By Katongole Kiwanuka – It is just 540 minutes of regulation time that await Uganda Cranes to lift the Tusker CECAFA Challenge cup and enter a territory only our Kenyan neighbours boast of. The 35th edition of the CECAFA championship runs between November 27 – December 12 in ar es Salaam, Tanzania. Simply, this would translate into twelve trophies for Uganda – however, can the Cranes conquer again?
First of all, the Cranes must beat the hurdle of the “group of death” that comprises four time champions Ethiopia, arch-rivals Kenya and three time champions Malawi.
Ethiopia is trying to use the tournament to prepare for a demanding task of Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers next year and their team coach has made his intentions clear that he is going to use the tournament to test the mettle of his players. The good news for Uganda is that major Ethiopian forces St. George FC who contribute the largest contingent to the national team are still struggling in their league. By the third game, they had got only one point implying that the team’s performance is below par.
The last three meetings with Kenya have proved that Kenya is becoming a hard nut to crack. Uganda won by a solitary goal at Namboole in the African Nations Championship before going out to lose 2-1 in Nairobi. The last meeting on October 9, Uganda survived by goal keeper Denis Onyango’s bravery to manage a scoreless draw. The two tacticians, ‘Ghost’ Jacob Mulee and Bobby Williamson must be disappointed and this meeting will provide a neutral ground to settle the debate.
Other group opponents Malawi, alongside fellow guests Zambia were former members of CECAFA before pulling out to join COSAFA which they helped form. Zambia accepted a guest invitation last year and now Malawi comes along. The last game with Zambia at Namboole in 2009 had Brian Umony help the Cranes secure a 2-1 win.
Later in the tournament, Uganda will likely meet Zambia, Tanzania, Ivory Coast or Rwanda. The fiercest challenger for the new gold plated trophy seems to be Zambia. The Chipolopolo’s biggest undoing is that there is internal fighting which has forced 13 super division teams to abandon league football. Teams have not played any league games since the weekend of November 10 when they voted to boycott matches in a push to force Federation president Kalusha Bwalya call for an emergency council meeting.
Team coach, Italian Dario Bonetti earlier this week said he is just worried the three-week-long boycott had left his players short on match fitness.
As if that is not enough, senior players James Chamanga and Jonas Sakawaha have snubbed the team. Zambia were last year eliminated in the quarterfinals by a ‘provincial team’, Zanzibar and the highly anticipated trendsetters managed to secure a 1-all draw on August 11
Kilimanjaro Stars have a great ambition after showing Brazilian Marcimo Maximo the exit. Jan Poulsen’s stars are success starved, having last hoisted the trophy 15 years ago.
The hosts look at Ngassa Mrisho – short and small but their danger man can cause trouble to any defender and scores a lot. A good number of players in their team are from Simba FC, coached by Zambian legend Patrick Phiri. Therefore their style of play is soft like the Zambian approach which can be matched by Uganda. Tactician Paulsen named only three professionals to cement the team and none looks a very big threat – Nizar Khalifan (Vancouver Whitecaps, Canada), Henry Joseph (Kongsvinger, Norway) and Thomas Ulimwengu (Sweden).
Rwanda, who have won the championship once in 1999, were Uganda’s challengers in the finals at Nyayo stadium. Since 1999, the Amavubi stars (Wasps) have played in the finals five times. Uganda has twice come closer to lifting three trophies in a row but have fallen short. Kenya beat the odds and lifted the cup for keeps (1981, 82, 83).
Trivia has it that whenever Uganda gets closer, it is the Southern African side that conquers. In 1976 and 1977, Uganda was halted by Malawi while the 1989 and 1990 run was stopped by Zambia. Recently, Uganda’s fire power has dwindled scoring only one goal in Middle East friendlies and this was translated into the team’s training sessions this week. Williamson now has all the rest up to him.