As the 16 nations compete for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations that kicked off on Saturday, Ugandans yet again find themselves lamenting 'what could have been' following a heartbreaking qualification campaign.
But the bad memories of the recent failures aside, here I reflect on the years when qualification was always possible. The Cranes first qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations in 1962 after eliminating Kenya in a home and away fixture. The records show that Uganda licked Zanzibar 2-0 before drawing Kenya in the final round. In Kampala, the hosts won 1-0 and lost with the same margin in Kenya.
However, lots were conducted to determine the winner and lucky Uganda Cranes qualified over their fierce neighbours (Kenya). Before the team departed for Addis Ababa, it suffered a setback when two dependable players John Kaddu and Jimmy Sewava "Omulogo"were dismissed from the camp by coach Yiga on disciplinary grounds. Kaddu was a utility player who could play in any upfield positions while 'magical' Sewava was a gem on the striking line and one of the three survivors of the barefooted Uganda national team which toured England in 1956.
The absence of these star players forced Yiga to replace Kaddu with John Bunyenyezi and fielded Briton born Clive Bond on the striking line. The Ethiopia-hosted tournament attracted only four teams; Ethiopia, Egypt, Tunisia and Uganda. Uganda national team captained by experienced custodian John Agard, pulled poor results, losing 1-2 to defending champions Egypt before collapsing 0-3 to Tunisia.
The first XI had John Agard (keeper/skipper), David Ssimbwa, Joseph Mabirizi, David Otti (RIP), Francis Atema "Jogoo" (RIP), Jimmy Semugabi, Baker Kasigwa, Edward Semambo (RIP), John Bunyenyezi (RIP), Clive Bond and Odong Kongo (RIP). The reserves were Ngabeki (keeper-RIP), Sam Bukenya, Ben Omoding, George Kakaire and Rustiko Kasozi (RIP).
Jimmy Bakyayita Semugabi attributes the loss to the absence of Kaddu and Sewava.
"Sewava was a unique player, he was a class apart. His dribbling skills were unmatched, his vision was exceptional in addition to being a goal creator and goal scorer," says the veteran sports administrator.
Semugabi was particularly enamoured by Kaddu. "He could play anywhere on the pitch apart from goal keeping.
"He could dribble too with quick passing and prowess in the air and he was a fighter with great stamina," said Semugabi.
But Sam Bukenya, a reserve player then, blamed the rules for the failure to get a result.
"At that time, substitutes were not allowed in the game, the reason I didn't feature in that team, otherwise Semambo and Otti were better than me in their respective positions."
The 1968's was the sixth edition of the Africa Cup of Nations and it was again hosted by Ethiopia although at the time, eight teams participated compared to the four in the previous editions. In the qualifying rounds, Uganda was pitted against Kenya whom they edged 2-1 and tied 3-3 in the return leg in Nairobi. In the final round, The Cranes drew Egypt whom they licked 1-0 and qualified for the bi-annual tournament.
The team, under the tutelage of Robert Kiberu and skipper Parry Oketch, stormed Addis Ababa with a relatively strong squad which had experienced and star players like Keeper Joseph Masajjage, Peter Okee, David Otti, Ibrahim Dafala, Steven Baraza , Ben Ezaga and Parry Oketch. The rest of the squad was dominated by youthful players who had proved themselves in the previous regional tournaments including keeper George Bukenya, Polly Ouma, Kefa Lori, Ben Mukasa, James Lukwago, Denis Obua, Swalleh Wasswa, John Dibya and James Lukwago.
But Uganda failed to impress. The Cranes were pooled in group "A" with hosts Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire and Algeria. We lost 1-2 in the opening game with Polly Ouma scoring the Cranes consolation. In the second game the Cranes suffered a 0-4 drubbing at the hands of the Algerians before losing 1-2 to Cote d'Ivoire. Dafala, The Cranes sweeper at the time, recalls the 1968 event with a tinge of pride.
"We had a strong team but in my view our opponents were stronger and organized. Some of our colleagues were undisciplined and failed to concentrate and, as a result, we performed poorly."
He points to the talented Ouma, Obua, Wasswa and Dibya, saying they were exemplary players.
"They were young but they had a terrific combination and their spectacular performance in the next tournaments was not accidental," Dafala says.
Next week, we will look at the 1974 and 1976 editions.
The author is Director Marketing & Promotions of The Observer Media Ltd.