In 1978 Uganda enjoyed their most momentous AFCON accomplishment, finishing runners-up to Ghana – back then nobody envisaged the cranes failing to grace Africa’s most prestigious tournament in the years subsequent.
Those years of suffering could however be brought to an end on Wednesday night when Uganda visit Casablanca to take on Guinea, with a point from that fixture liable to secure the conclusion of their AFCON absence.
Across recent history few sides have been closer to qualification without actually accomplishing it, with the Ugandans only missing the 2012 AFCON by a single point – Angola ultimately clinched the sought after qualification birth. That setback though was merely minor in the gut wrenching stakes given a year later only an epic penalty shootout defeat – 20 kicks in total – denied Uganda progression at the expense of 2012 champions Zambia.
Scot Bobby Williamson oversaw both those near misses in a reign that extended over five years, nonetheless a stuttered start to the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign saw an inpatient hierarchy dispense with the former Kilmarnock man, although in truth there was nagging feeling that the partnership had run its course. Milutin Sredojević has been tasked with stepping into Williamson’s rather hefty shoes – the Scot didn’t quite deliver the ultimate goal yet his impact was undeniable – with the remit of ending 36 years of pain.
Sredojević can boast extensive club football experience within the continent, with his CV showcasing spells in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Africa and Uganda itself – whilst a largely circumspect spell in charge of Rwanda at least means he wasn’t entering the international arena cold.
Arguably the Serb’s most noteworthy accomplishments arrived managing Ugandan side Villa SC, whom he guided to four consecutive titles between 2001 and 2004 – perhaps further endorsing those achievements is that Sredojević’s departure has coincided with a ten-year Barron spell for Villa SC in regards to the Ugandan title.
Uganda were one of seven nations forced to navigate their way through the final group stage round of qualification via two knockout fixtures – the cranes negotiating past Madagascar and Mauritania. Their journey and with it Sredojević’s rein might have ended in the ignominy of falling at the first hurdle with Uganda coming from two goals adrift to advance courtesy of the away goals rule against Madagascar with Geoffrey Massa’s second leg strike in Kampala securing a tentative progression.
A relatively kind, yet still taxing draw, raised aspirations of ending their prolonged AFCON absence with Uganda being handed the trio of Ghana, Togo and Guinea. On first glance Ghana were perceived overwhelming favourites, yet leadership issues combined with the fallout from a turbulent World Cup means their position at the apex was no forgone conclusion.
Togo – who disappointingly finished bottom of their World Cup qualification group – are a side deemed on the decline, whilst Guinea – originally the most significant threat to Uganda stealing second spot – were always liable to be heavily hindered by Ebola denying them the benefit of home advantage.
A point in Kumasi against the black stars signified a dream start, although such was Ghana’s level of ineptitude combined with Uganda’s dominance that the cranes might have felt frustrated by the 1-1 score-line.
As momentous as that point was, it would have counted for little had the cranes not consolidated with victory over Guinea in their subsequent clash. Two goals from Massa represented the end product of a hugely assured performance, with the timing of those strikes – both arrived in the first half – ensuring nerves were never allowed to materialise.
Those opening displays handed Uganda the Group E eight ball and with a double-header against dispirited Togo next on the agenda – the sparrow hawks had lost their opening two encounters – aspirations were rife that the qualification pendulum was finally swinging in the cranes favour.
The curse however would strike back with what at the time was believed to be critically effect. Unbeaten at home in over ten years – a run which compressed 22 competitive fixtures – the inconceivable occurred in Kampala as Donou Kokou’s sole strike was enough to condemn Uganda to a first defeat on home soil since 2004. Another 1-0 defeat to the same opposition saw their qualification hopes plunged into disarray, in the space of four days the cranes had gone from dictating the group to a position in which room for maneuver was none existent.
The equation however would evolve yet again on Saturday, as from the fire of their apparently dwindling qualification Uganda roared back into contention courtesy of a historic triumph over disjointed and lackluster Ghana at a raucous Mandela National Stadium. Massa provided the game’s pivotal strike early on and despite the closeness suggested by the score-line there was little denying Uganda as worthy winners against a side a million miles from the sum of their parts.
That triumph means Uganda head to Wednesday’s day of reckoning in buoyant mood, nonetheless that feeling will also be shared by their opponents Guinea who last time out saw off Togo in emphatic fashion away from home.
Defensive stability has been Uganda’s strongest facet through qualification to date and that proficiency will again need to be evident against a Guinea brimming with attacking options, although given the unrivalled stakes the fixtures outcome is liable to hinge as much on mental fortitude as technical aptitude.