New Vision (Kampala)

13 January 2013

Uganda: Enough With Cecafa - Let Us Shoot Higher

THE curtain has fallen on 2012. 2013 is here. If we are to cast a last look at the year just gone by 'foot-ballistically,' there is a lot that went wrong - the bickering between football administrators in the country that culminated into the creation of two leagues is one of those things that has left a bitter taste in many a mouth.

However, enduring feeling that goes with Uganda football, especially national team, the Cranes, has been one of a disappointment. Again!

Yes, I can hear you banging on about 'winning the CECAFA Challenge Cup' blah blah blah. Fine. A big pat on the back there for coach Bobby Williamson.

To give credit where it's due, since the Scot was hired as Uganda's national coach, he has overseen a micro-revival, of sorts, with almost back-to-back CECAFA Cup wins in as many years.

If my memory still serves me well, that is a feat no coach (local or foreign) has ever achieved in the history of Uganda's football.

So what?

However, on the other hand, though it felt good to see those sad faces of the mouthy Kenyan fans as the Cranes thumped arch-rivals Harambe Stars 2-1 on our own patch at Namboole to lift the re¬gional tournament for the 13th time, SO WHAT?

I did not go crazy over that for one very simple reason. Let's face it. Although the prize - to be CECAFA regional football champions - sounds grand (it's the oldest football tournament on the African continent), today the status of the competition has become pitiful.

The tournament (and the region) has lost their competitive edge after defections of Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe to the more lucrative COSAFA. As a result most of the Cranes fans have lost the enthusiasm for winning the regional tournament and, right now, I also feel that's a trophy we can as well do without.

The majority of fans feel they would rather see the Cranes rub shoulders with Africa's elite teams, not a team like Somalia (no offence meant), whose players were hand-picked from around Kampala to represent their country.

I did admire the Somalis' courage. But, seriously, with no national league in their homeland for the players to participate in and be spotted, they were always going to be the whipping boys of the tournament.

With that quality of opposition, it's no surprise that the last couple of years have been a bit of a stroll in the park for the Cranes. Winning the CECAFA championship has now become a staple. It is expected. But come on, what about Nations Cup qualification?

Conqueror of the British Empire

It has been 34 stinking years (and still counting) since Uganda last qualified for the Nations Cup finals and rubbed shoulders with Africa's best. Half of the Uganda population was not born yet or was still wetting their beds to remember. I was a kid, too, at the time.

I remember then Uganda was ruled by a gangly, clownish but sports-loving, outrageously decorated President called Idi Amin Dada who often gave hilarious rambling speeches like Adolf Hitler, often in very lame English and also had a penchant for comedy and ruthlessness in equal measure.

His outrageous decorations, which were taught in general studies on primary school syllabus, included Al Haji Doctor Ssalongo (father of twins) VC (Victoria Cross) DSO (Distinctive Service Order) MC (Military Cross) CBE (Conqueror of the British Empire).

We all know conquering the British Empire he did not. But during his time as President, Uganda qualified for the Nations Cup finals twice - in 1974 in Ethiopia, where we were voted the best team of the tournament and in 1978, in Ghana where we dispatched powerhouses like Nigeria and sailed all the way to the final. The top scorer of the tournament was a Ugandan, Phillip Omondi.

Failed attempts

It would be a decade later before Uganda got the opportunity to qualify for the finals again. I was there on all the five failed occasions. In 1989, I looked on in bafflement at Nakivubo Stadium as our tactical naivety failed us against mighty Cameroonians we were overrunning.

In 1993, I witnessed an absurd outpouring of grief when the Cranes locked horns with star-studded Super Eagles of Nigeria at Nakivubo again. Adam Semugabi failed to convert the penalty we had been awarded in the second half of the game.

On both occasions the Cranes team also boasted players we idolised and celebrated like Majid Musisi, Sunday Mokiri, Paul Hasule, Ronald Vubya, and Jackson Mayanja, who, when they took to the field, made the hairs stand on the backs of our necks in anticipation of the magic they were capable of.

In 2003, against minnows Rwanda, even a draw would have seen us qualify but we played in sort of deranged, half-baked manner. We instead ended up accusing the Rwandans of witchcraft, thanks to one stroke of madness by Abubaker Tabula!

Recently, we blew it again against Kenya and Zambia. The fans trudged off shaking their heads and wondering: what on earth did we do to deserve this?

Venting anger

Since 1989 Ugandan football fans have become victims of their own expectations: when these high expectations, like the qualifications for the Nations Cup when the decider will be played at home, are not being met, it will normally lead to huge disappointments.

Disappointment becomes anger and anger needs to be vented. And who do we have to vent our anger at: the players, but most especially the manager and the caliphs that run football in the country - Lawrence Mulindwa and Company.

Indeed callers on radio and TV, including some sports presenters, were howling at the top of their lungs for the resignation FUFA president Lawrence Mulindwa and the sacking of coach Bobby Williamson.

The empty stands in Namboole during the just concluded CECAFA tournament told the story. It was a silent protest of sorts. I won't do the same.

But this is as clear a message as you will get from the fans that: (a) they are not happy with how things have been going, and (b) CECAFA is now of little significance! They want to see the Cranes qualify for the big stage. Period!

Stock taking

Out of despair comes opportunity. For me, this is where Mulindwa and his CEO step in and make things happen. If we are to change this tragic trend, then I think Mulindwa, his administrators and coach may need to first identify the factors that have led to Cranes failure to qualify for the Nations Cup finals for all these years.

They should also take a meticulous look at improving the whole set up of the national team, the strength and weaknesses of technical bench, the recruitment of players, training methods.

Below are some of the factors that I believe must be worked on if we are to break that ugly duck that has been sitting on our backs for the last three decades.

Hire psychologists to help players

The systematic catastrophic pattern of failing to qualify at home on five occasions points at a serious mental block that has to be overcome. How else can you explain this?

The Cranes players were more focused and showed a rare sense of urgency and fighting spirit when Kenya equalised during the CECAFA final. Their efforts paid off when they scored the winner in the dying minutes of the game.

On the contrary, during the Nations Cup qualifier against Zambia they did not show the same sort of urgency, despite the fact that we scored in the first 20 minutes. We expected them to come flying out of the blocks in the second half, instead they were comfortable defending the lone goal. At the end most fans wore long faces while others wept like babies - we had failed to qualify.

Solution? Mr. Mulindwa, please hire an expert psychologist who will be able to get inside the players' heads at all levels - U-18, U-21, the Cranes and instill that confidence in them that not only can they qualify for the Nations Cup finals, they are good enough to also make it to the World Cup and even lift it!

Midfielders for that final ball

One of the main reasons visiting teams were always put on the sword is because Uganda has always had great midfielders like late Moses Nsereko who not only bulldozed his way in the midfield but was a good passer of the ball. Others were Sam Mugambe, (mathematician) Steven Bogere, who would turn defenses inside out. Jackson Mayanja (Mia Mia) Robert Aloro and Hakim 'Boda Boda' Magumba, was the last of that golden generation.

Cranes urgently need these sorts of players to create different kinds of threats and add a creative dimension to the team. Last year Zambia was there for the taking. Their game plan was to sit back and try to catch us on the break. Unfortunately for us, Hassan Wasswa and Musa Mude are not those types of players. They play more square passes than thread final through balls behind the opposition defenses. If we had an effective midfield, the Zambians would still be weeping in their drinks even today.

Art of penalty taking and saving

Twice the Cranes could have qualified for the Nations Cup on penalties - against Nigeria in 1993 and Zambia last year - but on both occasions Ugandan players were reduced to a nervous wreck.

In 1993, Adam Semugabi couldn't hit the behinds of a pregnant cow if it was put six feet away in goal, while Patrick Ochan must have closed his eyes when taking his against Zambia.

He blasted it right into the hands of the Chipolopolo keeper.

During the just concluded CECAFA tournament, the Kenyans were relishing the chance for the game to be decided on penalties. They knew we could have lost.

Contrary to the popular belief that winning by penalties is a mere chance, penalties are actually a marriage of technique and mentality, said sports psychologist Andy Barton in interview with BBC Sport.

He advises that to be good penalties takers, "you need to practice and practice."

He gives an example of Germany which has lost few penalty shootouts since 1976. Since that time "they created this belief that they are very good at taking penalties. And it works both ways. They believe they are very good and the other team believes they are very good. It has a negative impact on the opposition."

Indeed, after their penalty exploits on the way to winning the Nations Cup, Zambia knew at Namboole that they were very good and the Cranes, including their fans, believed they are very good.

Barton adds: "The attitude towards taking a penalty is very important. The really good penalty takers will hit them hard and wide with real confidence. They give the keeper no chance of saving the ball at all."

Last year Zambia employed the same technique, they rammed six past Onyango in the same position!

Expand the technical bench

I still believe Bobby Williamson is a good manager. I also love his moustache, composure and the fact that he enjoys eating nsenene (grasshoppers).

Unfortunately, the simple fact of the matter is that we have seen some tactical lapses.

It's for that reason that I suggest the Cranes coaching staff under his management be increased from the duo of Jackson Mayanja (trainer) and Fred Kajoba (goalkeepers' coach) to include experienced and talented coaches with analytical minds like Abdallah Mubiru, Polly Ouma and others.

Did you take a glance at the Zambia's bench? These coaches should be assigned specific duties like identifying the right players in the right positions all over the country.

Let's face it there are plenty of players out there who would improve the team right now, analysing the home team's tactics, identifying the opposition's strength and weaknesses, suggesting substitutes and suggesting to Bobby the right tactical adjustments during the match or at half time.

Maintain the CECAFA squad

Though in the eyes of the still hurting Ugandan soccer fans local fans, the Cecafa tournament is currently of 'little value', on the flip side the recent victory could be used as a springboard for future Nations Cup and World victories.

Whatever momentum accrued with winning, it should not be allowed to dissipate. If maintained together this young victorious team could be the shining light of our future.

For 34 years now we have been waiting for that elusive Nations cup and I can see us waiting another 34 years unless we get things right.

So, Lawrence Mulindwa and Coach Bob Williamson why not start doing things with success in mind?

If you fail, as with any other football club that falls short of the fans' expectations, the call for your head and the Cranes manager will eventually become louder and louder and next time you flash that red card again, it will be for yourselves!

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