Things do not usually happen in ways many would like them to. But on Saturday May 12, they just did. Uganda’s under-20 striker Steven Mukwala was celebrating 19 years.
And fittingly so, it was he that scored for Uganda in a 1-0 win over Cameroon in the Africa Youth Football Championship qualifier first leg at the StarTimes stadium in Lugogo.
It was a fantastic finish. “I enjoyed it, and hopefully it remains in the people’s memories. And hopefully it is a sign of bigger things to come,” Mukwala said as he reminisced about the occasion, and moment, that proved timely.
On 44 minutes, right at the stroke of halftime was when that goal was scored. It was in a half, Uganda had struggled to get into any real rhythm as the visitors had. But the corner kick awarded to the hosts, following a few of their exertions proved pivotal.
As the in-swinging ball travelled through space, the Cameroonian defenders, poorly positioned, allowed Mukwala to peel off. In the instant, Mukwala was able to find room to manoeuvre. Just as the ball was descending, Mukwala picked his spot and with the inside of his right foot, volleyed the ball into the roof of the net. Bang!
And the hitherto silent home crowd went into delirium, as they celebrated what would later turn out to be a real lifeline. Equally so, Mukwala, a Vipers SC player popped up with a celebration to match the importance. He made a few back somersaults before his team-mates, led by Captain Julius Poloto embraced him to breathe a sigh of relief, that the deadlock had been broken.
Put simply, Mukwala’s goal was the only major highlight of naught as far as Uganda was concerned on the day. And may be the gilt-edged chances Cameroon fluffed courtesy of the brilliant goalkeeping from Uganda’s Saidi Keni.
Keni can be commended further for the good working relationship he had with his goal post. In the first half it kept out Kpene Ganago’s shot to save Uganda’s blushes. The game could easily have ended in a draw. But at least Uganda will head into the second leg carrying an advantage, however slim it is.
“Truthfully, we wanted to win by a bigger margin. We tried all we could, but failed to add to the goal Mukwala scored. Right now, we get back to work. We are not going to regret now what has passed. We just have to look forward; work hard on our weaknesses, so that when we go to Cameroon we are better than we were in the first leg,” Matia Lule, Uganda’s coach said.
The return leg is on Saturday May 19 in Cameroon. And without doubt, as Lule acknowledged, his side, the Hippos must improve if they are to make the first leg result mean anything. Lule noted that as a team, they did not play as well as they can.
“We allowed Cameroon to have a lot of space especially in the midfield, which they did not allow us. They were really physical, closing us down very quickly,” Lule said. Now, the test will be in overcoming that shortcoming once the kickoff whistle goes for the second leg.
Essentially, Cameroon exposed so many of Lule’s youngsters. Players like Frank ‘Zaga’ Tumwesigye who always want to have an extra touch on the ball while in midfield, were largely rendered ineffective as a result of Cameroon’s physical and hurried approach.
Oftentimes, Tumwesigye’s passes were either blocked or he was cleanly tackled, because of the extra moment he took in deciding where to place his pass. And for a player, whose main responsibility in the team, is making that incisive pass to the front players, Uganda appeared short on wit.
In addition, even the crafty Allan Okello did not pose much threat to the Cameroonian side. Worse still, holding midfielder Abubaker Kasule was having a nightmare. It was evident that his lack of game time in recent months, has affected his game, especially ball distribution and imagination.
Probably, Lule has the answers for these concerns, if Uganda is to stand a chance in the return leg, because the dysfunction of the midfield limited his team’s attack. Just getting out of their own half was done sporadically.
Evidently, this was not South Sudan, the opponent Uganda ran over 5-1 in the first leg and 3-0 in the second leg in Juba. And graciously so, Lule accepts that fact. He said “This was a wake up call for us that qualification cannot be easy unless we put in real effort.”
That will require playing really well: Quick and accurate movement and passing of the ball. But also, the players have to be helped to overcome their inhibitions. For example, it was evident from kickoff that Uganda’s teens were intimidated by Cameroon.
Mukwala said, “We went into this match knowing that it was a big game against one of the giants of African football. Inevitably, there was bound to be some nerves among some players. But now that fear and too much respect has been overcome, following the first leg.”
That said, Fred Kajoba, Cranes goalkeeping coach told The Observer after the game on Saturday, that it was easy to see a team that had been playing together for a while, and one that is just getting to learn each other.
“For us to start thinking of qualifying for major youth football tournaments, we must assemble teams and keep them together playing friendly matches continuously. But if we wait for qualifiers to test our players, better organized teams will always expose us,” Kajoba said.
While the overriding feeling after the Saturday game among the crowd suggested that Uganda will not go past Cameroon, Lule remained defiant. He said that he believed in this group to surprise every doubting ‘Thomas’. “I know we can score in Cameroon. Besides, there are some good things we did in the first leg, for example, our defending was good,” said Lule.
Such is what Uganda’s under-20 side, the Hippos can build on, Lule stressed. He added that going into the first leg, they knew very little about Cameroon apart from the big name they have in African football- their history.
But now, Lule knows their style of play and their approach, which is predominantly wing play. Come the second leg, Uganda will be more ready for whatever is thrown at them compared to how they were in the first leg.