It's Now or Never: Cranes must beat Niger to qualify for the Ghana 2008 ACN Finals

It's Now or Never: Cranes must beat Niger to qualify for the Ghana 2008 ACN Finals


This Saturday is the last chance for Cranes.

By Ramathan Kasozi
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First published: September 8, 2007


Going by their birth certificates, the entire playing staff of Uganda's national soccer team, the Cranes, were yet to be born when Uganda last made it to the finals of Africa's most prestigious soccer showpiece, the African Cup of Nations (ACN). Will they be able to break the thirty-year-old jinx when they parade against Niger's La Mena stars this Saturday, September 8, 2007 at Namboole stadium in a memorable clash? Uganda last qualified for the finals way back in 1978 and made it all the way to the final game, losing to the hosts, Ghana, 2-0. Some of the key players in that memorable squad include Polly Ouma (the current Cranes' assistant coach) and former Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) president Denis Obua, (father of the current cranes king pin David Obua).


Ultimate Media's Kasozi Ramathan in Kampala writes that the football fever in Uganda has scaled new heights as Ugandans can hardly wait for this weekend's kickoff whistle. The morale in the team's camp at Jokas Hotel, Namboole, can only be compared to that exhibited at the Cranes' memorable home tie earlier this year against Nigeria. Betting shops are extra busy. Bugles, drums, whistles, jersey replicas, caps, flags and other cheering gear have flooded vendors' stalls on the streets of Kampala and are selling like hot cakes. Adverts on Uganda's FM radio stations are aired minute after minute. All conversations on Ugandan streets are more or less about Uganda meeting Niger at Namboole on Saturday.

Kampala tycoon Mike Ezra has promised to reward the Ugandan team with over 170 million Uganda shillings, should they make it to Ghana 2008. Uganda's Members of Parliament have pledged 16 million Uganda shillings to the team. MTN, the official sponsors of the team, have given out over 400 free tickets to fans through promotions on the FM stations in addition to sponsoring Komerera (hammer them), the Cranes' new official anthem composed by local artiste, T. Kazibwe, at a cost of 5 million Uganda shillings. The anthem will be launched just before the match on Saturday and is currently being played over Ugandan FM radio stations to enable Ugandans to learn it before then.

A top furniture dealership has offered two 'mazongotos' (double beds) to both the scorer and the creator of the most beautiful goal of the match. The Government of Uganda, through its Minister of State for Sports was yet to unveil its package by the time this article was published. It had however promised that 'something' was on the way. A curtain raising game between Ugandan legislators against their Kenyan counterparts has been organised to precede the main game

If interviews conducted by Ultimate Media's sports desk are anything to go by, Ugandans are generally sure of a win but are uncertain about the score line. In the first, leg away in Niamey, the Cranes were held to a barren draw courtesy of typical West African mistreatment. On arrival, the Ugandan team was made to wait at the airport for more than four hours, was then booked into a noisy half-built hotel, subjected to water-rationing in temperatures that scale the 40 degree centigrade mark and were asked to conduct their training in the hotel's yard. To crown it all, Senegalese referee Badru Samba exhibited questionable judgment and made some dubious decisions. After all that, you would expect Ugandans to call for revenge. FUFA public relations officer Rogers Mulindwa suggests otherwise: "Revenge no longer serves any purpose as Niger has nothing to lose in the game because they are totally out of the race. Our focus should be on how we hammer them and qualify for Ghana. We are known to be hospitable people."

The Cranes need a comfortable victory and hope that results from the other games involving Uganda's real competitors for the two remaining best losers' slots go their way. The team's camp is already a full house as all Uganda's summoned expatriate players (including the usual national duty-dodging skipper Ibrahim Ssekajja) have reported and joined the locally based stars undergoing residential training at Namboole under the watchful eyes of tactician Laszlo Csaba and his assistants Poly Ouma and Jackson Mayanja. Csaba is optimistic that nothing will stand in his way on Saturday and he has made all the necessary strategies to bring down the visitors. "I appeal to all Ugandans to come in big numbers and act as the extra player at Namboole. We won't disappoint you," said the German tactician, who has lost only one game through out the current campaign.

However, his leading sharpshooter, Godfrey Massa observes that teamwork is the only key to success on Saturday. "As usual, I will do all my best to hunt for goals but every one else will have to carry out their responsibilities effectively if we are to score the number of goals that we need," revealed the Jomo Cosmos player, whose debut at the club has been delayed by his former Egyptian employers - Elshams FC.

Csaba faces a selection headache in the middle of the field where he has to sacrifice either the Armenia-based workhorse Noah Kasule 'Babadi' for team captain Ssekajja or have the later return to his sweeping role, relegating Iceland-based iron man Andy Mwesigwa to the bench. Both Sekajja and Babadi missed the team's qualifier against Lesotho. The later was serving his suspension while the former declined to join the squad, allegedly because he was completing his transfer from Arsenal de Sarandi to Austrian champions Red Bulls Salzburg. Right fullback Richard Malinga twisted his ankle against Tanzania in a build game last weekend and is completely ruled out of the game, leaving Police FC's experienced attack minded Simeon Masaba to do the needful and Serbia-based Nestroy Kizito as the left fullback.

Reliable first choice goalie Denis Onyango has miraculously recovered from an operation on his knee to reclaim his jersey from his understudy, Hannington Kalyesubula. However, his fitness will be put to test by the visitors' Cameroon-based danger man, Douda Kamilou. First rising youngster Daniel Wagaluka, who has been magnificent for the entire campaign, is expected once again to man the right mid-field ahead of Vincent Kayizzi. 'Assassin' David Obua will be operating on the left wing as naturalised Ugandan Assan Pitche Bajope (originally Congolese) occupies the centre.

Guillotine specialist Massa Godfrey will have to forget his nightmarish display in the game against Lesotho when he leads the goal hunt alongside South Africa-based Geoffrey Sserunkuma. The pair will have to tackle Niger's in-form 24-year-old giant of a goalkeeper, Kassey Douda who plies his trade at Cotton Sport of Cameroon.

In some of the other make or break ties on the continent, lightweight Burundi will be pitted against reigning African kings, Egypt in Bujumbura. Eritrea travels to Swaziland aware of the need for a tricky score of at least 7-0 that they need if they are to qualify, while Tanzania's Taifa Stars, in a similar boat, try their luck against Mozambique in Dar-el-Salaam. Else where, The Chipolopolo (Copper bullets) of Zambia (Uganda's key opponent for one of the last two available slots in Accra 2008) face a must win test against South Africa's Bafana Bafana in Johannesburg. Algeria's Desert Warriors entertain Gambia as Uganda's group mates; Nigeria and Lesotho lock horns in Abuja for formality. Nigeria has already booked a ticket to Ghana while Lesotho's crocodiles are well and truly out of the race.

Who are some of the Ugandan lads that hope to make history?

Denis Onyango

Club: Super Sport United (South Africa)

Age: 23

Position: Goalie

The former SC Villa custodian had been earlier ruled out for this encounter due to a knee operation but miraculously recovered in time to reclaim his position. His game reading, lion heartedness and command of the defense team probably explain why he has conceded only two goals through out this entire campaign.

Masaba Simeon

Club: Police FC (Uganda)

Age: 24

Position: Right fullback

The fact that he is one of the only two locally based players on the starting squad is enough to explain his quality. A utility player, who often supports the team's attacking department with customary runs to the front. However, his passes are some times questionable.

Nestroy Kizito

Club: Vojvodina (Serbia)

Age: 24

Position: Left full-back

He is lazy looking but that could not be further from what he really is. Game reading and consistency are some of the weapons in his toolbox.

Timothy Batabaire

Club: Bloemfontein Celtics (South Africa)

Age: 24

Position: Center back

A vice captain of the team, voted as Celtics player of the year, and popularly known as 'Timo' by his teammates. Probably the most disciplined player on the squad and a graduate of Makerere University, Kampala. He commands enough experience to take on any mischievous attackers and gives his all whenever he steps onto the pitch. He has been solid through out the whole campaign. However, his rough tackles some times cannot go unnoticed.

Andy Mwesigwa

Club: IBV FC (Iceland)

Age: 23

Position: Center back.

His former SC Villa teammate Hakim Magumba once described him as the toughest player in the country. Like Batabaire, he is fighter who never gives up until the last whistle. His sometimes-unnecessary tackles explain why his name rarely misses in the referee's caution book.

Ibrahim Ssekajja

Club: Salzburg Red Bulls (Austria)

Age: 27

Position: Utility player.

Uganda's football team transfer fee record holder. He is the captain and kingpin of the team. Considered one of the best liberal players Uganda has ever produced, he is a superb game reader, with neat and accurate passes, whose head is as good as his feet. He rarely places his foot wrong.

Dan Wagaluka

Age: 22

Club: URA FC (Uganda)

Position: Mid-fielder

A rising talent on the Ugandan football scene, whose display in the campaign has caught the eye of several foreign scouts. The pace, dribbling skills and swift reactions exhibited by the former SC Villa and Iganga TC youngster has given some world class defenders (including Nigeria's Taye Taiwo, Joseph Yobo) a hard time in the past.

Assan Pitche Bajope

Age: 24

Club: St. George (Ethiopia)

Position: Mid-fielder

The naturalized Ugandan missed the first leg encounters against, Lesotho, Niger and Nigeria but the moment he arrived at the camp recently, Csaba's midfield woes ceased. His silky passes, headers and game reading explain why the Government of Uganda was convinced enough to grant him nationality.

David Obua

Age: 24

Club: Kaiser Chiefs (South Africa)

Position: Mid-fielder.

The son of a former FUFA President will be trying to emulate his father, who guided the team to the 1978 Ghana ACN finals. Popularly known as King David, he is described as Uganda's best left attacking midfielder of his generation. Being temperamental and injury prone are his only problems.

Geoffrey Sserunkuma

Club: Kanon (South Africa)

Age: 23

Position: Striker

His movements on the pitch some how remind you of the talent of Andy 'Fimbo' Mukasa. He may be lazy looking, but give him just half a chance near your 18-yard box and you will regret it. Little wonder then, that he idolises Real Madrid's Ruud Van Nestroy.

Massa Godfrey

Club: Jomo Cosmos {South Africa}

Age: 21

Position: Striker

If the team makes it into the 2008 finals, it will to a large part, be because of his efforts. He has had a hand in all the five goals the team has so far scored in the race to Ghana. He scored two of them and won three penalties. He has just joined Jomo Cosmos from Egyptian out fit Elshams but is yet to make his debut in South Africa, as he has not secured his work permit. He is a mobile and stout striker, whose pace leaves defenders with nothing to do, save bringing him down in the penalty area. He won two penalties against Nigeria's much-hyped defenders. He is as deadly as a venomous snake but sometimes wastes many chances.

The last time Uganda qualified for the finals, they were held in Ghana. Denis Obua was one of the key players on the Ugandan squad. His son David Obua is the tormentor-in-chief of the current team, and then the Cranes have had to fight up to the final day of the qualifiers, just like they edged out Ethiopia 2-1 in Kampala thirty years ago. What a coincidence! Could it be that the Uganda Cranes are just 90 minutes away from returning to Ghana, if it is true that history repeats itself?

Table of the best losers

W D L F A P

Sudan 5 4 0 1 10 12

Togo 5 3 0 2 7 9

Zambia 5 2 2 1 6 8

Uganda 5 2 2 1 5 8

Algeria 5 2 2 1 5 8

Tanzania 5 2 2 1 4 8

Eritrea 5 2 2 1 5 8

Predictions

Tenywa Roderick (Pay phone attendant): "These guys mistreated us at their home; its time to pay them back Good enough, Massa is already in the camp. If he tormented the likes of Yobo and Taiwo, who are Niger? Prediction: 3-0."

Mukiibi Ronald: "I am told Obua will play. With him back in the team, and Sekajja commanding the defense, nothing can go wrong. Prediction; 2-0"

Sseguya Eric (Bodaboda cyclist): "The Cranes are deadly at home. If we managed to beat Nigeria, what about little known Niger? Massa will score two and Obua will convert a penalty. Prediction; 3-1."

Edward Ojwok (Security guard): "With Namboole stadium full to capacity and Onyango back between the goal posts, Niger can't survive this one. Of course Massa will score. Prediction; 3-0."

By Ramathan Kasozi
more from author >>
First published: September 8, 2007
To learn more about Ultimate Media Consult go to www.ultimatemediaconsult.com.

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.