Beneath Uganda’s spectacular CHAN failure

There is always huge optimism for Uganda heading into any major tournament, but that is met with the harsh reality as soon as the action gets underway.

It is becoming a norm (if not already), and you can never logically argue how the national team is going to perform at a major tournament, the implication being that the Cranes don’t turn up when tournaments like CHAN come around.

Following a humbling 5-2 defeat to Morocco on Tuesday evening in Douala, the Cranes once again bowed out at the group stages and had failed the ‘challenge they knew they would face’ as described by head coach Johnathan McKinstry.

And what was apparent for a long time was confirmed at the final whistle of the Morocco game as Uganda were knocked out of the African Nations Championship (CHAN) group stages for the fourth time in a row.

Why did Uganda fail again?

It is important to note that this was no different from their performance at any of their previous CHAN tournaments.

But perhaps there was the belief that after four consecutive appearances, the Cranes have perhaps learnt a thing or two about the tournament and carried perhaps a bit of know how.

Many might argue that Uganda should have included a couple of different names on the team, perhaps URA FC striker Steven Mukwala who was a surprise omission from the final squad.

But that is not entirely conclusive as to why Uganda was disappointing, mainly because this was not down to the absence of a single-player, but it was complete shambles from the team as a whole.

Additionally, because the man who was selected instead, Ibrahim Orit, was one of Uganda’s better performers – even handing the Cranes the lead against Morocco before they fell face first.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic is haply another factor. By the time McKinstry had to name another squad for the tournament in December, 10 months after CHAN was initially called off, there were a couple of changes regards who he could select.

John Revita, Mustafa Kizza, David Owori and Fahad Bayo were all unavailable for different reasons, as injuries or moves elsewhere ruled them out of the tournament.

Revita, Kizza and Bayo were instrumental in Uganda’s qualification and the trio were key dressing room figures especially on the CHAN team.

In their place, came Aziz Kayondo, Bobosi Byaruhanga who were promoted from the Uganda U20s, and Shaban Muhammad who had spent over 18 months out of action.

The build-up to the tournament should not be ignored either. Uganda barely had two weeks of training before leaving for Cameroon for a pre-CHAN mini-tournament; that came after seven months without competitive action die to COVID-19.

Compared to the earlier preparations in February 2020, where the memory of the 2019 CECAFA Challenge Cup triumph still burnt bright in the memories of majority of the players. It contributed to the mentality and belief of the players and fans alike.

Prudent to note that countries like Togo have not had league action for almost the same period, but many other countries had seen considerable action in their leagues by December 2020.

Off pitch politics

The lead up to the CHAN tournament was toxic and that did not help either. Goalkeeping coach Fred Kajoba was indefinitely suspended from camp for breaking COVID-19 precautions.

Kajoba’s decision to go out of camp to attend mass service on Christmas day dominated the controversy surrounding Cranes camp days before they flew out to Cameroon.

All of a sudden, a house in order was thrown into chaos with accusations and counter-accusations that even caused FUFA president Moses Magogo (an MP candidate in Budiope East then) to break off from his campaign schedule to come and cool the storm.

Magogo, McKinstry, Kajoba and FUFA Chief Executive Edgar Watson were also involved in a private meeting ‘to iron out the issue’ before Sadiq Wassa was named in temporary charge of the goalkeepers for the tournament.

McKinstry would later come out on several occasions to publicly declare that he was happy with their preparations, and the warm-up games at the pre-CHAN tournament suggested that maybe they were not affected by the situation.

Selection problems?

On paper, the Cranes squad looked balanced given the wealth of options in every department. But when the heat of the tournament was turned on, the Cranes quickly wilted and never convinced.

When going forward, they lacked precision and the confidence to break down their opponents, always looking to be in a rush and often taking poor decisions.

A couple of individual selections are questionable, none more than that of Vianney Ssekajugo for the first game against Rwanda.

Absolutely understandable why he was dropped for Orit against Togo since he had proved to be out of his depth mentally and physically.

When the line-up for the game against Morocco was announced, strangely, Ssekajugo had been reinstated. I have nothing on the lad though; he carries a winner’s heart and can be the difference-maker in any game.

But against Morocco, he struggled with the physicality of their defenders, and with Aziz Kayondo behind him, he was forced to do as much defensive work than he would have liked.

Another contentious decision was leaving out league top scorer and inform Brian Aheebwa with Muhammad Shaban the preferred choice.

While it looked the right call given Shaban’s experience and prowess, it was evident that he was not yet at his best yet after the lengthy injury, leaving many to wonder what could have been if Aheebwa had been given more time on the pitch.   

The selections all added up to a dismal performance plastered with schoolboy football from even some of the most experienced members of the team including Denis Iguma.

The Cranes were irrational and it is hard to remember a clear chance created from open play and as NBS sports journalist Ritah Tuguminsirize wondered on social media “A team whose best player is a goalkeeper, wow.”

Tuguminsirize was reacting to goalkeeper Charles Lukwago who has had to make 13 saves in three games, five of those coming against Morocco on Tuesday.

McKinstry on the other hand admitted: “The penalty obviously could not have come at a worse time. We made some mistakes and we got punished as we also started chasing the game.”

What next for the Cranes?

There has been a full-blown criticism of McKinstry and his technical on social media, with some cunningly suggesting that he should be relieved of his duties.

However, I don’t think his position and that of his assistants has been shaken over a poor CHAN tournament. They know first hand that there is still significant learning and journey to move as far as their philosophy for the Cranes goes.

But he knows better that this should not carry on, and being an immaculate planner, he definitely is thinking ahead and how this experience can help shape the future of the players.  

The players return to their respective clubs as the Ugandan league resumes with matchday six in February, but McKinstry and his assistants will be thinking of the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.

Uganda is second in group B, and need at least four points in their remaining two games to seal qualification for the 2021 edition.

They host Burkina Faso next before travelling to Nyasaland for their final qualifier during the international match window between March 22 and March 30.

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