Uganda's Drought-Breaking Journey of Historic Proportions

Updated on May 3, 2020
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Journalism and Russian Area Sudies.

Milutin Sredojevic smiles and raises his arms as players carry the manager following an Uganda. Thanks to Sredojevic, Uganda secured its first trip to the Africa Cup of Nations in nearly four decades in Septemeber 2016.
Milutin Sredojevic smiles and raises his arms as players carry the manager following an Uganda. Thanks to Sredojevic, Uganda secured its first trip to the Africa Cup of Nations in nearly four decades in Septemeber 2016. | Source

Qualifying for any significant football tournament gives every nation the optimism for any reason. For some countries, that opportunity also includes banishing years and even decades of heartbreaks, particularly for those countries seeking to return to the glory days of decades past.

Perhaps none of the 16 participants at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations underwent a meteoric experience of highs and lows more than Uganda. After finishing runners-up at the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations, Uganda remained out of the wilderness for three decades and hardly stayed relevant. In the early 2010s, Uganda would be on the brink of breaking the drought and yet somehow failed to get the vital goal or result needed. But on Sept. 4, 2016, all that heartbreak vanished when Uganda sealed its passage back to Africa's most prominent stage at last.

Uganda qualified for the 2017 African Cup of Nations in its final qualifier at home, and its journey to reaching the tournament involved resiliency and the vital results.

From Golden to a Three Decade Exile

During the 1970s, Uganda had its best teams in that decade and was a relevant East African nation (which is still true to this date). This success came while Uganda was under the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin. But it was in the 1970s when Uganda participated in three consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. Uganda's participation came while the nation won three regional tournament victories in the CECAFA Cup (English: Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations).

The third of those Africa Cup of Nations tournaments came during Uganda's Annus Mirabilis in 1978. It was Uganda's fifth trip, but the nation had yet to win a game. But with Philip Omandi and Godfrey Kisitu, Uganda won three games, including a 2-1 semifinal victory against Nigeria that sent the nation to its first continental final.

Uganda put up a brave fight against the tournament hosts Ghana on Mar. 16, 1978, but lost 2-0. Following Uganda's run in 1978, significant events beset the country, which included Uganda going to war with Tanzania. Turmoil ensued, which included the Liberation of Kampala on Apr. 11, 1979. These events caused Uganda to withdraw from qualifying for three major tournaments. Eventually, Uganda would get back to playing major qualifying matches, but with little success during the 1980s. The national team seemed to be a distant memory.

Lost Opportunities When it Mattered

A common theme Uganda throughout the near four-decade exile was its failures to secure critical results during qualifying. Dropped points proved disastrous for Uganda, which included its qualifying run for the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations. Uganda commenced the campaign in the worst way possible, having allowed three goals in 13 minutes against Tanzania en route to a 4-0 defeat on Sept. 3, 1994. Still, Uganda won three games in its next eight qualifiers to stay in contention for a top-two finish ahead of its final qualifier on Jul. 30, 1995. With North African giants Algeria and Egypt also vying for a top-two finish, Uganda hoped to break the duo ahead of its final qualifier in Alexandra, Egypt.

Uganda allowed two goals in the opening eight minutes, with the first goal being the first of three goals that Ahmed El-Kass scored. When the final whistle blew, Uganda had one of its worst losses to date - a 6-0 humiliation at Egypt. Nearly four years from this match, this same 6-0 scoreline also occurred for Uganda in a 2000 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. This time, Tunisia would inflict this same score with six separate players scoring a goal.

Losing games was not limited to road games. One of Uganda's earlier opportunities to qualify occurred during the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying phase. Despite only playing a three-team group, Uganda finished second in a group that featured Ghana and Rwanda. The pivotal match was when Uganda lost 1-0 to Rwanda on Jun. 7, 2003 - Jimmy Gatete's lone goal proving critical in sending Rwanda, not Uganda, to the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations.

Czaba Laszlo (left) discusses footballing matters with Geoffrey Massa during a training session in 2008. Laszlo was one of three main coaches to help Uganda get back on the map.
Czaba Laszlo (left) discusses footballing matters with Geoffrey Massa during a training session in 2008. Laszlo was one of three main coaches to help Uganda get back on the map. | Source

Seeking Help from Europe

In 2006, Uganda sought its ninth manager since 1999 and searched outside Africa for help. With its hiring of Hungary's Csaba Lazslo in 2006, Uganda appointed its first European manager in 31 years. In 2004, Lazslo was an assistant coach under Lothar Matthäus for the Hungarian national team. Now, Lazslo had to oversee Uganda to the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations as the nation began qualifying on Sept. 2, 2006, at home against Lesotho.

Nine months earlier, after scoring his first goal for Uganda, Geofrey Massa scored twice in the first half against Lesotho. A penalty kick from David Obua helped Uganda win 3-0. Nine months later, history unfolded against one of Africa's giants in another home qualifier. With two penalty kicks from Obua and Ibrahim Sekagya, Uganda pulled off one of the most monumental upsets in qualifying - a 2-1 victory in Kampala against Nigeria. This victory was so exceptional that Lazslo received the nickname "Miracle Man." It was Uganda's first victory over Nigeria in 29 years and also reminiscent as that 1978 victory over Nigeria.

Uganda accumulated 10 points and a plus-3 goal differential during its six qualifiers but scored all eight goals at home. Uganda waited until Oct. 12, 2007, to see if it would be one of the three best runners-up in qualifying. Mali and Benin's road games in Togo and Sierra Leone, respectively, had been rescheduled from September 2007. The change was due to both Sierra Leone's presidential run-off election and Togo's parliamentary elections, both on Oct. 14, 2007. In the end, both Mali and Benin recorded 2-0 victories, with the latter denying Uganda a berth on goal difference.

Uganda was beginning its return to glory, and the "Miracle Man" pulled off another result. A 3-1 victory on Jun. 14, 2008, in a 2010 World Cup qualifier (it also doubled with that of Africa Cup of Nations qualifying) marked Uganda's maiden victory over Angola, the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations hosts. This match was also Laszlo's final match for Uganda before taking the same position at Scotland's Heart of Midlothian.

Goal difference allowed Angola to finish ahead of Uganda as the 3-1 victory came days before Uganda lost 4-1 to Benin in Cotonou. The vital blow that derailed Uganda's attempt for even the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations came on Sept. 7, 2008. Despite receiving an early goal from Obua, Uganda struggled in the second half as it yielded three goals in the final 22 minutes.

More Guidance and Opportunities

That 3-1 loss in Niger was Uganda's first game under Bobby Williamson, a Scottish manager who, six months earlier, had been managing Chesterfield before his sacking. Despite missing out on the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, Uganda was hoping for another miracle from the Scottish manager.

Uganda still dominated East Africa and, during Williamson's tenure, won the CECAFA Cup four times in five years, including twice as hosts (in 2008 and 2012). Between 2009 and 2010, Uganda lost only one game in regulation (a 2-1 friendly in Ghana) while beginning qualification for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations emphatically - a 3-0 home victory over Angola with goals from Obua, Andrew Mwesigwa, and Geoffrey Sserunkuma. Despite these victories, Uganda still had that tournament drought looming.

Uganda had a manageable qualifying group to negotiate with Angola, Kenya, and Guinea-Bissau. After four games, Uganda had two chances to reach the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, especially in a wide-open group. Even with a 1-0 loss in Luanda, Uganda still had a two-point lead over Angola and the tiebreaker on head-to-head meetings due to goals scored. Uganda could not get the goal it needed to break through against Kenya. Meanwhile, across the continent in Bissau, Angola scored early and went on to win 2-0 at Guinea-Bissau. Uganda never found the goal it needed and missed out on a top-two runner up to reach the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.

Uganda erased that disappointment of missing out by winning the 2011 CECAFA Cup nearly two months after the home draw against Kenya. Nevertheless, it would not be long before Uganda had another crack at the Africa Cup of Nations. With an abbreviated qualification campaign due to the tournament's shift to odd-numbered years, Uganda also began qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. In June 2012, Uganda managed consecutive 1-1 draws to open qualifying for the World Cup with late goals (at Angola on Jun. 3 and home to Senegal on Jun. 9).

Uganda followed up those draws with a home victory in which Uganda overturned a first-leg loss in Pointe-Noire to defeat Congo 4-0. Now, only reigning champions Zambia stood in Uganda's way for a berth at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Uganda and Zambia became one of the more entertaining fixtures among the 15 matches. Christopher Katongo's goal was the difference in the teams' first-leg meeting, but Massa's goal in the second leg lift Uganda and its fans.

With no more goals scored, a penalty shootout determined who would reach South Africa. The man whose penalty kick won the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, Stephen Sunzu put Zambia ahead 9-8. Uganda's Patrick Ochan missed the ensuing attempt, and his country went out at home yet again.

A Chance to Dethrone the Continental Champions

A European with Experience in Africa

Failures to reach the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012 and 2013, combined with a 2-0 loss at Liberia on Mar. 24, 2013, ended Williamson's tenure as Uganda's coach. Uganda hired a coach with vast experience in Africa - that included one recently Rwanda's manager before being fired in April 2013. But it was in Uganda where Serbia's Milutin Sredojevic, who also had stints in South Africa and Sudan, commenced his African journey, having guided local club Villa SC to three consecutive league titles.

Know as Micho, Sredojevic beat out 37 potential candidates to win the job. His quest was to get Uganda back in contention for a possible World Cup playoff. Uganda did just that thanks to a pair of home victories in June 2013 (1-0 against Liberia on Jun. 8 and 2-1 against Angola on 2-1), including goals from Okwi and Mawejje that got Uganda in a must-win against Senegal in Marrakech, Morocco. Uganda had its work cut out following Walusimbi's red card in the 37th minute. Still, Uganda had a chance at a playoff with the game scoreless until Senegal's Sadio Mane scored an 85th-minute goal to knock out Uganda.

In 2014, Uganda and Sredojevic had another busy year. It began in January in Cape Town, where Uganda played at the 2014 African Nations Championship. Despite an opening win against Burkina Faso, Uganda failed to progress to the knockout stages. In May, Uganda began qualifying for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations at Madagascar. The Cranes needed an injury-time goal from Hamis Kizza in Mahajanga to get momentum ahead of its second leg. Massa's goal was the only goal of the second leg, as Uganda advanced. A pair of victories over Mauritania meant Uganda would play six matches in three months in qualifying against Ghana, Guinea, and Togo for a chance to reach the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations.

Uganda's qualifying group proved the most competitive. Despite losing twice to Togo within a week in October, Uganda got back into contention with a 1-0 home victory against Ghana. All four nations were mathematically alive heading into the final matches on Nov. 19, 2014. Uganda traveled to face Guinea in a home match contested in Morocco because of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. However, Uganda could not get the result it needed, and a 2-0 loss ended yet another campaign.

Ugandan players celebrate after a goal in a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Francistown, Botswana. During its successful campaign to reach the 2017 African Cup of Nations, six separate players scored a goal for Uganda.
Ugandan players celebrate after a goal in a 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Francistown, Botswana. During its successful campaign to reach the 2017 African Cup of Nations, six separate players scored a goal for Uganda. | Source

Staying the Course and On the Cusp

Despite missing out on the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, Uganda had its right manager as Sredojevic received a three-year extension until 2018. For his part, Sredojevic helped Uganda begin the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations with consecutive victories. On Jun. 13, 2015, with Massa and Brian Umony scoring in 10 minutes in the second half of a home match against Botswana. Uganda followed up that 2-0 victory with a 1-0 win at Comoros courtesy of an Anthony Mawejje goal in the 26th minute.

In January 2016, Sredojevic managed Uganda during its appearance at the African Nations Championship in Rwanda. The result saw Uganda exit the group stage after only two draws in its group. Two months later, Uganda had its sternest test in March against Burkina Faso. Though it picked up one point in two matches against Burkina Faso, Uganda was able to grab another crucial road victory in Botswana. Luwagga Kizito scored the opening goal nine minutes into the game. After Botswana tied the match five minutes into the second half, Uganda replied quickly with Khalid Aucho scoring the eventual winning goal.

This 2-1 road victory put Uganda in a comfortable spot as either group winners or even one of the top two runners-up to advance to the tournament. In recent years, players establish new standards that the country had never seen. New talent has emerged, with Okwi setting a standard and Walumsimbi becoming the nation's first player to amass 100 caps. In previous tournaments, Uganda often faltered in the games that matter.

Now destiny was on the doorstep once again.

Elevating a Nation and an Icon to Legendary Status

One tournament where Uganda has utilized its talent has been Africa's other notable tournament. Unlike the Africa Cup of Nations, the African Nations Championship is exclusive to African nation's players of their respective domestic leagues. This tournament typically occurs in years when the Africa Cup of Nations does not happen, and in 2014, its matches counted as full international fixtures. Uganda participated in four editions since this tournament's inception in 2009.

The most notable star from this tournament played in the 2016 edition when Uganda contested all three matches at Stade Umuganda in Giseyi, a Rwandan city located on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Uganda reached its third successive trip to the African Nations Championship thanks to the attacking midfielder Farouk Miya, who had a breakthrough in 2015 in which he scored ten goals. That included three goals during qualifying, with Miya having also scored in both matches against Sudan to reach the 2016 African Nations Championship. Miya followed that achievement with three goals in two games against Togo. Nearly 13 months after its two losses to Togo proved costly, Uganda won both games to knock out Togo from the 2018 World Cup qualifying.

Miya then helped Uganda qualify for the CECAFA Cup, where he scored three goals during the competition. That included the team's opening goal against Malawi in the quarterfinals. Miya then followed that match by scoring Uganda's fifth and decisive goal in a penalty shootout to knock out tournament hosts Ethiopia in Addis Ababa,

In Uganda's opening game, Miya scored on a penalty kick in what ended up being a 2-2 draw. Miya would suffer an injury during the game and saw limited action for the rest of the tournament. But in a competition featuring domestic talent, Miya became a significant player sought after in Europe.

Miya had garnered attention for his play. Instantly it was time to make history, and on Sept. 4, 2016, Uganda had a simple scenario: win and get in. With one flick of the ball, Miya shot the goal that ultimately lifted Uganda out of the 39-year drought. Although Uganda finished second behind Burkina Faso, its 13 points in the six games were enough as one of the two best runners-up.

Uganda qualified for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations after 39 years of waiting.

Ugandan players particiate in a training ahead of the 2016 African Nations Championship in Umuganda Stadium in Giseyi, Rwanda on January 17, 2016
Ugandan players particiate in a training ahead of the 2016 African Nations Championship in Umuganda Stadium in Giseyi, Rwanda on January 17, 2016 | Source

Aftermath

Though it would be the first nation eliminated from the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations after a pair of 1-0 losses to Egypt and Ghana, Uganda fought valiantly. Miya, whose goal against Comoros sent Uganda to the tournament, scored Uganda's lone goal in a 1-1 draw that eliminated Mali from the competition.

That tournament helped Uganda in its quest during World Cup qualifying, where the nation defeated eventual participants Egypt. In 2018, Uganda qualified for a second consecutive African Cup of Nations. That experience paid off when on Jun. 22, 2019, Uganda recorded its first Africa Cup of Nations victory since 1978.

It is never easy for a nation seeking a continental appearance. Uganda's road to the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations not only lifted a country, but one can argue that it lifted East Africa for that matter. Kenya, Tanzania, and Burundi qualified for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, marking the first time that East Africa had at least four nations in the prestigious tournament. Only time will tell how Uganda's historic qualification campaign for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations shaped the country

It's Time to Finally Celebrate!

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    © 2019 Antonio Martinez

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