Why the high mortality rate for Uganda football clubs

By Andrew Masinde

Added 6th February 2017 12:03 PM

In Arua district in Northern Uganda, everyone wants to associate with the famous name, Onduparaka Football Club (literally meaning 'Sorghum stalks).

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Onduparaka Football Club

In Arua district in Northern Uganda, everyone wants to associate with the famous name, Onduparaka Football Club (literally meaning 'Sorghum stalks).

A number of football clubs in Uganda have come up and shocked the nation by their performance. However these clubs only stay on the spotlight for either one year or few years and before people get to know them better, they are no more. Today ANDREW MASINDE  explores why there is a high mortality rate of these football clubs.

In Arua district in Northern Uganda, everyone wants to associate with the famous name, Onduparaka Football Club (literally meaning 'Sorghum stalks).

The name came into the limelight after the club fought its way into the Uganda Premier League in their short and remarkable history. The team beat Lira's Sporting United 3-0 at the Green Light Stadium to achieve this feat in 2007. Hundreds of fans stormed the streets of Arua in ecstasy.        .

Their rise from playing non-league football to dining with the big boys has captured the attention of many football fans across the country.

The club was founded in 2011 by a group of students who had just completed university, headed by Benjamin Nakun and Joe Erema whose major aim was to occupy them after school. Back then, they used to compete in non-league football just for pleasure.

Little did they know Onduparaka would turn out to be a big thing in the entire West Nile region as it kept on attracting more young local talent.

Since its formation, the 'Caterpillars' as they are fondly known by the locals, has played in every division recognised by Uganda's football governing body, FUFA. They were the first team to represent West Nile in many years. Onduparaka have always gained promotion at their first attempt and made it look easy.

Like Onduparaka FC, many clubs have come up and impressed. However, the success is always short-lived.

One such team is Arua-based Ediofe Hills FC, a team that took the country by storm in 2007 after winning the northern Uganda football mini super league, qualifying it to join the National Super League.

However, after a few years of fame, the club went into decline due to poor management and poor pay for players. Today, a few in Arua remember the club.

Another club was Mbale Heroes FC founded in the early 1970s under the name, Gangama United. The Mbale-based club reached the highest national level during the 1975 season. It won its first national trophy, the Cup of Uganda, in 1976. This promoted the club to the African club competition in 1977.

It also participated in the Cup Winners Cup in 1993 which was a continental tournament. 2000 became the second and last appearance of the club in international competition. In 2007, the club failed to qualify for the Super League, marking its last appearance in the first division. It failed recover from this fall, remaining in the second division.

Kilembe Mines Football Club was also once a famous club. It was based in Kilembe in Kasese. The club played in the Uganda National League throughout the 1970s.

Abdalahziz Tirikwendera a veteran sports man who worked with Kilembe mines says the club was funded by the Kilembe Mines Limited and became the first up-country club to play in the National First Division League in 1969. The club competed for nine seasons at the highest level until 1979 when it was relegated.

The decline of the club was closely linked to the fortunes of the copper mines. However, the mines fall victim to President Idi Amin’s “economic war”.

The Canadian company that managed the mines was expelled as a consequence, copper mining eventually ceased in 1982, which meant that the company's football, boxing and athletics sections lost their generous support and sportsmen lost their jobs to date.

If you mention Uganda Commercial Bank Football Club based in Kampala, Fred Kakoza one of the used to be supporter of the club recalls “how the club surprised Ugandans by becoming the champions of Uganda football in the 1970s.

“The club began in Uganda's first division during the 1976 season. Three years later, it won its only national title. The club failed to win any national cup despite contesting in three finals between 1978 and 1981,” Kakoza recalls.

He says the club was relegated at the end of the 1987 season. After four years in the lower division, the club made the last pass among the elite between 1992 and 1994 before leaving the first division. After that, the club went silent.

Nile Breweries FC began in Uganda's first division during the 1978 season. Two years later, it won its only national title with a championship success. The club failed to write its name in the history of the National Cup winners despite four final appearances between 1978 and 1981.

The club performed in 21seasons in the top flight, in 2000, the club appeared in the first division for the last time.

Other clubs include, Army FC, KDS, Railways, UEB, Coffee United SC, Mbarara FC, Masaka FC, Akol FC, Red Eagles, Coffee United SC, Bitumastic FC, Uganda Comacianal Bank, Biharwe FC, Boro-Boro FC to mention but a few.

The genesis

The league's roots date back to 1968 when the National First Division League was established, an idea copied from England by Balamaze Lwanga and Polycarp Kakooza.

The objective was to improve Uganda's performance in the Africa Cup of Nations after disappointing results in the finals in 1962 and 1968, both held in Ethiopia, start a Uganda National League and also to create the foundation for a strong national team and at the same time identify players from the grassroots.

The 1968 inaugural top flight league was composed of Prisons, Army, Coffee, Express, Jinja, Masaka, Mbarara, and Mbale. These were three institutions, four districts and one club. The league was known as the National First Division League, and was won by Prisons FC.

In 1974, the league became known as the National Football League, a title used until 1982 when the league was trimmed to 10 teams and was renamed the Super League. Throughout the 1980s and a good part of the 1990s, competition was high with fans attended in hoards.

In 2003, football in Uganda hit its lowest ebb as SC Villa put 22 goals past Akol FC when the league title went down to a goal difference with Express. This was one of the biggest scandals in Ugandan football and thereafter, Fans became increasingly disillusioned and deserted the stadia, affecting the teams financially.

Why do most Ugandan clubs collapse in infancy?

According to Simon Kidima, the Kasese Football Association representative, Kasese had a number of industries. These included Kilembe Mines, Hima Cement and Lake Katwe salt industry, all of which had strong teams in the late eighties and nighties. The industries supported the soccer clubs they owned.

He notes that the management of the industries at the time where committed to supporting their football clubs. However, after many factories closed in the 70s, the clubs were orphaned. The funds to support the clubs dried up, players were demotivated, and some quit football, while others joined other clubs.

“The factories have resumed production but the new managers are not interested in local sports. They instead support clubs that are owned by the rich in Kampala. We have visited them several times to find solutions for reviving the fallen clubs but the response is always negative,” Kidima laments.

“How do you expect our clubs to survive without support from the economic giants in the district?  We have clubs such as Sun City FC, a club that has tried to fill the void after realizing that Kasese had no soccer club. However, they are failing to survive because they have no financial support,” he added.

In Mbarara, Sseka Mutaka, the FUFA representative in the region and a former player of Mbarara United, poor administration is killing soccer clubs in Uganda. He says in Mbarara, most of the clubs were started by individuals who prevented anybody to give them a hand.

“The clubs are formed by sports lovers but these are poor people and on top of that, they are selfish. Football is an expensive venture that needs lots of money and other technical support.  But the club founders feel this is their business and do not want any aid lest the helper takes over,” he notes.

According to Apitta, fans are part and partial to the failure of clubs, noting that few people have interest in sports, so football is left to the players and the club owners.

Most foreign clubs succeed from the fan base. In Uganda, a team loses once; the fans think it is the end of the game. “Many want to watch free football matches yet their contribution is what keeps the clubs moving,” he notes.

Apitta adds that FUFA has also abandoned clubs at local level yet they are supposed to support them. “FUFA needs to provide these clubs with boots, jerseys, goal post and nets, fix matches wile considering the upcountry clubs that have to ply long journeys for matches. All this is lacking hence clubs continuing to suffer. How do you expect them to survive without support,” he stresses.

In an interview with the CECAFA founder member, Kezekia Ssegwanga Musisi recently, before he passed on, he said that the lack of political will is another issue that has greatly affected the football clubs. He says the central government, especially the education ministry and the local governments are not supporting.

He said that back in the 70s, the government had a hand in all the sporting activities in the country.

“They would support clubs by providing jersey and sometimes balls. Even the districts had budgets for sports. The sub-counties also supported the sports and they had an obligation to nurture a team that would represent the region. This brought a lot of competition, hence success of the clubs, which is not happening today,” he noted.

Musisi explained that many of the club founders use it as the stepping ground into politics. When they are not elected, they tend to abandon the clubs, citing the example of Biharwe FC, Mbarara United, Rwampara FC and Gulu United.

“Even the change of power has led to the collapse of the clubs. When a leader, who is interested in sports, is transferred, the new leader may not be interested in sports and abandon what others have built, “he noted.

The chief administrative officer of Gulu, Dorothy Ajwang, says the district has no plans for supporting sports. She says the budget for the district is small so they give little support to sports in schools.

“We would love to support the football clubs but the budget is too small, even the budget for schools is not enough,” she notes. 

Musisi stresses that even the corporate entities have also failed to support the clubs. “Those who help want to monopolize the teams, so no chance is given to others. When they lose interest, even those who wanted to support earlier on would have lost interest,” he notes.

According to Mike Leti, the FUFA representative in West Nile, the districts love money more than sports. “If there is an event that collides with a football game, the district gives priority to other activities such as trade shows, church crusades and music shows.”

Musisi stresses that in the past, players played out of passion. A sport is now a career so players expect to be paid. They have families to take care of. Few clubs can afford to pay players a reasonable salary, he concludes. 

“Many clubs can’t feed players, buy jerseys, boots and transport them to tournaments. That is why players leave for other clubs, leaving the poor ones to collapse,” Musisi stresses.

Principles of how to run a football club

According to Nicholas Muramaji, the secretary general of the Uganda National Council of Sports, sports is built on three principals - the fan base, the founding body, the brand of the club and the professional body that run the clubs.

He adds that without their support and investment, there is no success. The fans have to be with their teams irrespective of whether the team is in top flight, chasing promotion or surviving relegation.  In Uganda, a few clubs look at these principles. This is why there is a high mortality of clubs.

 “For any club to survive it must be playing entertaining football, quality players and a good management. No one wants to invest in a poor brand. That is why industries supported clubs in the past because they had quality brands,” he notes.

Apitta says clubs need to employ managers who have experience in football. They should also get time to build the club. In Uganda, if you fail in one year, the next year you have no job. This breaks continuity and leads to collapse.

He adds that FUFA has to train local coaches for the clubs if they are to professionals at the local levels.

Musisi adds that the funds generated by the clubs have to run the clubs.

“Players, the coaches and supporting staff need to be paid on time. Many clubs have collapsed because the founders see them as sources of income for other businesses. They pull out funds and leave the clubs to collapse,” he notes.

Apitta says there is need for sponsors. These will help fund some of the activities in the club hence success.

Musisi says the success of the clubs does not depend only on the founders but also the support from the football federation such as the national council for sports, FUFA and the sports ministry so that the clubs are guaranteed a long-term survival.

KCCA spokesperson Peter Kauju says the only way clubs can live to celebrate many birthdays like KCCA football club that has existed for 40 years is by having a strong fan base that believes in their club.

He said this has been part of the motivating factor for their club, even when the club is struggling.

“The leadership and management of the players is another contributing factor. They are committed to what they do and they are very professional. Even the financial support by the institution helps. This is our brand so if it is performing poorly, it means KCCA is not supporting them well,” he stresses.

George William Kyomukama plays for Kampala School of Excellence soccer club, he says most times players have talent but because of the injustices in football make many miss out on playing for good clubs.

“Players have to be connected to some people in the big clubs even when they are not talented, in the end the club will not perform because the players don’t meet the standards. Yet for any club to survive the players have to be good and the management,” he notes.

Some of the officials who preferred anonymity note that the media has completely abandoned reporting on the issues that can help to build Ugandan sports. They note that journalist is just focused on successful clubs instead of trying to promote even the clubs on the local scene.

“They make people feel football is only the premier league yet we have we have so many tournaments that take place in the country. So many play grounds are being grabbed upcountry, players are facing a number of challenges, and no journalist had taken time to follow up the clubs that collapse. All they do is to concentrate on the clubs that can give them tokens, something that has greatly kept people off what is happening in sports across the country,” one of the veteran sports personality notes.

Why invest in football

According to Omara Apitta the commissioner physical education and sports Ministry of Education, football started a long time ago and it is well-known for so many importances.

He says football is for leisure, improving health, physical fitness, creates friendship and unlike in the past where football was for fan; today football is a business and also an income generating activity to the country.

“Look at the international level, the richest people and the well paid are now footballers, this shows how football is becoming very important. Football also is important for sports tourism, and also sells the country to the international scene,” Apitta explains.

He adds that football also brings in allot of foreign currencies and development citing some of the professional footballers such as the Denis Obuya, Denis Onyango, among others who have put up so many development in the country because of football.

“Football keeps people busy hence not having time for crimes. This is why the common person should care about the survival of the clubs,” Apitta stresses.

Uganda league

FUFA organizes the men’s and women’s national football teams, and the first and second tiers of national football covering the Ugandan Super League and Ugandan Big League respectively. The third tier (Regional Leagues) is organised by the regional football associations and the fourth tier (District Leagues / Fourth Division) are administered the many district football associations.

FUFA organizes the following competitions; Azam Uganda Premier League, Ugandan Cup, FUFA Big League, FUFA Women Elite League, FUFA Juniors League (U-17), Inter Regions Tournament, Mama Becca Women’s day cup, FUFA Corporate tournament, Regional Leagues, District Leagues.

Apitta says this is almost the same in most of the east African countries were you find corporate clubs dominating the football. This is because most of them have money hence leaving the local clubs suffering.

The story was done with a funding grant from ACME

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