Coming into the tournament, a key debate centred around the expansion of the tournament and what that would mean for the quality of the teams. I believe the expansion of AFCON has not drastically diluted the quality of the competition. Going from 16 teams to 24 teams has shown that teams have a chance until the very last moment of the group stages.
We have seen some teams avoid dropping out of the tournament with just one win in the last matchday, like DR Congo, or with three draws, like Tunisia and Benin. All the teams, with the exception of Tanzania, were vying for places in the knockout stages in the final round of games. That can only be a good thing for the competition and the quality has not diluted in the process.
It is an important step in the right direction. In the previous format, you would sometimes know after two games who is already out and there would be little interest in the final set of games. We now have the best 16 teams for the knockout phase with the separation of boys from men having occurred.
Sadly, our East African brothers, bar Uganda, have all exited before the business end. Burundi were in their first ever AFCON and it seems they were affected by stage fright. Unfortunately they didn’t score a single goal and lost all their games. That speaks volumes of their performance.
We cannot sugarcoat their appearance and say it was a learning curve, there are lessons to be learnt or whatever. A lot more was expected from a team that has quality and can play a lot better that they showed against Guinea, Nigeria and Madagascar.
However, it was not meant to be. They have lost all their matches and shown a naivety in playing at this level. Sometimes this is the scholarship you need to go through when you come to your first tournament. I wish the great people of Burundi, their federation, their technical bench, players and fans take this as not a disappointment but as a springboard to keep qualifying.
Kenya hadn’t qualified since 2004. They had that win against Tanzania in a thrilling match, which was a good, memorable consolation for them. Unfortunately due to goal difference they could not progress from their group. With the quality of their team from Victor Wanyama to Michael Olunga, and the balance they have as a team, I personally feel they have performed far below the expectations given the players they have. They need to return in two years to be able to build on what they have learnt.
And then we have Tanzania. I was expecting more from them with a superstar like Mbwana Samatta in their ranks. Yes, they played against Senegal and Algeria but I think they could have performed better and shown the gap between them and those teams was not so stark. They were used as a punching bag in their matches against the tournament contenders.
Tanzania also need to learn their lesson. They have no right to be disappointed. I know Tanzanians love their football so they shouldn’t let disappointment to get in their way but use this as a learning experience. They also need to regroup and make sure there’s not another long drought between this and their next qualification.
A source of inspiration for Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania, is of course their East African neighbour Uganda, who play against Senegal in the last 16 tonight. Their qualification in 2017 after a long absence was a learning curve but two years later you see their improvement. This should be the mission for Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania.
Those three sides have paid an expensive scholarship and now it is time to heal their wounds and learn their lessons by qualifying for the next edition and making the right impact. This is how CECAFA will reach the right level of quality and be able to have more of an important say at the Africa Cup of Nations