footballer, and he’ll come from West Africa. Ghana have Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. Ivory Coast have Didier Drogba, the Touré brothers and Didier Zokora.

Cameroon have Samuel Eto’o (and had the most famous of them all, Roger Milla). The size of the country is irrelevant. Mighty Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, can boast Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha and Joseph Yobo.

Arguably the greatest African footballer, George Weah, comes from tiny Liberia. Emmanuel Adebayor is Togolese. Even Gabon have a Premier League presence (Hull City’s Daniel Cousin), and most people have never even heard of Gabon.

North Africa has had its fair share of great players and World Cup moments. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt have all reached World Cups.

Egypt have won the African Nations Cup six times, while their two biggest club sides, the Cairo-based Al Ahly and Zamalek, are the most successful in African club competition with Ahly winning the African Champions League six times and Zamalek five.

Head south and there is Angola, World Cup new boys in Germany in 2006, and South Africa, proud hosts of the 2010 jamboree.

While nations like Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, Algeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal are crowded with European football scouts looking to find the next Didier Drogba, Frederic Kanoute or Samuel Eto’o, Eastern Africa remains a forgotten region within an otherwise football-crazy continent.

While Angola experienced fairly high attendances at the 2010 African Nations Cup, only 5,000 spectators turned out to see the final between Uganda and Rwanda in the CECAFA Cup staged in Kenya in December.

This urged Nicholas Musonye, general secretary of the East and Central African Football Federation (CECAFA), to strike a hard blow at the organisers in his final evaluation of the tournament.

“People in this country pretend to like football, but really, they don’t. Kenyans like to sit in a bar and have a good time while they are watching football,” said Musonye to the astonishment of the journalists on the spot.

CECAFA has 11 members: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi and Zanzibar. None of these sides have ever qualified for the World Cup. Sudan was the last of these nations to win the African Nations Cup.

That was 40 years ago. Sudan was also the sole representative of CECAFA in the 2007 African Nations Cup but the country lost all their matches and scored no goals.

This year none of CECAFA’s 11 members qualified for Angola. More than 25% of Africa’s population lives in these countries but virtually none of a long line of African footballers who have made a name for themselves on the international football scene have an Eastern African background.

The question is of course: why does Eastern Africa continue to remain virtually invisible on the football map, even during a year when all eyes are on Africa?

Corrupt and incompetent leadership has undermined East African football at every turn, says Nicholas Musonye. “The fact is that the governments in our region really don’t care about football. Apart from President Kagame (in Rwanda), I miss commitment, passion, a will to give football a boost,” says Musonye.

More importantly though, he argues, is a lack of money for the national leagues. Government grants are small or non-existent, while enticing sponsors has been a struggle. It’s a vicious cycle, he says.

Sponsors aren’t interested because fans aren’t interested. Fans aren’t interested because the standard is poor. The standard is poor because there’s no money. “Without good leagues you cannot have good national teams,” Musonye says. “Our leagues are very weak.”

But Musonye thinks there is a bigger problem on the horizon, one that will affect the whole of Africa. “The thing that is killing African football is the English Premier League,” he says. “The stadiums in Africa are empty. People are tuned to Chelsea and Liverpool.”

Some countries have tried to schedule matches around the Premier League - Uganda has a couple of matches on Friday nights, for instance - but Musonye is having none of it. His solution is to ban the Premier League.

“They can show it at midnight if they want,” he says. “A foreign element has taken over our football - we must stop it. I want my football played on Saturday at 4pm.”

It’s not going to happen. The English Premier League is big business in Africa. The back pages of newspapers are dominated by English transfer gossip - news of local teams is relegated to the inside.

Ask a football fan in Monrovia, Kinshasa or Nairobi which club they support and they’ll mention one of the Premier League’s big four.

However, other experts point to other factors as the background for Eastern African football’s poor results.

For instance, UN worker Robert Ujfalusi, a cousin of famous Czech footballer Tomas Ujfalusi, says: “If you have a look at the physique of a Kenyan as opposed to a Nigerian, a Ghanaian or a player from the Ivory Coast, then you will discover that the Kenyans often have a physique which is more suited for running for instance.”

Another problem could be obtaining a work permit for those players who have ambitions of making it in Europe.

To get a work permit to play in the Premier League, your country needs to have been in the top 70 of the FIFA world rankings for the past two years. Uganda are currently the best of the CECAFA nations in 75th spot.

Inter Milan’s Kenyan midfielder McDonald Mariga aside; few CECAFA nations have performers in the big European leagues.

Consequently there are no players to act as role models to those who stay behind, encouraging them that they too can make it. At the same time agents are not encouraged to visit the streets of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) or Mogadishu (Somalia).

Consequently there isn’t much hope of seeing the next Drogba come from a CECAFA nation or for Eastern Africa to be represented in the forthcoming World Cups for that matter. For all the hype created around the organisation of the World Cup in Africa, CECAFA nations remain invisible.

Ends

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