And so this week, finally the Cranes, after nearly a 40-year absence, began their quest to win the Africa Cup of Nations.
In many ways, they don’t actually have to win Afcon. Just making it to the final is enough.
I have a delightful controversial and cantankerous dentist friend in Kampala, and he had an example of this phenomenon.
There was a time, in the Western world at least, when French actress Brigitte Bardot was considered to be the most beautiful on the face of the earth. Now 82, at the height of her career in Hollywood in the 1960s and 70s, my dentist buddy liked to cite a poll taken of the men of the world. They were asked whether they would want to spend a night with Bardot, but no one would know it, or walk down the street hand in hand with her, be photographed, and make the pages of a glossy magazine.
Nearly all the men said they would prefer to be photographed with Bardot, than spend a secret night of passion with her! So be it with the Cranes! But we have discovered many other things in the excitement that has swept the country following their qualification.
One of them is one aspect of patriotism. You can say anything, make all manner of outlandish claims about the Cranes, as long as they are positive and mobilising support.
No one is going to shut you down, or accuse you of having lost your objectivity for claiming they are the most beautiful team in the world.
Today a woman can walk down Kampala Road with the Uganda colours and slogans hailing the Cranes painted on her body and not be arrested.
She will be celebrated as a true patriot. If the same woman walked down the same street the next day with a deadly mini, a mob would pounce upon her and Ethics minister Simon Lokodo would run her out of town. The beauty of the Cranes’ fortunes, therefore, is that they give us the freedom to do the most stupid things in their name, and not be called out. Turns out we actually needed to.
But it has also opened up opportunities to discuss exactly how we bring glory to our countries. I have a rather philistine view. The best way to bring glory to your country is not to specifically set out to do so. It seems the path to making your country proud is to start out working selfishly for yourself and family.
I have never met a footballer or athlete who set out as a little boy, to fly his nation’s flag, although some publicly claim to do so.
Fabulously wealthy Americans like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, today give a fine face to US philanthropy as they spend their billions saving the world. But they had to make the money first. If we want honest rich Ugandans who will also create serious charities, we should encourage people to be enterprising and grow rich for themselves first, not for Uganda.
The same thing should go for football. Very many of, especially, the West African teams, at Afcon have nearly 90 per cent of their players kicking the ball for European and Asian clubs.
If you set out to just play for your country, you might not get even six decent games a year, and you will go hungry. You won’t be paid. But if you are playing for a European club with money, you are pampered, get world-class training, get a fat pay cheque, you become good, and return to play for your country basically as a subsidy. Free national service.
Any African country that wants footballing glory today therefore should encourage their players to go away. The Cranes, and other successful sports people like Stephen Kiprotich, are wonderful because they ennoble our hypocrisy – and even delinquency.
They can spend many lonely hours and days struggling to find excellence, without a penny or care from the taxpayers, government, and even their relatives. Then they make it big on the world stage, and all of a sudden they become a symbol of what is best about our country.
The thing about that is that even if we invested totally nothing in them, they can’t refuse to wear the flag on their vest at Afcon or the Olympics. It is the one time when stealing the sweat of a private citizen is considered not to be corruption, although some bad mannered journalists sometimes like to bring these issues up.
I am rooting for the Cranes to win. But it is not really essential at this point. It will be a bonus. They will not be loved any less.
Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3