By John Batanudde
Thanks to his five goals, Uganda's Derrick Kakooza has become an instant celebrity at the Total Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Mauritania.
He bagged a hat-trick as the Hippos thrashed Tunisia 4-1 in the semi-final Monday, and the Police FC forward is having Uganda dream of an even bigger first - a continental trophy.
Yet Kakooza could have missed this tournament, where Uganda are debutants, had his passport not been fixed in time. It happened in December when Kakooza stayed home as the Hippos jetted to Tanzania for the Cecafa U-20 Championship, which doubled as the qualifier for the Mauritania tourney.
Free-scoring Uganda netted 13 times including a 4-1 triumph over Tanzania in the final (both nations had qualified for the Afcon). But Coach Molly Byekwaso assured Kakooza that he still had him in his plans and the striker alongside KCCA's Sam Senyonjo, was among the 18 new faces summoned for the preps early January.
Now, Kakooza has outshone Senyonjo, who had scored five goals in five league games for KCCA and Ivan Bogere, the five-goal top-scorer at Cecafa. Senyonjo and Bogere were substitutes on the night of Kakooza's best goal expo.
Kakooza has scored five of the 39 goals in the tournament so far.
According to Caf, Kakooza idolises Arsenal and Gabon striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He attributes his ascent to Coach Abdallah Mubiru, who elevated him from Naguru Police Academy to the Police senior team in 2017, "when many said I was too young for the senior team." Kakooza scored the lone goal on his debut last season as Police beat Kirinya-Jinja SSS (Now Busoga United) 1-0 in the Star Times Uganda Premier League and finished the season with four goals in six games.
But Kakooza's first hero is his father Charles Ssempeja, who he says is a former striker for Masaka LC, whose career ended due to injuries. "My father told me that because he could no longer play, he hoped that I could take football as a career and I represent him to reach where he could not reach," Kakooza told CAFOnline.
"That was such a huge motivation for me. He (my father) was a striker and so naturally, I also became a striker. He told me to take over from him." While many talents in Uganda have been stunted or killed by the parents' preference for academics over sport, Kakooza's parents were different. "My parents have really supported me. They believed in me from the beginning and gave me enough support. They bought me boots, took me to different academies to train, and always gave me advice," the St Mary's Kitende alumnus added. "... This has really motivated me to work even harder for the remaining matches and I am sure my dad was excited as well. I represented him well," he said after scoring Uganda's first goal (a penalty) in the 2-0 defeat of Mozambique on February 15.
Accustomed to settling for less, Ugandans could be satisfied with the Hippos' unpredicted performance, for reaching the final on their first appearance. Yet Kakooza, whose initial dream was the golden boot, and ensuring Uganda finish the tournament in "a respectable position," is now nursing trophy ambitions.
"For us, each game is a final and we know Ghana won't be easy but we believe we can bring the trophy home. I also want to score more goals and be the top scorer of the tournament," Kakooza said after sorting Tunisia.
The Hippos are already Uganda's first national football team to reach a continental final. And one more victory at the Olympic Stadium in Nouakchott will be a completely new chapter in Uganda's football history. The closest resemblance having been the Cranes' 2-0 defeat to hosts Ghana in the 1978 Afcon final.
With five goals, Kakooza has outscored Cameroon's trio of Etienne Eto'o, son of legend Samuel Eto'o, Kevin Prince Milla and Junior Jang, who bowed out at the quarterfinals with two goals apiece. But in the Saturday final, he faces direct rival Percious Boah, who has three goals.
This season, Kakooza has two goals in three league matches for Police and is hoping that his prolific boots take him to places farther than Mauritania.
Full Name: Derrick Kakooza
Club: Police FC
Attended: Mulusa Academy, St. Julian High School, St. Mary's Kitende
Idol: His father (Charles Ssempeja)