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Uganda's Drought-Breaking Journey of Historic Proportions

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 September 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 September 2016.

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

Conceivably, none of the 16 participants at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations underwent meteoric 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 yet somehow failed to obtain the vital goal or result needed. 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. 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. 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, including 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

An underlying 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 remain 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 endured 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 when it matters also happened at home during this period. One of Uganda's earlier opportunities to qualify occurred during the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying phase. Despite 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 prominent 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 prominent coaches to help Uganda get back on the map.

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, Uganda's first victory over Nigeria in 29 years, was so exceptional that Lazslo received the nickname "Miracle Man."

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 Sierra Leone's presidential run-off 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 expected another miracle from the Scottish manager.

During Williamson's tenure, Uganda still dominated East Africa and won the CECAFA Cup four times in five years, including twice as the host nation. 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 nonetheless had that tournament drought looming.

Uganda received a manageable qualifying group to negotiate with Angola, Kenya, and Guinea-Bissau. After four games, Uganda obtained two chances to reach the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, especially in a wide-open group. Notwithstanding a 1-0 loss in Luanda, Uganda maintained a two-point lead over Angola and the tiebreaker on head-to-head meetings due to goals scored. Uganda could not score the goal it needed to break through against Kenya. Simultaneously, across the continent in Bissau, Angola scored early and went on to win 2-0 at Guinea-Bissau. Uganda never secured 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. Due to the tournament's shift to odd-numbered years, Uganda also began qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup with an abbreviated qualification campaign. 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 victory in which Uganda overturned a first-leg loss in Pointe-Noire to defeat Congo 4-0. 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. Zambia's Stephen Sunzu, the player whose penalty kick won the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, scored the go-ahead goal to put his nation up 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 experience in Africa, notably one whose most recent stint was Rwanda's manager. In Uganda, Serbia's Milutin Sredojevic, who also had tours 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 Godfrey 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 goals.

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 goals.

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, which saw Uganda exit the group stage after only two draws. 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.

Ugandan players participate in training ahead of the 2016 African Nations Championship in Umuganda Stadium in Giseyi, Rwanda on January 17, 2016

Ugandan players participate in training ahead of the 2016 African Nations Championship in Umuganda Stadium in Giseyi, Rwanda on January 17, 2016

Elevating 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 nations' 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 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 provided 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 subsequently 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. Nevertheless, 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 proved vital. Uganda finished second behind Burkina Faso, but its 13 points in the six games were enough as one of the two best runners-up.

After 39 years, Uganda qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Aftermath

In the months leading to the tournament contested in Gabon, Uganda also began its 2018 World Cup qualifiers with a scoreless draw away in Tamale, Ghana. The nation achieved another important result with a 1-0 victory against Congo two months later. Simultaneously, the club also achieved another victory in a pre-tournament friendly against Slovakia in Abu Dhabi.

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.

Six months later, Sredojevic terminated his contract with the national team and took the managerial job with South Africa's Orlando Pirates. His replacement was French manager Sébastien Desabre, whose credentials included guiding Tunisian club Espérance de Tunis to the league title in the 2013-14 season.

Like his predecessor, Desabre guided Uganda back to the African Cup of Nations, topping a group that featured Tanzania, the Cape Verde Islands, and Lesotho. Along the way, Walusimbi made history for his nation to become Uganda's first player to achieve 100 caps. The experience from the 2017 tournament 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 to seek 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 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!

Uganda's Journey to the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations

Uganda qualified for the 2017 African Cup of Nations on Sept. 4, 2016, as one of the two best runners-up during qualification. The 2017 African Cup of Nations took place in Gabon.

DateOpponentScoreVenue

June 13, 2015

Botswana (H)

2-0 Uganda

Kampala: Nelson Mandela Stadium

Sept. 5, 2015

Comoros (A)

1-0 Uganda

Mitsamiouli: Stade Said Mohamed Cheikh

Mar. 26, 2016

Burkina Faso (A)

1-0 Burkina Faso

Ouagadougou: Stade du 4 Août

Mar. 29, 2016

Burkina Faso (H)

0-0

Kampala: Nelson Mandela Stadium

June 4, 2016

Botswana (A)

2-1 Uganda

Francistown: Francistown Stadium

Sept. 4, 2016

Comoros (H)

1-0 Uganda

Kampala: Nelson Mandela Stadium

Jan. 17, 2017

Ghana (N)

1-0 Ghana

Port-Gentil: Stade de Port-Gentil

Jan. 21, 2017

Egypt (N)

1-0 Egypt

Port-Gentil: Stade de Port-Gentil

Jan. 25, 2017

Mali (N)

1-1

Oyem: Stade d'Oyem

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© 2019 Antonio Martinez