opinionBy Hassan Badru Zziwa
It's an open secret that the ongoing Cecafa Cup in Kampala is a pale shadow of the tournament's glory days.
A week into the tournament, the most conspicuous thing is not the watertight Cranes defence that is yet to concede; but, it is the low turn-up of fans - never mind some games were free - and the poor state of Namboole stadium pitch.
The sorry situation tells only half the story and Cecafa must reflect deeply on many woes it faces if the tournament is to remain relevant. And despite the best efforts by the Uganda Cranes Initiative (UCI) to woo fans, it's clear the tournament has lost its spark. However, the organisers have it within themselves to revive the tournament and make it a hot item on the regional football calendar.
For starters, hosts Fufa did little to give the tournament the publicity it deserved. In fact, many Uganda football fans only got to learn about the event just a few days to kickoff. Besides, organisers should have planned in advance about using Namboole by taking into account the wet weather conditions. It's the eighth time Uganda is hosting the tournament but from the way Fufa and organisers are panicking, it's like their first time to host the event.
The soggy Namboole pitch has not only undermined the players' ability but also painted a negative image since matches are broadcast live on SuperSport. It seems Fufa just focused on the Tusker sponsorship and thought it had a downhill task as far as organisation is concerned, yet early planning would have secured funds from the government and the private sector.
Most of all, all participating teams are dominated by fringe players, something that has somehow 'devalued' the tournament's pedigree. It's on that backdrop that organizers need to draw a line about the tournament's goal. Either to package Cecafa Cup as the barometer to determine the region's best team or simply rebrand the tournament as the springboard for future stars. The latter seems the more viable option.
Whichever way, this will give organizers, players, fans and sponsors a sense of direction in the future. For instance, Uganda has only four players that start on the senior side and we all know that Kenya's five best players ply their trade in Europe. Besides, Ethiopia left out several senior players that will participate in the upcoming 2013 Nations Cup.
So, for a tournament that's outside the Fifa calendar, it would be sheer daydreaming for Cecafa Cup to feature the likes of Victor Wanyama or Macdonald Mariga.
That's why it should be tailored to suit the expectations of fans to attract them in big numbers. Sincerely, you wouldn't expect fans who thronged Namboole to watch the Uganda-Zambia match a few weeks back to return for an 'experimental' tournament without a clear mission.
Back in the day, the tournament was held in high regard because all participants brought out their best teams and pulled all strings to win bragging rights. Take the 1982 edition in Kampala; hosts Uganda fielded the strongest side that had the likes of Jamil Kasirye, Paul Hasule, Jimmy Kirunda, John Latigo, Godfrey Kateregga, Mathew Lucha, Moses Ndaula, Issa Sekatawa and Fred Mukasa, among others.
On its part, fierce rivals Kenya had Mohamood Abbas, Otieono Basanga, Joe 'JJ' Masiga, Wilberforce Mulamba, and Ambrose Ayoyi. These star players pulled crowds regardless of each team's performances.
Then in 1984, Malawi eliminated hosts Uganda after a nail-biting semifinal.
On paper, that would have put off fans from watching the final but the presence of Malawi star men like Harry Waya, Clifton Msiya, Frank Sinalo, Jack Chimangwana and Lawrence Waya as well as Zambia 's Kalusha Bwalya, Jack Chanda, Ghost Mulenga, Dominic Mutale, Luck Musika and Efford Chabala meant that the final attracted a massive crowd at Nakivubo stadium.
All seemed to go well with Cecafa until the 1999 edition hosted by Rwanda. The tournament came up at a time newly-elected Fifa president Sepp Blatter wanted to pay back Africa's enormous support. In a bid to raise the tournament's profile, Fifa fully sponsored and catered for all teams' air tickets and accommodation. It also tasked representative Dusana Maravic to assess the tournament and identify the areas to improve its profile.
However, what was supposed to be a watershed moment turned into a paper tiger when the Serbian dismissed the Cecafa hierarchy as a joke. After the opening ceremony at Amahoro Stadium, several top Cecafa officials returned home. Among them was then chairman Omar Abu Haraz, secretary Sam Nyamweya as well as committee members.
Maravic was shocked to discover that the few who stayed behind only turned up to sign for huge per diems and on top of enjoying Kigali's lavish nightlife as junior Cecafa officials did the donkey work of organising teams. In the end, Maravic's report greatly dented Cecafa's image and that explains the cancellation of the Brazil trip, which a select team of 30 outstanding players from the event was due to make.
Therefore, instead of bringing together twelve teams to play out a series of matches over two weeks, organisers should consider a new approach to keep the tournament relevant. For one, a two-legged knockout tournament makes more sense under the circumstances of grooming future stars.
It's also not too late to revive the 1999 Fifa progamme for Cecafa, which might help the region in both finance and technical requirements. However, all this can only be possible if Cecafa adds a professional touch to attract more sponsors out there.
The author is Director Marketing & Promotions of The Observer Media Ltd.