There are a few things everyone who loves the game of football knows as gospel truth.
ONE: For every match at knockout level there has to be a winner and a loser.
TWO: Sometimes the best team doesn’t win.
THREE: when you lose a game, the world doesn’t end, it only starts afresh.
I say that because on Saturday by far the Uganda Cranes were the better team. We took the game to the champions of Africa, cancelled out their 1st leg goal advantage and pushed them as hard as we possibly could.
I will use ‘we’ because I was amongst the thousands of fans who were the 12th man for the Cranes.
Well, we lost the game but you can’t fault the players! They won the game in 90 minutes and only went out on post match spot kicks. That’s why they are called POST match penalties. The match is over but they need to break a deadlock.
Anyone can miss a spot kick. The Cranes were unlucky that it was their player Patrick Ochan who got his shot saved! Losing on spot kicks is still losing and it hurts just as hard.
The Uganda Cranes must be hurting like many Ugandans are but they can hold their heads high in the knowledge that they gave it their all, did their best and beat the champions of Africa in 90 minutes. That is no mean feat!
Journalists will fill the columns with words about how jinxed the team is, how the federation hiked the prices and had empty seats but the fact that the journalists can’t hide is: the Cranes won the game scored a goal and reduced the champions to spectators for most of the game!
I know finally that doesn’t count but this elimination must not shroud the positives from the game.
Would a few more thousand fans have created a more magical environment? Maybe!
But last year, at the same stage, Namboole was parked to the rafters and the players couldn’t get a goal against Kenya!
I don’t want to disrespect Kenya in anyway but Kenya are not the champions of Africa. And we had the parked stadium and still the Cranes fell short.
Did the pricey tickets priced keep away fans? Yes. Shs40, 000 might be small money for some guys, but for most Cranes fans it’s too much for a game of football, which was even telecast live on TV.
Was it right to have the tickets that expensive? You can’t tell unless you look at the financials. FUFA does the estimates and comes up with the ticket prices, which is their job. Our job as fans is to buy the tickets if we can afford them and support the team.
Sometimes not that many will afford the tickets and the stadium will have empty seats. It’s not unique to Uganda vs Zambia and Ugandans should erase from their heads the mistaken belief that all games featuring the Uganda Cranes will sell out.
Fact: yes a parked stadium is lovely and more intimidating for the opponents, but the game is played and won and lost on the green pitch not in the terraces!
Even in an empty stadium, a good team will get a win.
Some Ugandan fans expect a sell out every time and some have forgotten the three things about football I started with. That sometimes you will not win a game even when you play well.
And some fans have totally lost all shame in their quest to a win that they even call on the federation to bribe the referees so the team can get into the Cup of Nations.
But even if you bribe the referee, you must get in a position to get a penalty. Okay lets assume you’ve bribed your way to the Nations Cup, will you continue to bribe officials or you will be the whipping boys of the tournament?
What went wrong?
In my opinion, nothing went wrong on Saturday. The team had the best build-ups ever in Ugandan history.
No politicians lined up for photo opportunities at training and the players didn’t make the front pages with scandals and bad behavior. For once in a very long time the Cranes camp seemed to have been tranquil.
On match day, I with some friends walked to the stadium several hours before kickoff and was checked and ushered to my seat. Organization at the stadium was better than the last game we played against Congo Brazzaville.
We had numbers improvised on the seats and several ushers were recruited to assist fans locate their right seats.
Even the run down toilets at Namboole were cleaner than they were last time around. They had running water and even had toilet cleaner and tissue. These are simple things you expect in a normal stadium but I have been to Namboole on match days and the stench from the toilets would find us in the terraces.
Of course all this can be improved and fans must demand that Namboole stadium management renovates the toilets.
The playing surface was flatter and greener than it was last time when we played Senegal and Congo Brazzaville.
The Zambians had complained and as someone who has played some amateur football on that pitch, I must say the groundsmen did a great job, leveling the pitch in time for the game. It wasn’t the flattest playing field in the world, but the work done must be acknowledged.
For the fans, there was enough to drink and eat outside the stadium although the prices were like the match tickets, on the high side. Imagine a bottle of soda at Shs4000.
I don’t know who specifically to credit for all this but someone at FUFA and at Namboole stadium did their jobs right. No question about it.
The team itself was smart and they started the game on the high and pinned Zambia in their own half and scored the all-important first goal and won in 90 minutes. Coach Bobby Williamson and his technical team did a great job preparing the team for the massive task. They must take credit.
The only way forward is just that, forward. In my opinion the team is good and getting better and must not be dismantled or subjected to vitriolic abuse like some people are doing on facebook. Anyone can miss a spot kick; that’s why they call it the lottery.
Uganda has dominated CECAFA but if you look around the region the only other teams in CECAFA that played this weekend’s final round of AFCON qualifiers was Sudan and Ethiopia and Ethiopia prevailed over Sudan. Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and others were missing.
That to me could be part of the reason why Uganda keeps missing the final cut. Football in the region isn’t as competitive as it is in other regions of Africa. Playing in CECAFA is good but doesn’t prepare the players for the super charged environment of the final round of AFCON qualification. That experience could be what is holding Uganda back.
This crop of players and what they have achieved is evidence of how much talent we have in Uganda. The trick is how to nourish that talent, tap it and then deploy it against other teams to achieve great things.
For most of the players that lined up at Namboole, the Cranes games are the only matches they play under that kind of do or die pressure.
The situation isn’t any different across the region.
In my eyes the Cranes are actually punching above their weight.
As a country we have developed an obsession with qualification for AFCON but I think as football fans our obsession should not only be AFCON qualification but the improvement of the teams in Uganda. We can qualify for the nations Cup but what will we do there? Are we strong enough to get through the group stages or we shall be an embarrassment, shipping goals like a bunch of amateurs?
Qualifying for such huge tournaments when not very ready can be more disastrous than not qualifying at all. I know a team in the region (Rwanda) that qualified on borrowed talent (naturalized citizens) and they didn’t do well. They have not qualified again and instead they are seriously working from the grass roots upwards.
My appeal to Ugandans is, we shouldn’t relax and we should remain hopeful. We should not stop believing. The team is playing well and improving every year, but lets do the basics right, so that when we finally breakthrough to the big stage we aren’t just participants, we are contenders and then we shall dominate for years to come.
Lets get the leagues in order. And I am not just talking about the FUFA Super League (FSL) and the Uganda Super League (USL). Its absurd we get confused with the top leagues forgetting the fact that clubs in the super league feed off clubs in the lower leagues. Let us get the league structures functioning, right from schools to second division, to first division up to big league and then super league. Football officials and sports journalists talk about the league like there is only one league in Uganda. The lower leagues never get a mention and that’s a shame.
We can do all we can to get the national team into the big tournaments and I don’t want us to lose that ambition. But let us remember one thing. A stronger league leads to stronger players and a stronger Cranes. There are no shortcuts to success. In football there is only one way to success, hard work, not juju and bribing match officials. The team that prepares the best always wins the most. And in football as in every sport, there is no alternative to investing in youths.
There are very many talented boys emerging from schools but they get lost at tertiary level, because clubs are too weak financially and administratively, they cant take up these players. As a result players normally chose books ahead of football even when it is possible to pursue and succeed at both.
That’s why if you are a football fan you must do your duty to the club you love and the simplest way to support that club is to pay to watch the games they play, that way the clubs raise more money and can acquire and further develop these players who would otherwise drop off the footballing scene.
Another thing we can do is join club management, most clubs in Uganda are run by passionate officials but everyone knows that you need much more than just passion to run a successful enterprise.
Clubs need qualified administrators and it is these club administrators who will eventually become FUFA leaders. Stronger clubs will not only get us stronger Cranes players but also better football administrators and better football supporters.
Marketing: There is so much potential in Uganda football but sadly, we only look at the Cranes. How many Cranes replica shirts exist in Uganda for instance? I have five shirts, all colors and shades. But how does this benefit the boys who wear the shirt on the playing field?
FUFA and clubs need to look into how to tap into this market. I believe if they set up an official shop and cracked down on fake dealers, FUFA wouldn’t be looking at only match day tickets as a source of income. Maybe if FUFA made some money selling shirts, and caps and other merchandising, they wouldn’t have to double ticket prices for such important games to be able to maintain the team and run the federation.
Keep believing: Uganda is our home and the Cranes are our team, we must never abandon the boys, we must never give up on the team. No one wants qualification for the big tournaments more than the players who put their bodies on the line for ninety minutes and beyond. I know as a fan we are hurting, we paid our money and got heartbreak instead, but we cannot hurt more than Andy Mwesigwa, Patrick Ochan, or their teammates who toiled for 90 minutes against the defending champions and paid with their bodies. Players will give up the fight and others will come take their place but as a country, as fans, we must never stop believing of tomorrow.
The Cranes aren’t jinxed, or cursed, or doomed to failure, we just haven’t been lucky enough and one bad result after another shouldn’t mean that we stop chasing the dream. Losing the spot kicks was painful but it shouldn’t break us.