For so long they have been Africa’s nearly-men, but Uganda’s dream is, at last, fulfilled. The bi-annual episodes of the door being slammed in their face at the very last minute have come to an end.
The most horrific of those episodes was their attempt to qualify for the 2013 tournament. A two-legged affair with Zambia, after a score level on aggregate, ended with the finale of a penalty shoot-out. The Chipolopolo would emerge victorious in Kampala with a 9-8 win on penalties.
The door to another AFCON tournament was nearly slammed shut again. Wins in their opening two games put Uganda in pole position, but a loss and a draw against Burkina Faso saw the Stallions gallop in front and Uganda fans sensed that familiar feeling. A similar run of results had seen the second halves of their 2012 and 2015 qualification campaigns capitulate.
Nonetheless, Uganda trudged on, activating newfound mental resilience to grind out an impressive away victory to Botswana and sealing the deal with a narrow win over Comoros. In the end, Burkina Faso would leapfrog them on goal difference, and Uganda consequently qualified as the best runners-up.
It wasn’t the prettiest way of reaching the tournament, not after the heartache of yesteryear, but after all the near misses they won’t care. The first East African team to qualify for the tournament since Ethiopia in 2013, their prickliness will make them a team that opponents won’t enjoy facing. Group D opponents Ghana certainly haven’t enjoyed their face-offs with the East Africans since 2014. In 3 meetings they have failed to beat them, losing once.
Set to appear in their first tournament since 1978, when they reached the final and lost to Ghana, Uganda won’t be realistically aiming to replicate those rarefied heights, even given their recent stiflings of Ghana and even though coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic is not one for managing expectations.
Instead, with consideration of their placement in the tougher half of the draw, a quarter-final berth would be a great over-achievement.
Coach Micho is lucky enough to be able to call upon Denis Onyango, Africa’s premier continent-based goalkeeper at the moment. The line in front of Onyango should be one of the most cohesive in the tournament – and it’s no surprise when you see how long they have been playing together. That well-drilled defence, which has the impressive Isaac Isinde at the heart of it, is critical. It is the framework Uganda use to win games by tiny margins, sneak draws or lose narrowly despite being a modest side on paper. The rest of the team almost doesn’t matter when you think of that defence, but 21-year-old Farouk Miya, of Standard Liege, could have a breakout tournament in an attack that has had a long-term issue of creating chances but not finishing them.
Denis Onyango – While the standard of goalkeeping in Africa isn’t as uproarious as Joe Public would have you believe, having a good goalkeeper in an AFCON does, logically, enhance your chances of doing well. Fresh from an African Champions League triumph with Mamelodi Sundowns, and fresher from just being crowned as the CAF Africa-based Footballer of the Year, Onyango is the most in-form goalkeeper on the continent.
The Hipster’s Choice
Tonny Mawejje – AKA TM5 AKA Midfield General AKA Toninho Cerezo. The most capped player in the squad, the Reykjavik-based midfielder has ice in his veins and is Uganda’s big-game player. A firm favourite of SFG, the timing of his runs into the box and his long-range shooting make him a serious goal threat.
A cohesive, familiar unit – The team have been playing together for a long time; very few teams in the tournament have been playing together for as long as Uganda, or at least been constructed with team-building in mind. The senior players in the squad are past 50 caps; there’s players in their early 20s approaching that milestone, too . And they bring with them the longest serving head coach at AFCON. They will be difficult to break down, as Ghana have found in their contests with them, and they have pace to hurt teams on the counter. Despite their relative lack of quality Uganda are no three-points gimme; opponents will have to break a sweat to beat them. This is a team in the very traditional sense.
Timidity on their travels – The Cranes had one of the best home records in Africa, stretching from 2004 until 2014 when Togo ended it. Their away form, though they showed more solidity on their travels during this qualifying campaign, is the polar opposite. They will have to add even more of a killer touch to their game on what is essentially a neutral stage, as they have been grouped with Ghana, Egypt and Mali; teams that are at home on this stage.
Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic – Probably the only head coach at AFCON with a Twitter presence, and the Serb is never hesitant to express his own hot takes via the social media platform. Some may say he’s self-indulgent and self-congratulating, but in a continent where some foreign coaches live in Europe and just jet in for qualifiers, what he cannot be accused of is not caring. He took over in May 2013, making him the longest serving coach of a nation at the tournament.
By The Numbers (courtesy of We Global Football)
- Making their return to the AFCON finals for the first time since 1978, Uganda has seen a meteoric rise in their recent success through Serbian coach Micho Sredojevic.
- Despite the success, 2016 was rather inconsistent for the Cranes, unable to post consecutive wins, losses, or draws across 10 matches.
- Goals have also been hard to come by for Uganda; they were shut out 7 times in 2016, but did manage to keep 5 clean sheets.
- Our model is keen on the Cranes, giving them the best odds of any projected 4th place team to advance at 28.32%.
- So we’re saying there’s a chance of Uganda winning AFCON?! Our model gives Uganda about a 1 in 100 chance of winning AFCON 2017.
Group Stage exit – With self-belief the Cranes can make it out of this group but the likelihood is they will exit the tournament at an early stage.