It is Tanzania’s first AFCON appearance since 1980. And they just about made it. A loss away to Lesotho in their penultimate game saw them walking a tightrope. It meant they had to beat Uganda and hope Lesotho didn’t do the same away to Cape Verde on the final day.
In the end, Tanzania finished the job in front of a pumped-up home crowd in a comfortable 3-0 win. Tanzania’s President John Magufuli rewarded each player part of the matchday squad with a patch of land and gave them the freedom to build absolutely what they want on it.
To not have qualified would have been the lowest of lows, and to have done it so late showed Tanzanian football is still very much a work in progress.
There is some room for optimism. There has never been a time when so many Tanzanian players are plying their trade abroad or had exposure of playing at a higher level than merely domestically.
Players such as captain Mbwana Samatta (Genk, Belgium), Saimon Msuva (Difaa El Jadidi, Morocco) and Himid Mao (Petrojet, Egypt) have all done well at their respective clubs and they’re coming into the tournament in a great run of form.
On the continent, Simba’s run to the Champions League quarter-finals was one of the stories of the African football calendar this past season. The players part of that run, like the lofty John Bocco and utility man Erasto Nyoni, who are both top of the range players domestically, come into the tournament with broader shoulders.
For Emmanuel Amuneke the task is to take those ingredients of success and cap off a memorable few months for Tanzanian football by giving the fans a national team they can be proud of.
Coach Amuneke has chopped and changed his line up and formation. It’s unclear who lines up in his best XI. Players have not been played in their natural positions, much to the annoyance of players and fans – including the country’s President.
Amuneke has been keen to stress that his team don’t know how to defend when they are playing without the ball. Naturally, a five-man defence has been experimented with and could be used against Senegal and Algeria while the 4-3-3 looks likelier in the regional derby versus Kenya. Both options haven’t resulted in a tighter ship.
In-form strikers – The hope for Tanzania lies up front. Mbwana Samatta and Saimon Msuva, who is likely to start on the wing, are two players that will have to perform if Tanzania are to leave a positive mark at the tournament. The duo enjoyed terrific seasons at club level and play with an intensity and drive that will trouble defenders. John Bocco and Adi Yussuf, who has recently joined Blackpool, have also had good seasons though the former will probably start as an auxiliary winger.
The Achilles’ Heel
The full-backs – There are countless weaknesses to mention but the most pressing, given Amuneke’s emphasis on team shape and discipline, are the full-backs. While they are both decent going forward, the defensive game of Hassan Kessy and Gadiel Michael should see opposing wingers having a lot of fun.
Africa’s Africa-based Player of the Year in 2015, Mbwana Samatta took a while to get going in Europe but he’s now hitting his prime. Tanzania’s captain can occupy an entire defence and will often drop deep to drive his team forward. His level of performance will be critical if Tanzania are to do anything of note at the tournament. A red-hot season with Genk in Belgium saw him win the Ebony Shoe and a move to Europe’s big five leagues surely beckons this summer.
The Hipster’s Choice
Kelvin Yondani. The 34-year-old has a bad boy reputation but he is nTanzania’s best centre back and one of the nation’s greatest ever centre backs. Nicknamed ‘Cotton’ for the way he absorbs pressure, he loves a dash out of defence and, given time and space, is capable of picking out players in advanced positions with his long range of passing.
A glittering playing career in Egypt with Zamalek should make Emmanuel Amuneke feel right at home. He won AFCON in 1994 but he’s unlikely to repeat those exploits with Tanzania. A spell as assistant of Nigeria’s national team was followed by an unforgettable spell in Sudan with AS Khartoum. The jury is still out on him despite qualification with his bemusing team selections getting the entire country into a huff.
All signs point towards a group stage exit. A win in the derby against Kenya will be enough for it to be considered a relatively successful tournament for the Taifa Stars.