By James Bakama
THE last time Uganda featured in a major football tournament in South Africa it cruised to the semi-finals.
This was in 1999 at the Seventh All Africa Games in Johannesburg. Coach Leo Adraa’s U-23 side at the time had budding talents like Andrew “Fimbo” Mukasa, Hassan Mubiru, Ibrahim Sekagya and David Obua.
The Kobs were that time edged to third position by hosts South Africa. Uganda lost the play-off 2-0 and only returned to this competition in 2011 in Mozambique where they failed to make it from the group.
Almost 15 years later Uganda is back in South Africa. Tomorrow the Cranes take on Burkina Faso in their opening match of the Africa Nations Championship.
But can the Cranes ride the same tide that almost had them winning Africa’s biggest youth championship in 1999?
Uganda will be praying this question is answered in the affirmative in the three week competition.
This optimism is understandable especially after a poor show the last time Uganda featured in the biennial tournament. The Cranes failed to win a match in the second edition of the competition in 2011 in Sudan.
Well aware of the benefits that will come with a good show in South Africa, Milutin “Micho” Sredojevich’s troops are set for battle.
“We are in good shape and the entire team wants to impress,” said team captain Denis Iguma as the team made final touches in Cape Town for its opening game. Uganda’s second match will be against Zimbabwe on Thursday. Cranes last group game will be against Morocco on Monday.
Besides the benefits that will come with silverware, Iguma and company are also aware of the huge following of the competition. Scouts eager to sign talents for big leagues will be amongst those in the stands.
“Everyone knows that an impressive performance could be a turning point. So, who doesn’t want to shine?” wondered Iguma.
For Micho, there can’t be a better opportunity to prove himself. He took up the Cranes job midway the Brazil World Cup qualifiers last year and there was little he could do in a group that included heavyweights Senegal.
The Serbian tactician was months later to see the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup, a trophy that Uganda has won a record 13 times, slip through his hands.
Micho’s only limitation could be his side’s inexperience. Save for players like Hassan Wasswa and Dennis Iguma, the rest of the team is making its first appearance on the big stage.
That Uganda is in one of the toughest groups could also pose problems. Morocco is fielding the bulk of its side that has just played against Bayern Munich in the Club World Cup, Burkina Faso are Africa Cup of Nations runners-up while Zimbabwe also have a solid side.
“Everyone is looking at us as underdogs but we are going to cause a big surprise,” insisted Micho. Micho will also be looking beyond CHAN to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations whose qualifiers start later this year.
Leo Adraa, coach of the 1999 Kobs side, believes the Cranes can fly from the group stage. “It’s all about belief. If they are focused and believe in themselves they can go far.”
Coach Tom Lwanga also believes the Cranes can make it from the group.
“In a tournament the opening game is very important. If you get your act right at the start, you are in business.”
Adraa, who had Jimmy Muguwa as his assistant, insists the Kobs were robbed of a place in the final.
“The hosts were given a questionable penalty. But well, maybe that was understandable because the organisers desperately wanted the hosts on the medal podium.”
But that was 15 years ago. This big question remains can the likes of Brian Majwega, Wasswa and Iguma lift Uganda to heights that talents like Mukasa, Sekagya and Obua propped Uganda to?