I must have been 10 going on 11 when I first saw Sadiq Wassa. It was at Nakivubo stadium in downtown Kampala and the Uganda Cranes were playing either Sudan or Tanzania. Sadiq was a towering presence in goal, always the first name on the team sheet.
The first time I actually spoke to the legend was more than a decade and a half later. Time had taken its toll, life its dues. It was at Lugogo Rugby Grounds and Sadiq earned his keep inspiring middle-aged so-called ‘corporates’ in Sunday morning football games.
Many of the playersif lumbering potbellied drunkards, many of them sweating half-digested hops, malt and barley can be called players clearly did not recognise they were in the hands of legends; Sadiq and occasionally Tom Lwanga, also one of the finest players ever to wear that shirt.
What troubled me, then and now, wasn’t that Sadiq had fallen on hard times. He and several other players from that era were just unlucky to have blossomed at the wrong time and in the wrong place. They were caught in that period where Idi Amin and his crazy and generous love for sports had disappeared, where government parastatals like Coffee Marketing Board and UEB which had previously provided safety nets to players, were under the cosh or the hammer, and before serious money had started flowing into the game.
What really troubled me was that we were playing Sunday morning football on a private rugby field and one of only two where a decade and a half earlier, there’d been at least six public grounds. I was also troubled that Sadiq was spending his time on no-hoppers instead of being part of the coaching staff for a pipeline of new talent.
Putting the shenanigans of the strike over unpaid bonuses aside, there is nothing to be ashamed of in the Uganda Cranes’ performance at the African Cup of Nations. Yet what we see as relative success for the Cranes is, in reality, in spite of, and not because of our deliberate efforts. We are quick to embrace success, but slow to make the investments necessary to guarantee it.
The Cranes have become a lightning rod for patriotism. Whether they wear red or yellow, it is one of the few things Ugandans can rally around. But mostly we paper over the cracks.
Sports development goes beyond winning bonuses. It starts with the basics: Knowledge, infrastructure and grooming talent. How many Ugandans have we put forward to earn coaching badges? How many sports facilities have we developed, preserved or rehabilitated to ensure that young talents can play and thrive? How many sports fields have we turned over to use as car bonds or to concrete tombs?
We have never lacked talent. Be it boxing, football or athletics, we have always had rough diamonds that shone through every so often. Our women’s netball team, the She Cranes, is arguably even more successful. For every star you can name, I can name a dozen ridiculously talented fellows many have never heard of: Benjamin Musoke, Dumisani Majola, Henry Sebulime (RIP) Sam Ssimbwa, et cetera, just a handful from Busoga College Mwiri, for instance.
But talent must be nurtured. Waiting for Stephen Kiprotich to win gold at the Olympics and then serenading him is opportunism, as is giving the Uganda Cranes a million dollars for qualifying from the group stages. Not to rain on the parade but after qualifying for the last edition and then this one, getting out of the group stages is the bare minimum.
Where are the public swimming pools we are building? Where are the tennis courts? The running tracks? The hockey fields? The cricket ovals? Where are the boxing rings to keep those Naguru boys busy instead of waylaying motorists on Lugogo Bypass? How many basketball courts have we built in the last decade? How can a country with such high levels of youth unemployment not see the value of investing in sports infrastructure?
Yes, the Cranes gave a good account of themselves, but we must move beyond giving good accounts of ourselves. We must be in it to win it. That takes serious investment and long-term planning.
Dennis Onyango, the Uganda Cranes captain and goalkeeper, is the face of hope and boy has he done well, but there is really very little we have done to overcome the tragedy that Sadiq and others have had to endure. Success has many fathers and everyone wants a piece of the Cranes’ story but on sports we are deadbeat dads.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.