What you need to know:
- New dreams. The 26-year-old forward says she has parted ways with her Israeli club and is looking to sign up with more competitive leagues in Europe instead.
- As she waits for that time, the Crested Cranes have to fly with her.
Finally, Ugandans can put face to name. Natasha Shirazi has been an almost regular feature in the Crested Cranes call-ups since the women’s national football team rebranded from She Kobs in 2016.
Even when she has not been named, enthusiasts of the women’s game have always believed she is one of those close to set up that can improve things.
“Last year, the call-up came but the national team games were not in the Fifa window (for international games) so the club stopped me from coming,” Shirazi shares in a chat with Score after one of the Crested Cranes training sessions at MTN Philip Omondi Stadium in Lugogo.
She has returned to a better Crested Cranes, one full of belief and growing achievements.
Her first call-up came in 2016 as Uganda prepared to play Kenya in a friendly meant to prepare the team for the Cecafa Women Championship then.
“I remember Hasifah (Nassuna), Sandra (Nabweteme) from that camp. If everyone turns up then Tracy (Jones Akiror) and Ruth (Aturo) are some of the other players that I was with,” Shirazi recalls the match in Kenya that ended in a 4-0 defeat.
“Jesus, I am so embarrassed (to talk about the game). It was too hot but on an individual level, I was also not well prepared.”
Things have changed now and Kenya’s dominance over Uganda, if that can be used as a measure of progress, is not as strong.
Coach Majidah Nantanda’s squad for Cecafa 2016 still lost 4-0 to Kenya in the tournament held at Fufa Technical Centre, Njeru, but her successor Faridah Bulega managed a 1-0 revenge in 2018 as Uganda finished second in Rwanda.
Bulega then lost 3-0 in the 2019 edition in Tanzania and also 1-0 on aggregate in the 2018 Africa Women Cup of Nations (Awcon) qualifiers.
Current coach George Lutalo was due to have his own report card assessed against the neighbours when Kenya pulled out of the 2022 Awcon qualifiers earlier in the year to guarantee Uganda a position at the July 2-23 finals in Morocco.
These finals and the preparatory June 1-11 Cecafa Women Championship in Njeru, are the reason Shirazi is in the Crested Cranes camp after six years.
“I am happy to be back home and to have all this preparation time. I have seen a lot of new and better players. The style of play is changing.
“I see that we want the ball more and not a lot of shooting. Coach wants one to play and enjoy oneself and I like how he motivates us,” Shirazi says.
Going to Israel
This time there is no need to check the calendar for the Fifa window as the footballer has left her Israeli Ligat Nashim club Maccabi Kishronot Hadera for good and will be in camp for as long Lutalo needs her services.
Shirazi had not envisaged going to Israel initially but the explosive forward, who started playing football just for fun at the age of five in Denmark, has suffered a few injuries in her professional career that forced a rethink.
“I went to Denmark with my dad when I was five. There were boys in our apartment who always played within the community and they eventually let me join them.
“I was also interested in dancing but I think football is what I was better at. It came naturally and I don’t think I have ever been very bad at it,” says the 26-year-old player, who thinks it runs in the blood as one of her “step-brothers plays football too and my dad played too but not competitively.”
At 21, Shirazi joined BSF although she has been playing football competitively from the age of 11.
In 2018, Shirazi helped Boldklubben af 1893 (B93) get promoted to the Danish first division but the club has since returned to the second tier.
Ugandan goalkeeper Vanessa Karungi now plays for B93.
Shirazi was also part of the 2019 squad that got Nordsjaelland promoted to the first division. However, when her coach moved to Rayo Vallecano, she tagged along to Spain.
“Unfortunately, I pulled one of my Achilles (tendons) in the first week and had to sit out for one year. When I healed, I decided to take a step down to the lower division at La Solana but after another three or four months, I pulled another Achilles so I went back to Denmark for rehab. From there, I went to Israel to get back in shape.
“But my dream has always been to play in the competitive leagues in Europe and I will after my national team duties. I can say for sure that I have ‘bolted out’ of Israel, otherwise I would not be here because the season there is ongoing.”
Style of play
Shirazi also believes she has to do “more strength training, especially for my muscles, to help them cope with the explosiveness.”
The rollercoaster journey has given Shirazi an understanding and acceptance of various football culture.
“Spain is a lot more technical and every team loves to have the ball. In Israel, they depend a lot on foreign players so there is a lot of running back and forth.
“Not really the running that we have here because of the physicality here but they want you to always find space.”
If Uganda can get the ball wide and in space, Lutalo can rely on the speed and directness of Shirazi.
“I can play all attacking positions but it depends on the opponents. My strength is my speed. That’s why I love to hang on the wing. I am good at one-on-one situations but I also realise that here, we love to play a lot on the inside.
“My weaknesses are on the tactical side and maybe that the players here a stronger than me. However, physicality is not something I worry about because I am not going to fight opponents but run past them.
“The trick is that my teammates need to learn me. I don’t want the ball so much on my body but in space,” Shirazi explains.
The jovial player expects to set Cecafa, and later Awcon, alight. The tournament in Njeru is “special because I am back to my home town (Jinja). My family will be around to watch games and I want to make them happy,” she says.
Shirazi has forgotten most of the local dialects she was learning as a toddler “as we speak just English at home in Denmark” but she has retained a few words in memory that help her connect the dots when Lutalo passes instructions in Luganda sometimes.
However, for her kin in Jinja, the football – if Uganda get it right – might just be more than enough connection.
At a glance
Father: Hajj Shirazi
Mother: Jackie Tibaberwa
Education: Went to business college in Denmark
*She will return to university after football
Clubs: BSF, B93 (Denmark), Rayo Vallecano, La Solana (Spain), Maccabi Kishronot Hadera (Israel)
National Caps: 1 (vs. Kenya)
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