There are two ways to look at Uganda Cranes' performance in the just concluded African Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Gabon where they were featuring after a 39-year hiatus, writes JAMES LULE.
One could say their exit in the group stages was woeful, way under par as they come. Or, that their ability to force Africa’s football powerhouses to rely on luck (in the case of four-time champions Ghana) or a last-minute moment of individual brilliance (in the case of seven-time champions Egypt) to go past them was strong testament to their own improved strength.
The second is how Uganda’s football federation (Fufa) assesses the team and it is more bankable. Here’s why. If, say, Uganda Cranes had forced draws with both Ghana and Egypt and pipped Mali (which, until they flapped, is the result their performance pointed to) would it be said that they were the stronger, better team or that they rode their luck?
Hardly the former. Because surprise is integral to football, better teams are wont to fall to their opposite numbers. The “unfavoured, unliked, unbelievable” Cameroon, as the South African Daily Maverick publication described The Indomitable Lions, defeated the more fancied Egypt to win the trophy.
It is hard to imagine Uganda Cranes would have been described any less had they just even gone past the group stages, or, better yet, succeeded to “bring the Afcon trophy home” as their TV commercial preceding the competition promised its viewers.
Coach Milutin Micho Sredojevic said Uganda measured herself up against the best in Africa and prosecuted well. With a little more work, the country will be able to compete as strongly as any other on the continent.
“We might look like we are still very far but we are on the right road where we want to take Ugandan football. The attitude we got is important as we go forward,” Micho said recently.
So, by what means exactly are we to forge ahead? Fufa says it has crafted plans to make qualification a habit and to eventually become competitive, beginning with the 21st edition of Afcon due in Cameroon in 2019. The federation has had its sights on it following Uganda’s 19th unsuccessful qualification campaign in 2014.
The strategy is hinged on eight pillars Fufa identified in the aftermath of failure to qualify for Afcon 2015 as critical to qualify and compete at the continent’s football fiesta. They include improving administration, coaching/technical personnel, resource mobilisation, developing stronger clubs, motivating players, training and competition infrastructure.
“All we have to do is to continue to improve in these areas and consolidate the achievements. We have attempted to address some but a lot of work is yet to be done,” Fufa president Moses Magogo said recently.
One of the critical lagging areas is to have players gain enough playing time at their respective clubs. According to Micho, up to 75 percent went to Gabon without the requisite game time for such competition. It is this, he added, that separated Uganda from its groupmates when it mattered most.
“Big teams get players from competition to competition but Uganda is not like that. We went to Gabon without the experience that is necessary and we played against very strong teams whose players are always competing, so elements of naivety and inexperience cost us the vital points,” Micho said recently.
It is no simple task how exactly to add more miles of club playing time into a player’s legs one has no direct control of. Fufa says it is encouraging players to work harder at their current clubs or to move where they can be played more. It is also building a bigger pool of players from which to select the team and their analytics paint a promising picture.
Whereas at least 90 percent of the team that featured in Gabon have the ability to play on, 60 percent of them will be appearing in their third Afcon campaign in Cameroon when qualifiers begin in June. This is a vital statistic. It is a truism in football, nay any field, that it takes some time to put together a robust, competitive team.
To hear Fufa wax about it, The Cranes have begun to take that desired shape. While they are concerned (as they should) about the likely departure of some players, they do not seem particularly worried it will be that many as to leave them witha crisis. Such is a groundswell of hope that cannot be bought by any amount of money – the Achilles’ heel of Ugandan sport in general.
In preparing for Gabon, Fufa said it needed no less than $2.2 million. It raised only half of that to compete against countries whose budgets run over $10 million.
“We need to substantially invest to narrow the competitive advantage of our competitors. We have justified ourselves for the amount of funding we require,” Magogo asserted, noting The Cranes brand offered huge opportunities to promote the country’s rich tourism portfolio.
In Fufa’s estimation, no less than $5 million is required to prepare for Cameroon. On paper the campaign looks a smooth sail for Uganda given the teams it is up against; Cape Verde, Tanzania and Lesotho, all of them are below her in international rankings. But since football is never short of surprises, Fufa says only better preparations than before can guarantee Uganda’s place.
This, though, ought to include cleaning up its own house especially its financial rooms. Endless wrangling over money has become a constant song in Fufa. Its power is unrivalled to distract and sap energies of both the players and support staff.