NAIROBI, March 25 (Xinhua) -- There is a new wave of change sweeping across East Africa's football scene, which has seen four countries for the first time qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals in Egypt.
With tears of joy fans poured out on the streets of Dar es Salaam and Bujumbura, to celebrate Tanzania and Burundi breaking the jinx to join Africa's elite football echelon for the AFCON, which will take place in June-July.
The last time Tanzania qualified for their first ever AFCON was back in 1980 and the entire playing unit of the team that beat Uganda 3-0 to secure their ticket to Egypt was not born.
Across the border in Bujumbura, there was an air of optimism that the land-locked East African country would finally land the ticket to the final.
A 1-1 draw was enough to send them through ahead of Gabon, who trailed them by two points. They now join Kenya and Uganda, who despite losing their final qualifier matches to Tanzania and Ghana, still go through to the AFCON finals.
"It is a very encouraging outcome for the region," said Nicholas Musonye, secretary general of the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA).
"This region has potential, but has lagged behind because of little or no government support. These performances show there is talent and hunger to succeed at the high level. Now they need to go to Egypt and showcase the same and become title contenders," said Musonye.
For Tanzania, an air of optimism has turned to reality that the current group of players can replicate the feat last achieved almost three decades ago, famously referred to as the 'Class of 1980'.
Peter Teno who scored the only goal that took Tanzania to the 1980 AFCON against Zambia, said he told the players to focus on beating Uganda and block the noise.
"We can really do something special here with this team. First, we need to take care of our own business and beat Uganda," Teno said.
Cape Verde and Lesotho finished third and fourth from the group with Uganda finishing top to join Tanzania in the trip to Egypt.
Teno has fond memories of the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations.
"It was such an important tournament for our country. It came at a time when we were trying to establish ourselves in international football. The whole country was just so happy. We had qualified for the tournament despite many people writing us off. Even today, I can remember that day vividly," said Teno.
Unfortunately, Tanzania like most East African countries have not built on that success since then.
Kenya has struggled to return to the biannual continental football bonanza since their last show in Tunisia in 2004. Uganda only returned after two decades in last AFCON in 2017. Now they have made it two appearances in as many attempts.
Teno said East Africa has talent and its four teams can go on to lift the AFCON in June.
"We can qualify again. But the region now needs to move a step further and win the AFCON," he said.
The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations will, for the first time, feature 24 teams rather than 16. The biggest causality not making the trip to Egypt will be Zambia, who won the AFCON in 2012.
The 24 countries will now turn their focus on their final preparations in battle to become the continental champions.
They will include hosts Egypt, Madagascar, Tunisia, Senegal, Morocco, Nigeria, Uganda, Mali, Guinea, Algeria, Mauritania and Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Ghana, Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia, Zimbabwe, DR Congo, Benin, Tanzania and South Africa.
The group draw for AFCON 2019 will take place on April 12 in Cairo, and the 24 teams will be drawn into six groups of four teams each.
Teams in the group will play a single round robin format, with the top two teams and the four best third teams advancing to the round of 16. From there on, it will be a knockout system with the winners progressing through to the finals.
The AFCON finals should also be a stepping stone for teams to start preparations to give a stab at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.