Three years after any kind of international women’s football was played in Uganda, Nakivubo stadium had the buzz of a husband running the corridors of a labour ward waiting for the results of his expectant wife.
It’s been such a long time that the Crested Cranes, the national women’s team, and the visiting DR Congo side, playing for a place at the Africa Women’s Championship, didn’t know which bench to settle for.
The last time Uganda had featured in anything like this was defeating Rwanda in the U-20 qualifiers, only for Fufa to withdraw the team due to lack of finances. A large crowd, bigger than a local league game would manage, cheered the women on even during the warm-ups where they wore white shorts, red jerseys and blue bibs. Women, infants and school-going children entered for free.
Like the norm is, the two teams disappeared into the dressing room for one final word from the nurses on how to handle themselves when the moment they had waited for over 156 weeks comes.
The substitutes re-emerged first and chose the wrong benches. It took the intervention of the fourth official to switch. The two technical teams followed. Clad in blue track suits, national coach Majidah Nantanda led her elaborate entourage which included American tutor Lisa Berg out. They were barely noticed, forgive the ignorance.
Vuvezelas sounded loudly as Crested Cranes, now without the bibs and guided by captain Christine Wanyana, walked along side their opponents. Nantanda and company got rid of the blue tops to reveal their white jerseys underneath as the sun pounded the uneven turf while the players paddled up for a final prayer. Nerves then ruled. DR Congo were firmly on top.
Cranes committed three free kicks inside the opening five minutes. The visitors’ goal was barely threatened. Inevitably, the western neighbours scored. It wasn’t pretty. A string of corners resulted in luck on the third attempt when Nalendo Ivonne swung the ball in and Tondi Lugemba scrambled it over the line with goalkeeper Fatuma Matovu at sixes and sevens in the seventh minute. Nantada reacted by calling for calm. Matovu redeemed herself not long after by getting down superbly to deny Mangola Bulaba in a one-on-one situation. A goal down was bad, 2-0 would have been disaster.
Out of nothing, the hosts were level. A harmless cross from Christine Nambirige on the right was fumbled by goalkeeper Ngoya Mudimbi, edgy all evening, into the path of Fatuma Luwedde who made no mistake, 1-1.
If Nakivubo had a retractable roof, it would have disappeared. DR Congo, averagely smaller, shorter but more fluid struck the post and cleared a goal-bound effort off the line.
Uganda, lacking telepathy, still had hope but DR Congo held all the trump cards. The second half had numerous half-hearted cheers as clear cut chances were non-existent for both sides.
Only thrust ruled and Nantanda knows her team, hardly threatening on Saturday, is in a hole ahead of the return leg in a fortnight. Many didn’t care as they players received a loud applause from everyone when the final whistle went. Some remained glued to their seats with no sign of sorrow. Others came down the turf to catch a glimpse of the players and embrace them. The result didn’t matter. There’s women’s football here!