Regional teams have changed the face of football

By Aldrine Nsubuga

The StarTimes Uganda Premier League finally looks like a real national league which has drawn in all the regions

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For years, Fort Portal town has been the epitome of serenity. The default destination for tourists until Soana FC changed its name to Tooro United.

Fort Portal became a host to 15 other StarTimes Uganda Premier League teams that have to visit for their away games. Today, Buhinga playground has become a beehive of activity whenever there’s a league fixture or Uganda Cup game.

From farmers, taxi touts, students, government workers, corporate executives to the Omukama of Tooro, everyone has become part of the football story on match day.

Buhinga overflows with fans, while the streets and taxi parks are the scenes of colourful celebrations.

The pride of the region has changed from tourism to Tooro United. The sense of identity and opportunity to gain exposure through football has re-invigorated the local pride.

Beyond the tea plantations, football has put Fort Portal back on the popular agenda.

Tooro United sits 8th on the league table, 10 points above the relegation zone and 10 points behind the top three teams. At Buhinga home stadium, they have embarrassed Vipers SC, SC Villa, Onduparaka after securing a well-deserved point from each of them and then shocked Express with a 1-0 win.

Most memorably, they dumped record Uganda Cup champions KCCA FC out of this year’s competition. This is a kill zone. A fortress.

The story from Mbarara is even more captivating. Previously identified only with milk, honey and fast economic growth, the western region is proving its versatility and enterprise through football.

With just one change in the dugout after signing coach Livingstone Mbabazi from Onduparaka, they have been the most consistent high performers this season to the extent that a first home defeat to Onduparaka this week caused a mini-riot at Kakyeka Stadium.

Sitting in third position on 36 points – nine behind table leaders KCCA – they are the only team with a realistic outside chance to pip defending champions Vipers and 2016/17 champions KCCA to the 2018/19 title.

All their home games sell out and their visits to Kampala are some of the most watched games on the fixture.

On everyone’s lips now, there’s a whisper which is becoming a loud noise; that Mbarara City wants to win the championship.

That a team from the western region is closely challenging the established order has drawn interest from politicians across the divide and the mileage Mbarara is getting from every good result on the pitch is incomparable.

Local football is the only place now where Mbarara is not talked about in political terms, the only time where the celebrity is not a politician.

Paul Mucureezi; the superstar and poster boy of the team, is a former KCCA player and well-groomed university student.

The Onduparaka script has been acted out many times in the past three years. West Nile region; specifically, Arua, no longer evokes sad nostalgic sentiments on suffering and poverty, but joy and pride.

Add Paidha Black Angels whose Bar Okoro stadium has finally been cleared to host home games by FUFA and you have a region which is at the moment the best at supporting local teams.

Great appeal

The StarTimes Uganda Premier League finally looks like a real national league which has drawn in all the regions.

No longer is football the reserve of the central region. No longer does the media focus on central region teams.

Traditional teams like KCCA, Villa, Express and the big ones like Vipers who often took it for granted that football supporters across the country had only the four to choose from, had better change their marketing strategy.

There is nothing that pushes competition like local community-based identity.

No longer are we certain whether KCCA, Villa, Express or Vipers have more fans than Onduparaka, Tooro United, Mbarara City or Paidha.

Growing local community fan bases is the model that propelled the famous European clubs to their current popularity.

If UPL and FUFA gauge the mood correctly, regionalising the StarTimes Uganda Premier League is the best way to make the domestic league popular once again.