The crowning moment of any footballer is to play at the Fifa World Cup. Many, if not all, use whatever means may be the most plausible to get to the big time. Not all succeed though. For Uganda, the crushing inescapability of failure is underpinned by the fact that a dozen attempts have left nothing to write home about. One such attempt, back in 1980, was dead in the water before a ball was even kicked. Another in 1992 ended in the ignominy of a withdrawal after being placed in a group with Algeria, Ghana and Burundi.
So will Qatar 2022 be the proverbial 13th time lucky? The Cranes will line up in a group alongside top seeds Mali as well as neighbours Kenya and Rwanda. Head coach Johnathan McKinstry is cautiously optimistic. “Everyone knows that winning the group doesn’t take you to the World Cup, you’ve then got to beat another group winner,” the Northern Irishman recently told NTV’s Press Box show, adding, “But if you can get into that playoff round, you’ve got a real chance…with the group we’ve gotten, why not?”
Real possibility in 2026
McKinstry is also alive to the myriad of ghoulish possibilities en route to Qatar 2022. The 34-year-old in fact reckons the 2026 Fifa World Cup presents a more realistic shot. “We currently find ourselves ranked 15th in Africa. At the moment there’s only five places for the World Cup. In 2026 there is gonna be nine spaces for Africa,” he notes, further offering, “Now in terms of that medium term objective, can we move ourselves in to be a top 10 nation in Africa over the next three years? I believe we can.”
But will three years be a little too late for Cranes skipper, Denis Onyango. At the 2018 World Cup, the average age of goalkeepers was 29.7. Onyango is 34 and will be 40 in 2026. The talismanic goalkeeper is known not to shy away from difficult topics especially after having grown into the dignity and gravity of his office as Cranes captain. He says: “[Personally], I believe 2022 is more realistic than 2026 because I’m still playing at the highest level with my club and I don’t know what 2026 brings for me.”
Before taking on the Cranes captaincy, Onyango was something of an underappreciated genius. His penalty save in Guinea-Bissau should have been the bedrock on which Uganda gained qualification to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals. Instead, the qualifying campaign ended in tears after outfield players contrived to draw a blank against Kenya. Another penalty save in Comoros, a tropical archipelago off Africa’s east coast, yielded a markedly different outcome during the 2017 Afcon qualifying campaign. Uganda finally ended its nearly four-decade absence at the African football showpiece. Five months later, the player that captained Uganda to the 2017 Afcon finals was hounded out of the Cranes. Many fans opined that the ravages of age had slowed down Geoffrey Massa considerably. Says Onyango: “Most people in Uganda believe in age rather than performance. Many of them will say that Denis is old now; he should give a chance to youngsters.”
Forever an unsung hero
Onyango is under no illusions about the impossibility of being a Peter Pan. He, however, advises those queuing up to take his international gloves to “show that they have the ability to take the responsibility.” He adds: “One thing I know is that there are a lot of young keepers in Uganda and outside who can take the team to the next level, which is the World Cup.”
For now, though, it would be a foolhardy decision to hound the goalkeeper out of the Cranes setup. Onyango’s performances with South African club, Mamelodi Sundowns continue to remind us of his brilliance. The crippling fear of an arrival at the fourth floor dimming his reflexes should be just that — fear. After all Essam El Hadary kept goal for Egypt at the 2018 World Cup at the ripe old age of 45; never mind that the match was a dead rubber. Onyango says the Egyptian footballing culture “made it a little easier for [El Hadary] to be in the squad.” Because Uganda is decidedly different, the Mamelodi Sundowns shot-stopper reckons Cranes fans will “easily forget what you’ve done and look at what’s present and start criticising instead of helping a player to make history for the country.”
Onyango also knows that the question of age will take time to fade especially since he is — remarkably — two months older than McKinstry. The goalkeeper sees the funny side of the differential to the point of daring to bring it up when McKinstry appeared on the Press Box a fortnight ago. Typically, the Northern Irishman’s retort was cheekier. Onyango is restless, the Cranes head coach sarcastically said, “not because I’m younger than him; it’s probably because I’m better looking than him.”
Twenty twenty-six is a very long way off, and telling if still having Onyango between the posts is a good look (in the McKinstry mould) is quite frankly no easier to predict than the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic. One thing is for sure though: the six-foot-two goalkeeper will not stop pushing the envelope.