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Sebastien Desabre's Uganda spearheading East Africa's footballing ascent

East Africa has led the way for the continent in various sporting disciplines, primarily athletics, with the region's footballing achievements lagging behind, yet Uganda coach Sebastien Desabre believes change is afoot.

Speaking to ESPN, the 42-year-old Frenchman outlined his conviction that East Africa has the potential to match the continent's traditional footballing hotbeds. To do so, however, he says resources must be made available for the region's raw athletic talent to progress further.

Four teams from the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) have qualified for the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations -- the region has previously produced only three qualifiers for a single edition -- with Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Desabre's Uganda representing in Egypt.

And that success is another step that indicates broad progress in East Africa rather than being the simple result of the decision to expand Afcon to a 24-team tournament.

Uganda ended a 39-year absence when they qualified for the 16-team tournament in Gabon two years ago, and the Cranes then were the only East African side to reach the group stage of CAF qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Notable success has been achieved also at club level.

KCCA FC, last season, became the first Ugandan club side to reach the group stage of the CAF Champions League, and Simba of Tanzania this season reached the quarterfinals of the continent's premier club competition for the first time before they were knocked out by five-time champions Tout Puissant Mazembe of Democratic Republic of Congo. Gor Mahia, from Kenya, meanwhile, this season reached the quarterfinals of one of the big two CAF competitions {the CAF Confederation Cup) for the first time since 1992.

"It's not too early [to talk about an East African football renaissance]," Desabre told ESPN.

"Of course, there are 24 teams [at the Africa Cup of Nations] when there were only 16 in previous years, but Kenya still beat Ghana in qualification, [Uganda] had a good campaign, Tanzania qualified. Something's happening in the east, that's undeniable.

"There's an element of pride. We're proud to have been given an objective, and to have achieved it."

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CECAFA's only two Africa Cup of Nations champions -- Ethiopia in 1962 and Sudan in 1970 - are Northeast African, and Uganda, who won the silver medal in 1978, are the only regional team subsequently to have made the final four.

Since the tournament was expanded from eight teams in 1992, only Sudan (in 2012) have reached the knockout stages from the CECAFA region, while no East African team has advanced past the group stage. Indeed, the past 14 tournaments have featured only seven CECAFA qualifiers.

The lack of success is highlighted by the performances of Uganda, who finished fourth in 1962 and second in 1978, having reached the quarterfinals in three of the previous five tournaments, but then failed to qualify for the next 19 editions.

This compares ill with the success of East African nations at other sporting events in the same timespan.

Kenya is Africa's most successful nation at the Olympics, having amassed 107 medals, 19 more than next-best South Africa, since Wilson Kiprugut won the county's first, a bronze in the 800 metres at the 1964 Games in Tokyo.

Ethiopia, third on Africa's Olympics log, with 52 medals, is another nation whose football team represents the CECAFA region, yet, in footballing terms, East Africa lags behind, with no side from the region ever qualifying for the World Cup.

Desabre is currently in his first East African post, having previously coached club sides in West, North and Central Africa, and he points the finger squarely at the previous lack of infrastructure and investment, rather than an absence of raw talent, for the lack of success.

His experiences have afforded him a unique perspective from which to assess the region's football, and to identify the qualities of the sport's community in the region as well as the areas where it is being held back.

"In the players, we find this same discipline that comes from the desire to leave the country to build their lives elsewhere and earn their living elsewhere," Desabre told ESPN.

"That's kind of the same thing [across Africa].

"For operational things, organisation, it's more organised in the East than in the West. There's this 'Anglophone touch' that ensures there's a bit more discipline in certain areas, notably with regards to the federation for example, things which are a bit more organised in terms of footballing resources.

"I've been discovering new lands-- in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania it's the same kind of thing -- there's a lot of quality in terms of football, but for the youngsters, there's nothing; there's no academies, there are no agents.

"In terms of investment, people are still focusing on [West Africa], because there are big players who have emerged [and moved to play] in Europe directly; but I think in the future it could also be the case in the east.

"Take Uganda, for example; there are no academies, there are practically no training centres, there's not much there, but there's a real potential to develop it.

"The national teams and the clubs in these countries still aren't able to capitalise on this kind of development, but this isn't the case in other countries, like Senegal, for example, which is already taking advantage of the development of Diambars [academy] or of other training centres.

"It's true that it's all new, there's a lot of work to be done, but I'm fairly confident for these clubs, for this country, for East Africa.

"[Uganda is] part of this, the first footballing improvements that are beginning to come, and I think that in the future, teams like Tanzania, who are already a very good team, Kenya, Uganda, or Zimbabwe, which is a bit further south, will really have their chance at the same level as those of West Africa."

Tanzania and Kenya are returning to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019, having not featured since 1980 and 2004 respectively, while Burundi are making their first showing at the continental high table.

Uganda have already enjoyed the fruits of their own renaissance in recent years.

The Cranes ended their 39-year wait for an Africa Cup of Nations appearance when Serbian coach Milutin 'Micho' Sredojevic masterminded their qualification for Gabon 2017.

Similarly, their encouraging showing during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers embellished their standing as one of the continent's emerging forces.

Uganda's average position since the start of FIFA's World Rankings is 91, yet they reached No. 62 under Micho. They are currently ranked No. 79 worldwide, and No. 17 in Africa.

Desabre is confident the work he's done to improve the infrastructure around the team, as well as cultivating the "Anglophone touch" that was exploited by Micho, who geared Uganda to play to their strengths, is bearing fruit on the pitch and will stand the Cranes in good stead ahead of the challenges to come.

"This was a team that was a bit more based on a defensive profile, really defensive, that relied quite a lot upon the heroics of the goalkeeper [Denis Onyango]," Desabre said of Micho's squad.

Desabre has since inculcated a little more adventure and flair within the team, and they qualified for Egypt by topping Group L ahead of Tanzania, Cape Verde and Lesotho. They qualified with one game to spare, having won four of their six games, scoring seven goals and conceding only three - all three in their final game away to Tanzania in Dar es Salaam.

"Now, we've succeeded in producing good football, in scoring goals, qualifying rather early for the competition," Desabre said.

"There's been an evolution with the team, because I made strong choices in terms of preparation, hotels, logistics, with staff, as well, with the medical team.

"We've professionalized -- all in 18 months -- as this wasn't the case when I arrived; it was still very amateur.

"I think this was because of the lack of financial support from the government, which isn't the case today, where we have a government that supports the team so that we can put in place things which are absolutely fundamental in our preparation, and which will serve us [well] for the upcoming [Afcon] planning."

Desabre urged, however, that still more must be done at grassroots level in Uganda if the nation is to realise its potential and spearhead East Africa's continued renaissance.

"Uganda must spare no expense with its infrastructure. Clearly, we have very good players in Uganda, and also the youngsters who played at the [ongoing] Under-17 Afcon in Tanzania.

"There's potential, clearly, but now we need to improve the country's footballing infrastructure in order for it to be at least playable.

"There are two clubs in Uganda-- KCCA FC and Vipers SC-- who have pitches, and the rest play in fields. It's the reality, no one wants to say it, but it's the reality. I live there, I see the matches all the time, and it's a shame that some players evolve on surfaces which slow their progression, even though they're talented."

That project won't fall upon Desabre's shoulders, but the former Wydad Casablanca coach has already demonstrated that he's relishing the prospect of carrying the baton for now.

With another Afcon on the horizon, expect Uganda -- and Desabre -- to continue to fly the flag for East Africa's footballing underachievers.

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