Kenya are aiming to end their long wait for CECAFA Challenge Cup glory when they host the annual regional competition which kicks off on Wednesday.
The championship for East and Central African nations features 12 countries divided into three groups, and will be played at venues cross the country, with the only notable absentees being Djibouti.
Five-time champions Kenya last won the tournament in 2002, but with the championship being staged to coincide with the country’s 50th anniversary of independence from Britain, the hosts will be under pressure to perform.
“Winning the trophy at a time when the country is celebrating 50 years of independence will be an outstanding achievement,” said Kenya’s Sports Minister Hassan Wario at the launch of the tournament.
Ethiopia’s quick return to action
Kenya open the competition against much-improved Ethiopia, just back from an intense 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ campaign which ended with a 3-1 loss to Nigeria in Calabar a week ago.
Ethiopian coach Sewnet Bishaw has rested some of his key players who were involved in the play-offs and has replaced them with a reserve squad.
But he still believes the side is still strong enough for the challenge. “It is important to give every player an opportunity, as this will help us in future assignments, as they will get the much needed experience and exposure,” he said.
Kenyan coach Adel Amrouche lamented the short time he has had to prepare the team as the domestic league campaign ended only a week ago.
“It will not be the end of the world if we fail to win, but we must look forward for better things like qualifying for the African Cup of Nations or the World Cup,” the Belgian coach told reporters.
Defending champions Uganda, who have won the Challenge Cup a record 13 times, have a tougher start against neighbours Rwanda in the small eastern provincial town of Machakos, whose 10,000-seater stadium has only just been completed in time for the championships.
The stadium will also host the opening group matches which see Somalia take on Burundi and former African champions Zambia against Tanzania.
Zambia, who are also the reigning COSAFA champions, are taking part in the competition as a guest team. They also won the title in 2006 when it was held in Ethiopia.
The two top teams and the two best losers will qualify for the quarter-finals which will be played in the coastal resort of Mombasa.
The final will be held in Nairobi on 12 December