In an era where almost every top soccer league in the world has an African plying their trade there and, or almost every top footballing country has used a player of African descent, it’s shameful to learn of stories of failed attempts at professional football akin to those associated with Ugandan players lately.
Mohammed Shaban, Murushid Jjuuko and, Patrick Kaddu in Morocco via Derrick Nsibambi in Egypt and Juma Balinya in Tanzania, different fora of media have been awash with an opinion after another opinion.
Before being blown out of proportion, the term shameful comes to context here because our league today is deemed more professional than it has ever been and today we boast of qualified coaches even at school football level.
To be precise, even teams in the Ugandan 3rd tier league (regional) are required to have CAF level C coaches.
The question on every concerned follower’s lips is, “why do our players fail abroad?” and always the most common answer is, “they are not prepared (ssi bategeke)”.
But why, and how comes some go on to make it?
The questions will obviously outnumber the answers or the answers will not conclusively exhaust the truth of the matter apart from tackling a few issues here and there.
In East Africa, Uganda is undisputedly the best footballing nation, with the most CECAFA titles, on top of having better performance on the continent, but somewhere somehow, our regional rivals have churned out players who have excelled in Europe’s top leagues, Asia and the Americas.
To fully understand this situation, we should include the West, South or North Africans in our debate.
Africa had players in Europe as early as 1910. Egyptian Hussein Hegazi an Engineering student at Cambridge played for Dulwich Humlet before joining Fulham, scoring on his debut against Stockport; Dulwich Humlet is the club a Ugandan striker Ibrahim Sekagya played for recently.
The first black player in the French league Raoul Diagne was signed in 1930 Raoul Diagne and in 1932, Algeria’s Ali Benouna moved to France, winning the Coupe de France with FC Sete before joining Stade Rennais which our own legend Magid Musisi played for in 1992.
One of Africa’s most respected Arab players, Morocco’s Larbi Ben MBarek played for Olympique Marseille in 1937 and Athletico Madrid in 1945. He was joined in Marseille by Algerians Abdelkader Ben Bouali and Raihi Rabih.
South African Steve Madi Mokone joined Coventry City in 1955 and became the first foreign professional in the Dutch League when he joined Heracles Almelo in 1957.
Malian legend Salif Keita went to St. Etienne in 1963 aged just 20 years; scoring 125 goals in 149 league appearances before playing for Marseille, Valencia and Sporting Lisbon. His exploits paved way for many Malians especially his relatives Seydou Keita and Momo Sissoko.
Zimbabwean goalkeeper became the first African to win a European medal, winning the trophy with Liverpool in 1984. Signed from Vancouver Whitecaps in 1981, the South African born custodian played 626 games in a 14-yr career for the Kops.
All the above points will come handy in the reasoning out of Uganda’s player status abroad in comparison to that of our compatriots like Kenya whose striker Mike Okoth Origi went to Belgium in 1992 (just like our first-ever European export Magid Musisi) after a one year stint in Oman’s Boshar FC.
He went on to play at KV Oostende, Genk where he won a league title before ending his career at 3rd division side Tongeren between 2004 and 2006 while Musisi had since returned to Ggaba United. Origi’s son Divock now plays for Liverpool and Belgium.
Kenya has also got McDonald Mariga and his brother Victor Mugubi Wanyama on top of the latest sensation Michael Olunga who was an apprentice at Gor Mahia when now Vipers’ striker Daniel “Mzee” Sserunkuuma was the crowd favourite.
Previously, Emmanuel Okwi was the poster boy at Tanzanian club Simba SC but local forwards like Mrisho Ngassa (Free State Stars in South Africa), Simon Msuva (Difaar El Jadidi, Morocco) and Mbwana Samata (the captain at Belgian club Genk) have somehow utilized the same Tanzanian league platform to proceed.
While the last we remember, our Okwi was choking on moves to Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg and Danish side Snordjesk. He is currently at Egyptian Club Al Ittihad.
The examples are so many but these are enough for one to get the logical conclusion.
No player can be denied a chance to play in Europe if they are good enough, prepared enough, cultured enough and of course flexible enough tactically, mentally and physically to deal with the dynamics of top-level football.
The last point is probably where most Ugandan players come short especially because they go to Europe late and I must say too specialized to adapt to the dynamic tactical and technical changes at that level demands.
Stories of our players sulking after being fielded out of position have always crept in but all that is hogwash as even the mighty are subjected to positional changes, refer to David Obua.
Secondly, racism has been a factor, but it has not stopped over 5000 blacks form earning the butter they need to smoother their bread from under the racists’ noses.
After all, even at home where “the pro failures”, the league is not run as professionally as it is painted and most club administrators are mere masquerades or self-seekers.
While discussing with a Sweden-based agent for Michael Olunga and several Kenyan internationals at the recently concluded CECAFA, he was all praises for Ugandan talent but equally scornful for the club administrators and, or some so-called player managers.
“They act like they never want to give their players the golden chance either out of ignorance or sheer arrogance” he mused, “I have talked to quite a few about some Ugandan players but their reasoning is way of professional football lines,” he adds.
The salary you give a player in Uganda is pocket change as compared to the one the lower-ranked European sides can offer them and of course the platform they offer the young players can fetch everyone involved with them fortunes once they get to be taken up by a bigger club which would not really have stretched their hand to as far as Kampala or East Africa.
I guess these rounds of the story administratively before we even delve into physical size issues, lack of decent promotional videos, poor tactical preparation, archaic technical abilities mostly blamed on the parent academies or clubs and lastly inconsistent individual performance levels plus ill-advised decision making.
How would you explain the fact that Steven Bengo or Juma Balinya could fail in Tanzania or Godfrey Walusimbi refused a loan deal in South Africa?
Ugandans love home so much and the economy is so deceptive that to own a car or a plot of land is interpreted as a serious breakthrough while investing in one’s talent is left to admirers or obsessed fans who actually will be the first to jeer a player’s bad day on and off the pitch quickly derailing his dream.
The earlier general sensitization of the players, their representatives, agents and club officials is made to arrest the prevailing mentality surrounding professionals using all the examples of our previous relative successes.
Musisi Magid, Ibra Sekagya, Livingstone Mbabazi, Dennis Onyango, David Obua, Andy Mwesigwa, Tonny Mawejje, Mike Azira, Salim Jamal among others or the failures the better.
Otherwise, we shall keep lamenting and writing about what would have been as other countries are enjoying the boom that comes with the football success of a professional player.
The author runs a player management agency “Tendosport”, he is a technical director at The Spartans FC and a sports analyst for UBC’s Star FM 87.5 and Star TV.