Uganda's young football talent needs to be well-utilized
ANGOLA 2010: Will the Uganda Cranes End the 32 Year-Old Jinx?
Here comes Angola 2010.
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First published: June 13, 2008
"We were almost there!" This phrase has turned out be the motto for Uganda's national soccer side, the Cranes. Access to the finals of the African Cup of Nations the most prestigious soccer showpiece in Africa, has eluded them for the last thirty-two years. Save for United States-based veteran and all-rounder Sulaiman Tenywa, the rest of the squad was not yet born when the Cranes last featured in the African Cup of Nations finals in Ghana 1978. Interestingly, the current squad contains sons of some members of the Cranes team which played in Ghana (a memorable campaign), namely David Obua Jr and defender Hassan Wasswa Biruma Jr. - the sons of Denis Obua and Hassan Biruma respectively.
Last year, the Cranes lost a place in the Africa Cup of Nations finals by just a one goal. Now they are in the same group as heavy weights Angola, emerging power house Benin, and minnows Niger for the two-in-one qualifiers (2010 World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations 2010). On 31st May 2008, at Mandela Stadium just east of Kampala, the Cranes struggled to get a 1-0 victory over Niger. Skipper Ibrahim Ssekajja's header off a Joseph Kabagambe calculated ball saved the day. Then disaster stuck in Catanou, against the Squirrels of Benin on 8th June 2008. The Cranes received a 4-1 working over.
The wounded Cranes' next fixture pits them against group leaders Angola in an assignment that appears to be the equivalent of the proverbial tall order at Namboole on the 14th of June, 2008 at Namboole. Despite the campaign being a two-in-one gig, the Cranes' interest seems to be in the Africa Cup of Nations finals only and not in the World Cup. Ultimate Media Consult's sports writer Kasozi Ramathan reports that unless the country's football governing body, FUFA, considers the following tips, the Cranes will continue to 'almost' make it for many more years to come.
Lessons from previous campaigns
The Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) and its technical arm should review the previous qualifying games to understand why their efforts were fruitless. At the same time, they should forge away forward. For example, in the previous campaigns, FUFA divided players into two factions, the untouchables and the rest. Not so long ago, left full back Abu Baker Tabula and youngster Mike Sserumaga were put in a freezer for a year for dishonoring the Cranes' build -up match against Algeria in Algiers. Conversely, when Mr. Ssekajja - the man who is supposed to lead by example, declined not to honour the fixtures against Niger and Lesotho without any genuine reasons, Mr. Mulindwa (FUFA chairman) and his federation went down on their knees and handled the Salzburg Red Bulls defender with kids' gloves. Niger and Lesotho were generally seen as light-weight sides that a full strength Cranes could thrash at home and even away. If they had secured a win from either of these encounters, regardless of the goal score, the Cranes could have been in Ghana for the 2008 finals.
Consider the home based talents too
There is no doubt that the current Cranes squad, which comprises of more than fifteen professionals playing outside Uganda, is one of the most talented ever assembled in the last one and half decades. However, it seems the expatriates are doing a disservice to Uganda, a soccer crazy nation. There seems to be a perception by the FUFA technocrats that for these expatriates, vacancies in the Cranes are automatic. It beats anyone's understanding why local Super League players Stephen Bengo and mid-field commander Owen Kasule will not be allowed to warm the senior Cranes' bench. These are two wonder kids whose skills can only be compared to former SC Villa youngster Augustine Nsumba, who has also been overlooked.
The technocrats' argument could be that the pair is inexperienced. The question that then follows is, 'In which shop is experience purchased?' In last weekend's tie against Niger, it was not until the German tactician Laszlo Csaba brought on one of Uganda's locally based talents in the squad, Ceaser Okhuti, that the whole team started to sparkle. Nalubaale FC's sharp shooter Godfrey Sserunkuma, one of Uganda's local gifted players, holds the top-scoring record (sixteen goals in one season) but even he does not get opportunities to start games. The criteria that the technical bench applies to get the bulky but non-biting Europe-based Eugene Ssepuya ahead of the local boys is questionable. Youngsters Oscar Agaba, Simon Sserunkuma, Abel Dhaira and all rounder Mike Azira are rough diamonds that only need some polishing.
Maximum Utilization of the home advantage
Bearing in mind that the Cranes missed Ghana 2008 by just a goal, most Ugandans cannot forget the chances that the team wasted in the games against Niger and Lesotho. They are hoping that the country's football managers are taking note. In the opener of the current campaign, against Niger, the Cranes extravagance in front of the visitors' goal posts was regrettable. While the Cranes were squandering the chances, Angola, were utilizing the opportunity to thrash Benin 3-0. The Cranes need to ensure they win all their home matches - with convincing margins!
Burry the 'away jinx'
The Cranes remain some of the worst travelers on the African continent, with the last away win happening ages ago in 2001 in Blantyre against Malawi. The 'gods' continued to haunt Csaba's boys last weekend in Catanou with a 4-1 mauling by Benin. Failure to get at least one away win in 2006/2007 is responsible for Cranes' failure to make it to Ghana in 2008.
Team selection and tactics
This writer is one of the believers in coach Csaba's credentials. However, at times even he is forced to scratch his head hold suspect Csaba's team selection abilities and tactics on the bench. In fact, it is these two elements that have put the Hungarian – German's contract on the guillotine. Reports in the rumor corridors indicate that his bosses (FUFA) are considering a review of his contract this very month. Csaba's defensive approach has been widely criticized by the Ugandan soccer fraternity. When in a situation where his team needed a comfortable score line, Csaba opted to deploy central defender Ibrahim Ssekajja into the deep six, with a defending midfielder Noah 'Babadi' Kasule playing behind two strikers. The country's most creative midfielder Assan Pitche Bajope was reserved on the bench. It was until the Congolese born was brought on that the team started to show its true colors and turned the game from 1-1 to a final 3-1 score line.
In the early 2008 game against Tanzania in the African Championship (only locally based players take part), Csaba reminded this writer of SC Villa's former Yugoslav tactician Millutin 'Micho' Sredojevic, who rested his dependable star players Hakim Magumba and Joseph Kabagambe in the 2003 African Champions League do or die encounter against Angola's Aviacao at Namboole. The visitors promptly came back in the game with two quick goals that eliminated the Ugandans. Villa had won the first leg by 2-1 away in Luanda. Similarly, Csaba surprised everyone when he decided to withdraw two of his key players Ceaser Okhuti and Steven Bengo. Johnson Bagoole and Bunamwaya's Julius Mulindwa played more less as spectators just when the Cranes needed three goals to edge Tanzania, which had won the first leg by 2-0, out.
Tactically, Csaba should be reminded that in Uganda, it takes more than Franz Beckenbauer to uproot Ugandan players from their traditional 4-4-2 formation mindset. Save for Sam Simbwa, who in 2001 succeeded with a 3-5-2 formation when he guided Mbale Heroes to the Kakungulu Cup trophy, few clubs in Uganda, let alone the national team have used any system other than the 4-4-2 and succeeded. Csaba tried a 4-3-2-1 formation in an away game against Tanzania which completely backfired into a 2-0 loss.
Concentration and players' commitment
The other aspect related to tactics that Csaba will need to address in this campaign is the players' concentration levels. Being a senior tactician, he doesn't need reminding that big games are often won in the dying minutes of the game, probably because naturally, players switch to thinking that a game has already been won or lost. This often lets their opponents gain an advantage. The Cranes' previous games against Libya in a build up tie, Tanzania and Eritrea suffice as examples. Irrespective of their importance, Uganda either drew or lost these games in the dying minutes. The current Cranes squad is the right age and so should be able to discard the 'we almost made it' tag. However unless FUFA, its technical wing and all other influential stakeholders put their acts together, this writer sees the status quo continuing. It is his wish though, that he is proved wrong.
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First published: June 13, 2008
Ramathan Kasozi is a member of Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd. . A graduate Journalist, Kasozi has more than 5 years experience reporting on sports in Uganda for different print and broadcast media houses.