For the ages: A knee injury sustained in the semifinal left Ikwaput a doubt for the final. But Lady Doves needed her magic and in the 80th minute, she was brought on, limping. Her first attempt rattled the bar, the next sealed the Women’s Super League title. She was done and off again, just four minutes on the pitch. Fred Mwambu looks into her career.
Fazila Ikwaput wears a deceptive outward character off the pitch as compared to what she is on it: she is calm, terse and looks feeble!
But on it, she morphs into a powerful and speedy athlete who is ready to take down the next available opponent.
In the shortened Fufa Women Super League, the 23-year old Crested Cranes star, who wears Lady Doves shirt seven, emerged the top scorer with eight goals and also had no worthwhile challenger for the most valuable player award.
Ikwaput stunned her opponents and received a standing ovation from the media and officials who had come to watch the final match between Lady Doves and UCU Lady Cardinals.
With the game tied 1-1 in the 80th minute, Ikwaput who was visibly limping, replaced Joweria Nagadya to try save the Doves. Her first touch was a thunderous shot that bounced off the crossbar a minute later, but was on point two minutes after when she peeled off her markers with brilliant skill before slotting past Ruth Aturo in the Ucu goal. Four minutes, limping, two touches and one goal. The winner.
She has featured for Uganda, won the Fufa Women Cup, drove away with the Fufa Women’s MVP car in 2017 and even scored against Barcelona in the Uefa Women’s Champions League. But her path to stardom was not smooth.
The winding footpaths
Born to Abdallah Labong and Sophie Nabwire on August 4, 1997, in Nakaloke, Mbale, Ikwaput went to Grace Primary School and later Victoria High in Iganga, Mt Masaba and then Mbale Progressive where she stopped at O-Level.
Unfortunately, that is all to write about her education.
“I loved football and started playing while young but unfortunately there was no one to guide me into the game early enough, especially being a girl, so most times I played in teams with boys. They used to tell me that I had talent,” Ikwaput says of her career path.
The only football connection in her family is that her father is a fan of Manchester United. She supports Arsenal in the English Premier League.
“My father loves Man United and I’m Arsenal, that is where we end. They have never watched me play live but they always call me to encourage me before games and watch when I’m on TV like in the Super League.”
Her stars started to shine around the age of 12 when she met coach Shaban Bulolo who trained boys and girls in the Nakaloke community.
Current Olila High School coach Saddam Cifu Pande worked with Ikwaput from when she was 15 before she crossed to Divine Girls in Soroti under coach Mike Elebu and then a short stint at Eastern Heroes, both dour non-league sides.
Pande later became her confidante.
Jumping the queue
Ikwaput’s talent is special and that didn’t go unnoticed even when she was struggling in the slums of Mbale with no serious competitive football.
During a scouting trip upcountry in 2014, the then Crested Cranes head coach Majidah Nantanda identified a special gem during a grassroots football tournament in Soroti.
She took note of the striker and saved contacts. Ikwaput had been hired by one of the teams to play in the tournament and she emerged top scorer.
Two years later, Nantanda was tasked to guide the national team in the inaugural Cecafa Women’s Senior Championship hosted at Fufa Technical Centre in Njeru around May 2016. Nantanda did not forget the little-known talent she had spotted in Soroti.
“I was in one of my scouting trips where I first saw her play in a village tournament,” Nantanda revealed. “I knew there was something special in that girl and was determined to give her a chance.
“My whole technical team didn’t agree with me but I had made up my mind. They said that she was neither attached to a club nor in a serious footballing school but I insisted, stamped my feet and summoned her.
“She emerged among the best players and a fans favourite because of her skills. She gave more than I expected.”
Ikwaput had a quiet debut as a more experienced Kenya shredded the Crested Cranes 4-0 in the opener but was the most exciting player in Uganda’s second game with a brace and two assists as they mauled Zanzibar 9-0.
She further repaid Nantanda’s faith by scoring the lone goal over Burundi in last group game to seal a semifinal slot.
“I love scoring goals no matter the team I’m facing. I fear no opponent when I get on the pitch. When I get a chance, I give my all and that is what I did there,” Ikwaput, who feels she owes Nantanda for the chance with Crested Cranes, says of the championship.
A star had been born. Ikwaput was on demand after the tournament but her long-time coach Pande, who had crossed to Olila in 2016, wasn’t ready to allow her join his opponents, especially after his Soroti side endured a gruelling debut in the 2015-16 season of the Fufa Women Elite league where they escaped the chop by a whisker.
Olila went on a recruiting spree in preparations for 2016-17 season and roped in Ikwaput from Eastern Heroes.
They also added several players such as goalkeeper Vanessa Karungi from Mukono High, Cissy Nantongo and Wilmer Nantumbwe (She Corporate), midfielder Riticiah Nabosa (Western United).
Ikwaput and Nabosa would form a partnership that troubled defenders.
“I convinced her to join Olila because I knew what she was capable of. She was a gem that just needed polishing and a stage to gain experience,” Pande said.
The signings later turned gold as her partnership with Nabosa returned seven goals for her that helped the club clinch the inaugural Fufa Women’s cup (2017) at the expense of Gafford Ladies in a final played in Busia.
She bagged the golden boot, with her partner in crime Nabosa named the best player at the tournament and Pande the best coach. Ikwaput’s brilliance made everyone around her look brilliant.
Ikwaput’s exploits was not constricted to the Cup alone as she lifted Olila to the playoffs of the 2016/17 Women’s Elite League too, scoring six crucial goals and solid performances that earned her the most valuable player of the season.
The achievements didn’t go unnoticed as she was crowned the most valuable female football player by Fufa that year.
Much as there were quiet murmurs as to how she beat Hasifah Nassuna whose 30-plus goals had helped Kawempe Muslim to a third league title, a quarter finals appearance in the Cup and silver in East Africa Schools Games, Ikwaput’s performances were more than just numbers.
“I didn’t vote myself but people did appreciate what I did and awarded me. Everywhere I played fans appreciated my game,” she says.
India, Europe surjourns
Her exploits earned her a short professional contract with Gokulam Kerala in the first-ever India Women League that was played in a tournament format between March and April 2018. She went with Riticia Nabosa and scored five goals in six appearances.
In July 2018, Ikwaput upgraded to Kazakhstan women league top tier side BIIK Kazygurt. That is where her best moment in life came as she featured in the Uefa Women’s Champions League.
Due to BIIK’s low ranking, they had to go the hard way through the preliminary qualifying phase. But in Ikwaput, they had a saviour. She scored the winning goal against Greek giants Elpides Karditsas, a brace and assist in their 5-0 rout of Lativia’s Rīgas Futbola Skola and another assist in a 2-0 win away to Landhaus Wien in Austria.
That set up the match of her life; the team was drawn against Spanish giants Barcelona in round of 32.
Ikwaput, a fighter that she is, stepped up to the plate and scored a goal and an assist as BIIK beat the Catalans 3-1 at home coming as a second-half substitute on September 12, 2018.
The Barcelona team boasted of reigning 2017 Uefa Mvp and later 2018 world player of the year Petronella Martens, and Toni Duggan, who had just won the 2015 World Cup bronze with England.
Unfortunately, Ikwaput picked up an injury and was sidelined as Barca overturned the deficit with 3-0 win to advance to the round of 16 and later finish second best behind Lyon.
“That match was the highlight of my career. We won 3-1; I scored one and assisted another coming from the bench but I was injured and was absent as my team lost 3-0 away. I believe if I played that match, we would have eliminated them,” she says.
Ikwaput’s contract ended under circumstances she can’t explain. She made a quiet return to Uganda at the end of 2018 and stayed out of competitive football for a year before joining Lady Doves where she scored five goals in the 2019-2020 season that was truncated because of the Covid pandemic.
“I’m here [in Uganda] for a short while because I’m focussed on going back to Europe. That match made me believe in my talent,” Ikwaput adds.
Ikwaput has no immediate plans to further her education but has opened an academy hosting over 200 kids in Mbale headed by Pande. She is into commercial farming of trees and flowers and owns several mobile money counters in Mbale and Soroti.
Her desire and thirst for success seems to be the fuel to her ambitions to return to Europe or at least the paying ranks and, at 23, she still has more left inside her boots.
What they say about her
Makhtum Muziransa, sports journalist at Daily Monitor
No player has kept form like Fazila. From the time she broke onto the scene in 2016 to-date, she has only been operating in one currency – goals. She’s shown, during her stints in India and Kazakhstan, that she is also able to operate at the same level away from home. But it’s about time she took more responsibility in national team colours.
Majidah Nantanda, former Crested Cranes coach
Fazila is a top talent with a good mentality on the pitch. She always wants to win and pushes herself to the limits. Going to Europe was good for her but returning to Uganda is a step back. I think she needs a good role model, not just anyone but one who can guide her.
Name: Fazila Ikwaput
Born: August 5 1997
Teams played for: Gokulam Kerala, India (2018), BIIK-Kazygurt Kazakhstan (2018), Lady Doves (2019-to-date)
2016-17 MVP Fufa Women’s Cup
2016-17 Fufa Women’s Cup Top scorer (7 goals)
2016-17 MVP Fufa Women Elite league
2017 Fufa women’s player of the year
2019 Cecafa Women’s championship bronze medal
2021 Fufa Women Super league top scorer (8goals in 6 matches)
2021 MVP Fufa Women Super league
Female Football Player of the year 2017