AFCON 2019: Uganda Left to Fight for East African Pride.

Photo Credit: Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA).

The African Cup of Nations 2019 is now entering the knock out stage with Morocco and Benin kicking off the round of 16 at Al Salam Stadium on Friday July 5th while Uganda and Senegal will square it off at the Cairo Stadium.

On Saturday, defending champions Cameroon go head to head with Nigeria in a clash of West African giants at the Alexandria Stadium while hosts, the Pharaohs of Egypt face South Africa at the Cairo Stadium. Madagascar, so far the surprise package of the tournament, could be on verge of history if they beat DR Congo in their round of 16 pairing and advance to the quarters.  Algeria v. Guinea, Mali v. Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana v.Tunisia complete the line-up for the reminder of second round matches.

In the new 24 team format, four East African teams found their way into AFCON 2019. They include Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. In the 16 team older editions, East African teams that lag behind their West and North African counterparts often failed to qualify for AFCON proper, with Kenya’s last appearance being the 2004 tournament in Tunisia while Tanzania was making its first appearance at the finals in Egypt after a 39 –year absence. Uganda, who have spent nearly 40 years failing to qualify for the Nations Cup is currently contesting back-to-back tournaments for the first time since the seventies. Debutants Burundi, have never qualified for AFCON prior to Egypt 2019.

The glaring gulf in football between West African and North African giants and East African pretenders is clearly telling with both Kenya and Tanzania suffering humiliating exists at the hands of Senegal and Algeria respectively.

Ironically, Kenya and Tanzania produced one of the most scintillating encounters of the tournament during their derby match that saw Harambee Stars come from behind twice to beat Taifa Stars 3-2. In a match played with a breath taking pace, the Tanzanians took an early lead in the 6th minute when the unmarked Simon Msuva tapped home the match opener. Kenya responded in the 39th minute when Japan-based striker, Michael Olunga scored one of the best goals in AFCON 2019 with an overhead kick that left Tanzanian goalie, Manula, flat footed. But Taifa Stars struck back immediately as Mbwana Samatta took advantage of a defensive mix up to give his side a 2-1 lead at half time.

Shortly after the re-start, Johanna Omollo flicked in a near post header from a Kenyan corner. And with only 10 minutes remaining, Michael Olunga broke free to register a double, beating the Tanzanian goalie with a grass cutter to the bottom corner of the net for a deserved 3-2 Kenyan win.

Needing a point to secure a last 16 spot, Kenya collapsed in their final Group C match after being thrashed 3-0 by the Teranga Lions of Senegal.  The Kenyans held their ground in a nervy first half holding the illustrious West Africans 0-0 at half time with heroics by goalkeeper Patrick Matasi who saved a penalty from the dreaded Sadio Mane, largely keeping his Harambee Stars side in the game.

But the Kenyans were left in all sixes in the second half, when Ismaila Sarr fired Senegal ahead with a half volley after the Kenyans failed to clear a cross in the box before Liverpool forward, Sadio Mane scored with a brace including a penalty to send Kenya packing. Tanzania who also lost 2-0 to Senegal went home pointless after falling 3-0 to an Algerian outfit that made 11 changes to the side that beat Senegal 1-0. Like Tanzania, Burundi exited the tournament after having lost all its three group matches.

Algeria finished top in Group C with 9 points while second place Senegal, Africa’s highest rated team at the tournament, garnered 6 points in the Group matches, and remain one of the key favourites to win the tournament.

With three East Africa teams heading home after disastrous showing, the Uganda Cranes are left alone to defend East African pride sailing into the knockout stage after a stellar performance in Group A. In their opening match, the Cranes outplayed DR Congo running away with a well-deserved 2-0 victory before settling for a 1-1 draw with Zimbabwe.

In their final group match, Uganda were the better side against hosts Egypt, creating numerous scoring chances and pinning down the Egyptians for much of the game only to fall 2-0 through second half strikes by Mohamed Salah and El Mohammady. Egypt’s Ahram newspaper hailed the brave Ugandans who registered 11 shots on target to Egypt’s 5 and won 9 corners to a solitary one for the hosts adding that the score line was deceptive given the Ugandan dominance over Egypt.

The four points secured by the Cranes in the group matches were enough to see them through to the round of 16 where they will face Senegal, first round conquerors of their fellow East Africans, Kenya and Tanzania. Although Senegal will go into this match as favourites, they should be weary of the Ugandans who came close to pulling an historic upset against the Pharaohs.

Uganda Cranes are best remembered for the 1978 edition of AFCON where they went all the way to the final only to lose 2-0 to hosts, Black Stars of Ghana. In that tournament the late Crane’s striker, Phillip Omondi, who scored four goals, won the golden boots.  Against Senegal, the Cranes will rely heavily on prolific striker Emmanuel Okwi and forwards Patrick Kaddu and Abdu Lumala.