There is limited anticipation when the club transfer activity takes off in Uganda. Elsewhere, player transfers generate plenty of excitement and discussion among fans but that hysteria lacks in Uganda. Lugogo, and later Nakulabye, the former headquarters of the National Football League Committee, was always a beehive of activities even with rival fans strategically positioned to block their beloved players from joining a rival team. The craze which was sparked by the late Patrick Kawooya, a glutton of success saw Villa win half of the 16 league titles they have. Since the last hyped transfer of striker Hassan Mubiru from Villa to Express in 2000, debate among pundits on potential recruits and efforts to uncover impending moves by journalists, has gone stone cold, sadly the new normal.
What went wrong?
The giant clubs of the time, Villa, Express and KCCA had prominent businessmen people who were ready to splash cash. Express’ Godfrey Kirumira at one time vowed to emulate Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez, who assembled expensive, world famous players using the “galácticos” policy. The frenzy of transfers died with Mubiru. Immanuel Ben Misagga attempted to spark some fire as president of Villa but former challengers, Express, were at the time licking wounds of their past administrative horrors. Teams that remain in the market of elite player buys is KCCA and Vipers and maybe URA and Bul as well as Wakiso Giants, lately. The rest rely on ‘leftovers’ and rejects to patch up squads.
Ali Ssekatawa, the chairman of Nyamityobora, who were relegated to the Big League after one season in the Premier League, said that the willingness to spend is limited by the market forces.
“Among the 16 league teams, only one gets a reward, the league title. All the other teams are left to fight relegation,” he summed up the low interest in willingness to invest by owners.
As basic that analysis is, it paints the whole blurred picture of the football industry. All 16 teams share a paltry Shs128m with the champions getting Shs60m. The three relegated sides share a combined Shs2.3m.
Supplementary sources of income are limited. KCCA is bankrolled by the parent body, Vipers by Hima Cement and DFCU, Bul by oil makers Bidco, Onduparaka by MTN, URA is funded by the tax body, Mbarara City Top Bet, Express by Betway and Bright Stars by a Japanese group.
The rest of the teams depend on individuals left with less money to spend.
The failure or lack of willingness by big brands, especially soft drinks companies, telecoms, banks, beer companies, kit manufacturers, betting companies and electronics makers, to associate with local clubs, limits the cash flow.
The cost of the Premier League’s broadcast rights which are in the hands of StarTimes TV, see each club get about Shs60m per season.
Player sales, the biggest avenue of earning revenue is also limited with KCCA and Vipers the only sides that have become savvier at securing good prices for outgoing players. Clubs prefer hoarding their cash something that has limited transfer activity. KCCA and Vipers receives more player arrivals in the previous seasons.
The passion has not died but neither does it manifest. Since the window opened in Uganda on January 1, Edrisa Lubega is the only known player that has moved -- from Proline to Estonian top side Paide Linnameeskond. Other teams locally are battling the dreaded licensing headache. The laidback circumstances have deemed the exercise, which closes on January 31, 2020, as a mere sideshow.
Haruna Kyobe, an expert and commentator on local football says the market is no longer vibrant because clubs are not incentivised to keep building their squads.
“The traditional clubs that kept the market busy, Villa and Express are lately troubled. Villa, for instance, has struggled to replicate its financial dominance of the 90s under Patrick Kawooya, failing to win the trophy since 2004, fifteen years ago. Express, too has had its share of challenges even though they were champions in 2012,”Kyobe said.
In response, they have adopted a new transfer strategy of recruiting nobodies.
“You could never imagine a national team to be play without Villa or Express players yet it is now normal. That shows that they have ordinary players. The worrying thing is that even smaller clubs can bid for players from them,” Kyobe added.
KCCA, who have led the football revolution since Mike Mutebi was appointed in 2015, has put emphasis on ‘kids’ who are “hungry and willing to improve” rather than buying established players.
Mutebi said in an interview after losing to Angola’s Petro Atletico in the Caf Champions League last year that, “we need to let the young players get active in the competition, because they have the football education and knowledge... They can fit our style of play.”
This reformed approach of recruiting from school competitions was previously a niche of Proline, a team that played exciting football on limited funds. The strategy appears to be paying off as the best young talent in the country is at Lugogo. Unlike KCCA, Vipers is willing to sign relatively unheralded players and still pay high fees.
Wakiso, Mbarara City catching up
Because of the fear to be relegated, Mbarara City recruited massively in their first season in the top flight in 2017. A similar trend was followed by the stylish Wakiso Giants.
Sula Kamoga, Wakiso Giants Chief Executive Officer (CEO) said in a recent interview that the club needed to guarantee their place in the league.
To owner Musa Ssebulime, this allows him the possibility of trading players abroad with a healthy CV of top flight football.
Ambitious clubs like Bul are also keeping pace spending on the rest of the best talent available.
Sides lower down the table have reason to loosen their purse strings but they are left with crumbs of veteran players, most of whom are in the evening of their careers as they attempt to hold onto their premier league status.
But according to Kyobe, the cautious approach is fuelled by the cautious approach and lack of market information.
“It is okay to hold onto your best players but when clubs don’t bid for top players from their rivals, it kills the momentum and in the end competitiveness,” Kyobe reasons.
Then there is a recurring problem of lack of stars. Kyobe argues that there are players that can cause an uproar but many clubs are treating football casually.
Two players, Allan Okello and Mustafa Kizza’s refusal to renew at KCCA could have created a feverish transfer atmosphere had a rival bid for them. But none is even bothering to inquire. That kind of approach just kills the market,” Kyobe added.
There are no official figures on player transfers but more promising players have instead opted to play in neighbouring countries -- Kenya, Zambia and lately in the Maghreb but leaving silently because many are go before they have established themselves in Uganda.
Ivan Kakembo, the immediate former CEO of URA and a player intermediary said that the giant clubs are not keen to return to the top in the national league.
“If we get at least three clubs bidding for places in the Caf Champions League, player transfers would attract some attention but for now it can only be lukewarm at best,” Kakembo said.