Travis Mutyaba picks the ball inside the opposition half. There is five players between him and Oscar Mawa who is trying to make a run towards the 18-yard box.
Somehow, one of ingenuity, Mutyaba is able to pick the right pass. Mawa is one-on-one with the goalkeeper and slots the ball calmly past the goalkeeper.
This routine is what has defined Uganda’s Under-15 and Under-17 teams over the past two to three years. Of course, not all of it is crowned by elation. But everything that comes off is something to behold.
The 2019 Cecafa U-15 tournament was Mutyaba’s breakout moment. In a game against Tanzania that Uganda won 2-0, he sweetly struck a free kick to hand his side the lead.
The second was his signature moment in Asmara, Eritrea. He magically dribbled past four Tanzania players and a neat one-two with Abasi Kyeyune found him clean through on goal.
There was no doubt about what happened next. Thanks to him, Uganda breezed to the title, thumping Kenya 4-0 in the final.
In that final, Mutyaba skipped past a couple of Kenyan players with some neat footwork and laid the ball for Patrick Ouke to cross. That cross was turned in by Davis Ogwal to hand Uganda the lead.
These descriptions are countless for Mutyaba. He is clearly a once-in-a-generation talent. To emphasize that, he does all this and more with his left foot which has earned him the moniker ‘Messi’ after Barcelona’s Argentina legend Lionel Messi.
Not many Ugandan football fans have watched a full game of Mutyaba but the highlights can paint anyone’s face with a smile. He can warm your heart and leave you in awe.
Some of the things he is doing with the onion bag are unbelievable. He makes the beautiful game look pretty, and loyal.
Recently, Mutyaba took a dribble that left some of his opponents beaten, displeased, dazed and debating whether he had made the right decision.
As he touched down in Morocco for the now-cancelled U-17 Africa Cup of Nations, his classmates at St Mary’s Secondary School, Kitende, were busy preparing for the Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) examinations that run from March 1 to April 6.
Mutyaba, along with Ivan Irimbabazi (Royal Giant High School), Mawa (Gombe High School) and Elvis Mwanje (Masaka SS), in consultation with their parents and guardians, opted not sit the exams.
The tournament, originally scheduled for March 13-31, was cancelled due to a spike in Covid-19 cases in the North African country. Uganda had been the first team to arrive.
The Confederation of African Football is still negotiating with Zambia to have the rescheduled tournament played there on a later date.
Key to success?
A slightly older colleague, Alpha Thierry Ssali, son of music star Moses Ssali, aka Bebe Cool, also travelled to Mauritania for the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations and skipped exams that take four years to prepare for.
Why would someone do that in a country where education is still primarily regarded as the ‘Key to Success’ like many school mottos read?
“I made the decision and told the school (St Mary’s SSS Kitende) to let Mutyaba go for the tournament,” Patrick Ssemakula, Mutyaba’s father, says firmly.
“I have seen African stars like Sadio Mane (Liverpool and Senegal forward) earn big from football yet they began from scratch. Football is a job he should start learning now and he agreed with me on that,” he adds.
Of course, everyone today understands the mammoth rewards that come with talent in any field with sportsmen some of the richest individuals globally.
Alpha and his Hippos’ colleagues were promised $4,000 (about Shs15m) by the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (Fufa) for their run that saw them reach the final, losing 2-0 to Ghana.
Ghana President Nana Dankwa Akufo-Addo rewarded the Black Satellites with a package worth an estimated $330,000 (Shs1.2b).
Each member of the team received a $10,000 (Shs37m) with half in cash and the other half in a 10-year investment. Even the smaller sums for the Hippos are colossal by every stretch of imagination here.
And this is only the start. For context, it’s important to ignore the sums earned by basketball icon LeBron James, football pair Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Formula One’s Lewis Hamilton and tennis legend Serena Williams, among others.
Shs1b for Cheptegei
Even if details remain scanty due to the culture of nondisclosure in Uganda, long distance star Joshua Cheptegei reportedly turned down an endorsement deal from Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) worth Shs400m a year.
He has since signed with them for a sum in excess of Shs1b. No official financial details were given but Uganda Cranes captain Denis Onyango is receiving $30,000 (Shs110m) over the next 12 months to promote Gal’s Sport Betting.
Before those, Olympic and world champions Stephen Kiprotich was reportedly paid $50,000 (Shs185m) by Aqua Sipi Mineral Water in endorsement for a 12-month period.
They still receive more in salary and from kit manufacturers. Onyango earns more than Shs30m monthly at South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns. Ugandan Members of Parliament reportedly take home as much.
Like the minimum qualification to become an Member of Parliament of Uganda, Cheptegei and Onyango studied up to Senior Six. It is also sufficient to qualify for the presidency.
Aware of all this and equipped with a front seat view of Mutyaba’s success, Ssemakula, his son’s first fan, took the decision that some might call radical.
“Having seen him win over eight tournament awards and top scorer medals, I strongly believed he was destined to be the MVP in the Afcon in Morocco.
“Mutyaba will only make 16 years in August and with his discipline and love for books, he can always do well at school. He already had scouts from Europe waiting for him to perform at the Afcon showpiece and they take him on immediately and he couldn’t miss the grand opportunity.
“After all this, I see Mutyaba transforming into a proven forward in Europe and also lifting the national team in the near future. Truth be told, he has talent and the sweet left foot is unmatched,” he explains.
Disappointed with govt
Denis Namanya, Irinimbabazi’s agent, adviser and guardian, knows that his futures lies inside the four lines.
“The boy made a personal decision even when I, as his agent, wanted him to sit his UCE exams,” Namanya says.
“He had listened to me until he saw his name on the final team and that is when he boldly told Royal Giants SSS head teacher that he has to be in Morocco – for his future.
“He joined the Ugandan education system in Senior Three from Burundi and has been struggling to catch up with the rest of the candidates. He might have seen another path to success through football since his parents are far away in Luweero to offer timely guidance.
“The good news though is that he will still get his bursary and play in Copa [Coca-Cola Post-Primary Championship] as a repeater – an olive branch extended to national team players. If he stays focused, Irinimbabazi has the features and gift required for a player to thrive in the top European leagues,” Namanya says.
Bebe Cool takes a different opinion and is quick to share his disappointment with the government.
“(It’s a) really big disappointment with the government and the Ministry of Education and Sports in particular on how they have handled the issue of missing Senior Four final exams by the young talented football players who have been/are on continental duty with the U-20 and U-17 national teams.
“It’s unfortunate that this government has never had plans to support each and every educated person by giving them a job after their tertiary education. So, I believe the youths who push their talents to turn them into a lifetime career/self-employment would be seen as an advantage, hence supported at all costs.
“Parents struggle to pay school fees for these kids, the kids dreams are to be professional players, to represent their country and win for their clubs, this making their nation proud. How could you have thought they could choose exams over representing their flag?
“And after representing their flag, can’t their flag (country) support them by organising special exams so that their parents don’t pay an extra year of fees. And of course the time wasted. This will happen over and over again in netball, cricket, athletics, basketball and many other sports.
“I call upon the Minister of Education to review this issue urgently. Call the parents of the involved children and forge a way forward so that next time this happens, there’s a sort of programme to support national team players and by this our players won’t lose out on education,” Bebe Cool wrote in a lengthy missive on his official social media account.
However, in the case of rugby and cricket, the governing bodies have an unwritten rule not to summon players who have examinations to sit.
The State Minister for Higher Education, Dr John Chrysostom Muyingo, has since rebuffed pleas similar to Bebe Cool’s.
“The government has arranged for the seven students to sit exams next year, they should not lose hope but continue to prepare for the exams. I am appealing to the students to be calm while waiting for the exams,” says Muyingo, confirming that there isn’t a policy shift in the offing.
Risk or gamble
As custodians, Fufa sit at a vantage position to advise the players and parents but cannot make the final decision for them.
“I want to clarify that no player goes for national team underage tournaments without the consent of their parent or guardian. As Fufa, we even put much emphasis on the relationship - is it guardian or actual parents – making the final decision,” Ahmed Hussein, Fufa spokesman, responds.
“We do mind a lot about the education of the players because we know and have witnessed the benefits. Fufa didn’t breach any education rules in taking the U-20 or U-17 and we explained our case to the commissioner of physical education and sports, Omara Apita, when required by Parliament.”
More and more parents are bound to take the ‘risk or gamble’ after all many of these excelling sports personalities are given bursaries in schools their parents cannot afford.
When you can excel in both studies, sport
Life expects aspiring sportspersons to also burn some oil in academics, thus combining both, but history suggests that not many have been able to find the balance. Uganda Cranes midfielder Taddeo Lwanga, an electrical engineer, is one of the few who have been able to keep afloat doing both.
“Football is a short term job. There is life after football. Imagine being a well-educated famous athlete what your life would be after playing football. There would be a lot of opportunities for you,” Lwanga argues.
“Education teaches a lot about self-esteem, discipline and confidence, which can easily help you succeed in football.
“But in the end, everyone has to make a choice. I remember me having a chance of watching the 2010 Fifa World Cup and participating in the Copa Coca Cola Schools Championship Africa tournament in South Africa.
“I had the chance of being chosen at Copa Cola Cola in Masaka but I declined because I had pre-Uneb exams. But even now, as I ply my trade in Tanzania, someone is tending to my workshop in Kampala,” explains Lwanga.
Vipers and Uganda Cranes midfielder Paul Mucureezi is a procurement officer and thinks the magic lies in being able to balance the two.
“I know it isn’t easy but they (upcoming athletes) should give it all. It more of a sacrifice because it isn’t easy. If I was in their case scenario, definitely I would go for school call first then soccer comes after,” Mucureezi says.
In order to complete his Bachelor of Procurement and Logistics Management degree at Uganda Christian University (UCU) four years ago, Mucureezi, then at KCCA, asked for two-month leave to concentrate on his final exams, something he is grateful to his former paymasters to grant even as the demands in the league were high.
What they said. . .
Patrick Ssemakula, father
I have seen African stars like Sadio Mane (Liverpool and Senegal forward) earn big from football yet they began from scratch. Football is a job he [Mutyaba] should start learning now and he agreed with me on that.
Denis Namanya, agent
Irinimbabazi made a personal decision – which I understand. He had listened to me until he saw his name on the final team and that is when he boldly told Royal Giants SSS head teacher that he has to be in Morocco – for his future.
Moses Ssali, parent
The kids dreams are to be professional players, to represent their country and win for their clubs, this making their nation proud. How could you have thought they could choose exams over representing their flag?
Ahmed Hussein, Fufa PRO
No player goes for national team underage tournaments without the consent of their parent or guardian. As Fufa, we even put much emphasis on the relationship - is it guardian or actual parents – making the final decision.