The Cranes Have Come Back Home: Uganda's Drought-Breaking Journey of Historic Proportions

Updated on August 17, 2019
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

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

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

The beauty of qualifying for a continental title is that every nation starts with optimism, especially for one looking to erase years of pain and recent heartbreaks.

Of the 16 participants at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, no nation underwent this experience more than Uganda. When they last participated in 1978, Uganda finished the tournament as runners-up. Over the next three decades, Uganda was hardly relevant in the African footballing scene. When it was knocking on the door to return to Africa's premier event, Uganda failed to get the result it needed. But on Sept. 4, 2016, all that heartbreak would vanish. Uganda had its long-awaited return to Africa's most prominent stage at last.

How it managed this achievement involved resiliency and some good results.

From Golden to Broken: A Near 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 would be Uganda's Annus Mirabilis, which came 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. The third game was a 2-1 victory against Nigeria in a semifinal, en route to its first (and to date) only continental final. There, Uganda lost 2-0 to tournament hosts Ghana on Mar. 16, 1978.

Following Uganda's run in 1978, significant events best the country. Later that year, Uganda would go to war with Tanzania and with the nation in turmoil, 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.

Nightmarish When it Matters

A common theme Uganda for two decades was its failures to secure critical results during qualifying. Dropped points proved disastrous for Uganda, including its qualifying run for the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations. Uganda commenced this campaign in the worst way possible - three goals allowed 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. Uganda was battling with north African giants Algeria and Egypt for a top-two finish. How would Uganda end this qualifying campaign as it traveled to Alexandria to face 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 chances to reach the tournament occurred during qualifying for the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations. Despite only playing a three-team group that included Ghana and Rwanda, Uganda lost 1-0 to Rwanda on Jun. 7, 2003. Jimmy Gatete scored the lone goal that set Rwanda en route to a maiden Africa Cup of Nations at Uganda's expense.

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. Right away, Lazslo had the task 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.

Furthermore, 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.

Ironically, 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 and lost 3-1.

More European Guidance and Yet More Opportunities

The 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. But despite missing out on the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, Uganda was hoping for another miracle from the Scottish manager.
Uganda was still a dominant team in east Africa. During Williamson's tenure, Uganda 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.

But despite these victories, Uganda still had that drought of reaching a tournament looming. For all of its road struggles in past editions, Uganda also struggled at home games when it matters. Uganda's 2011 CECAFA Cup success came nearly two months after Uganda's home draw against Kenya knocked the Cranes out of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.

Missing out was astounding given that Uganda has one of the more manageable groups in qualifying as it had to face Angola, Kenya, and Guinea-Bissau. After four games, Uganda had two chances to end the drought, especially given that during the group stage, Kenya defeated Angola during qualifying. Even with a 1-0 loss in Luanda, Uganda still had a two-point lead over Angola and the tiebreaker on head-to-head meeting due to goals scored. However, Uganda could not get the goal it needed to break through against Kenya. Meanwhile, across the continent in Bissau, Angola scored early and with a second goal 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.

Missing out on the 2012 edition was painful, but Uganda got another chance at a major tournament. Along 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 another victory. That victory happened to see Uganda overturn a first-leg loss in Pointe-Noire and defeat Congo 4-0. Uganda's reward for this victory would be a rough draw - only reigning champions Zambia stood in their 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 other goals scored, a penalty shootout would determine who qualifies for South Africa. The man who scored the winning penalty kick to give Zambia the title just nine months earlier, Stephen Sunzu had put Zambia ahead 9-8. Uganda's Patrick Ochan missed the ensuing attempt, and his country went out heartbreakingly 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, would spell the end of Williamson's tenure as Uganda's coach. Uganda hired a coach who has been coaching in Africa since 2001 whose journey included stops in South Africa and Sudan. He was the manager of Rwanda for two and a half years before being fired in April 2013. But it was in Uganda where Serbia's Milutin Sredojevic commenced his African journey. He had 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. However, Uganda had its work cut out following Walusimbi's red card in the 37th minutes. 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.

Of the seven qualifying groups for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, Uganda's group proved to be the most competitive. Despite losing twice to Togo within a week in October, Uganda got back into contention with a 1-0 victory of 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 to 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 campagin 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 campagin to reach the 2017 African Cup of Nations, six separate players scored a goal for Uganda. | Source

Staying the Course and On the Cusp

Although it had missed out on yet another major tournament, Uganda had their 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. It started 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, Uganda participated in the African Nations Championship in Rwanda; there, Uganda failed to 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, and another goalscoring star would set the tone.

2016: When Uganda and an Icon became Legendary

One tournament that 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 occurs in years when the Africa Cup of Nations does not happen; beginning in 2014, matches in this tournament counted as full international fixtures. Uganda has participated in four editions since this tournament's inception in 2007.

Perhaps the most notable star from this tournament played in the 2016 edition. It was this edition when Uganda contested all three matches at Stade Umuganda in the Rwandan city Giseyi, 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 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.

In 2017, Uganda would be one of the 16 nations playing at the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon.

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, Uganda did not go down quickly. The hero against Comoros, Miya scored Uganda's lone goal in the tournament. This experience helped Uganda in its quest to reach the World Cup in Russia. Though it did not qualify for the World Cup, Uganda achieved a notable victory against Egypt. In the following year, Uganda qualified for a second consecutive African Cup of Nations that would occur in Egypt. On Jun. 22, 2019, Uganda recorded its first Africa Cup of Nations victory in 41 years.

It is never easy for a nation seeking a continental appearance, especially for Uganda. But Uganda's road to the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations not only lifted a country but 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 Nation shaped the country.

It's Time to Finally Celebrate!

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    © 2019 Antonio Martinez

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