African soccer, big cities, club ages, success and the new factor of tactical parity

Friday March 19 2021
By Moses Banturaki

East Africa has never been represented at the World Cup or even lifted Afcon.

 Zaire (1974) comes close as its sheer size means it touches East Africa, but we all know its soul is West African. And Sudan and Ethiopia as past winners of Afcon are so culturally detached from East Africa, we might as well band them with the Arab north.

So why is East Africa yet to deliver a representative to the World Cup or win the Afcon? The obvious explanation is our comparative technical ineptitude. Proof of that lies in a history that is littered with the chastening score lines passed around to us by especially the North Africans, at both club and national level.

There has also been reference to diets such as that which produces physically superior West Africans. But I struggle to believe that yams have anything to do with football finesse. Besides brute force wouldn’t account for the North Africans whose physique isn’t directly proportional to their footballing ability.

This leaves me with an interesting explanation I conceived after reviewing some interesting data about the continent and its football history. It turns out there is a causal link between urban population sizes, the age of a country’s football clubs, and the football success of a given nation.
This may not be that obvious elsewhere but in Africa all the countries that have registered any continental success are also home to its largest cities and its oldest football clubs.

 Take Egypt, for instance. Its capital Cairo has 13 million people and is also home to two of Africa’s oldest football and most successful football clubs Al Ahly (114 years) and Zamalek (110 years) – who between them have won 31 continental trophies. As a nation Egypt is also the record Afcon winner, and Africa’s first representative at the World Cup.


Notably (with a few exceptions like Luanda) the next top 10 most populated cities in Africa are also home to some of the oldest and most successful football clubs on the continent. Needless to say, these are all in North or West Africa and in countries that have represented Africa at the World Cup or dominated continental football.

Back home in East Africa our cities are still small and our clubs relatively young. But you are all advised to keep a keen eye on the astronomic growth of Dar-es-Salaam and it’s 85-year-old twins – ‘Yanga’ and Simba.

The conclusion I drew from this is that a big urban population is more likely to give rise to successful football clubs which then feed successful national teams.

 So East Africans dreaming of a World Cup representation or winning Afcon may have to wait for when our clubs will be 100 years and our cities metropolises to match Cairo and Lagos.

But as interesting or provocative as that might sound, it doesn’t explain the 4-1 hammering that the Hippos inflicted on Tunisia in Monday’s semi-final of the U-20 Afcon, which concludes later today.

Next week I shall return to explain why I think the result was no fluke. It has been a long time coming and what we witnessed has nothing to do with big cities, old clubs or staple diets. It is actually proof that exposure and access to information has thrown a plank over the tactical and mental gap that existed between these regions. 

And that nations such as Uganda have started to confidently match across in an attempt to disrupt the old order. Or that, indeed, it won’t be long before East Africa got its representation at the World Cup or won the Nations Cup.

Twitter: @MBanturaki