Two years ago Uganda arrived to AFCON as the pride of East Africa. The tournament expansion and the qualification of neighbours Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania for this year’s edition hasn’t changed that. They still remain East Africa’s biggest hope of disrupting the status quo.
The bad news for them is they are in the group of death with hosts Egypt, DR Congo and Zimbabwe. An early exit is not completely off the cards if they don’t play to their potential. On the upside, they qualified impressively with a game to spare where their only defeat came in the dead rubber against Tanzania to close off their campaign.
The Cranes had a reputation for timidity on their travels. Under Sebastien Desabre they seem to have matured as a team with a commendable away win in Cape Verde and seeing off teams they should be seeing off, like Lesotho, both home and away.
Desabre waltzed in promising an attacking style of football but his pledge was tested early on after a premature exit at the CHAN in 2018 when he released the shackles. Wounded, he reverted to the solid defensive foundations his predecessor – and SFG columnist! – Micho Sredojevic left behind.
Unlike in the last edition when they were drawn against two of the tournament contenders in Egypt and Ghana, the group and format of the tournament is friendlier and one win should ensure progress. Despite the toughness of the group they will fancy their chances to progress into the knockout stages.
None of the names in Uganda’s defence, bar perhaps Onyango to African football watchers, are blockbuster but their backline remains one of the most cohesive at this year’s tournament. The main tweak under Desabre is a system that commits slightly more players forward, making it more of a 4-3-3.
Similarly to the Micho era, they remain a side most comfortable playing on the break, utilising their pace through their full backs Nicholas Wadada and Godfrey Walusimbi. The goal threat will come from Emmanuel Okwi who is set to start on the right wing and Farouk Miya who has moved more centrally as the most advanced midfielder. The lone striker role is still up for grabs but Patrick Kaddu seems the most likely to start.
The familiarity in defence – The Ugandan defence names itself and has rarely changed during qualification with Onyango, Wadada, Murshid Juuko, Hassan Wasswa and Walusimbi almost ever-present. Just like in the last edition Uganda come into this tournament with one of the most well-oiled and consistent defensive units. That wasn’t enough to spare them a group stage exit last time around but it made teams work hard to have to beat them with Egypt and Ghana only registering a goal against them. We could see the same medicine served again to their opponents.
The Achilles’ Heel
The search for a striker – Emmanuel Okwi could of course play there but Desabre wants a more well-rounded centre-forward and Okwi’s trickery, for club and country, seems better suited on the wing. It is where he has excelled for Simba this season. None of the candidates for that striker’s role are proven at international level. Uganda will have to hold their breath that the magic of Okwi and Farouk Miya will see them through as they seek to surprise.
Emmanuel Okwi ‘Emmo Sting’ has had a memorable season at club level with Tanzania’s Simba. He was a key part of an insatiable strike-force with John Bocco and Meddie Kagere that led his team to the Tanzania League title and a historic appearance in the quarter finals of the African Champions League. In the process he cemented his status as a bona-fide club legend.
Now out of contract with renewal talks stalling, and a cryptic Instagram message leaving many to wonder whether he’s departed for good or not, this tournament could just be the shop window the striker is looking for.
The Hipster’s Choice
At just 21 Farouk Miya is the baby of the squad but he has been around a bloody long time and is on his way to 100 caps. A move to Standard Liege three years ago didn’t work out and he is now quietly regaining his confidence in Croatia with HNK Gorica.
A stunning brace in the win over Lesotho showed that while hay may be raw, he is one of the two match-winners Uganda have.
Sebastien Desabre has been around the block in Africa coaching at some of the biggest clubs in Angola, Algeria, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Morocco and Tunisia, but, like a SFG writer, international football has won his heart. He highlights qualification for AFCON 2019 with Uganda as the highest point in his career.
His fashion sense has caught his eye but he claims he doesn’t choose what he wears. Who does? His wife. Right on.
With their chemistry in defence Uganda have the potential of reaching the knockout stages and maybe springing a shock or two. Their maturity as a team in the last two years should certainly propel them to aim higher, perhaps a quarter-final appearance.