Azira, the game's true gentleman

Thursday April 15 2021
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Mike Azira has become the latest Uganda Cranes player to retire in the aftermath of the national team’s failed attempt to qualify for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Photo/Eddie Chicco

By Andrew Mwanguhya

A model professional, calm, and collected. But Michael, commonly going by Mike, Azira also does not suffer fools.

His national captain until he called time on Uganda Cranes on Monday, Denis Onyango, describes the equally retiring Azira as a man who respected everyone but also lived on his terms.

"A ferocious midfielder and part of arguably the best midfield we have (ever) had," declared the one-time African Footballer of A year and 2016 Caf Champions League winner, Onyango.

"A ruthless player who never gave a damn about what anyone thought. A true professional who gave everything to the Cranes. Thank you and enjoy your retirement."

Such is the man, Azira, who followed Hassan Wasswa and Onyango is retiring, announcing his own departure on Wednesday.

Magnanimous

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He was magnanimous in his letter to the Fufa president Moses Magogo as was playing for the national team - whenever his otherwise limited chances opened up.

“I have enjoyed working with the federation and playing for the Uganda national team. Playing in two Africa Cup of Nations was one of the best moments with the Cranes," said the 33-year-old.

Magogo was later to return the favour, and just as he did with Wasswa and Onyango, offered a testimonial match for Azira at his time of choosing. 

"Mike has been the most professional footballer I have worked with," Magogo reaffirmed. 

"Dedicated to instructions, rules, and helping young players regarding on and off the field etiquette of a professional footballer.

"That stellar performance against Ghana Afcon 2017 in Gabon stands out in the many outings you did.

"Mike is a historical midfielder and this earns him the opportunity to opt for a testimonial match." 

Fellow retiree, Wasswa, also highlighted Azira's professionalism. 

"Brother," he posted, "you have proved your worth at the national team. Hard work and discipline were top notch and most of all, you were so professional at all times." 

Azira broke through at Villa whilst a student at Old Kampala SSS mid-2000s, and was highly regarded while coming through at the junior team, Joogo Young.

American Dream 

Without making a telling impact locally, Azira moved to the USA to do his college education.

But that American Dream had started a little earlier, through a man called Ken Davies - who Azira considers his ride or die.

"He changed my life," intimated Azira. Davies is an American working with the United Nations World Food Program.

Davies first met Azira when the Ugandan was aged 13 years. Davies' son was also passionate about playing football.

Together with Azira's young colleagues, Davies gave them a glimpse into the future. 

Davies organised a trip for their team to go play in the Dana Cup, an international tournament held every year in Denmark, a voyage that saw Azira board his first plane.

The American friend did not give up on Azira, and is the one that eventually came in with a scholarship for the Ugandan to join the college in the US. The rest is history.

Upon graduation, Azira joined Major League Soccer (MLS) side Seattle Sounders in 2014. 

Despite being a regular, Azira was constantly ignored by the national team coaches.

He was finally selected by coach Micho Sredojevic in 2016 and featured at the 2017 Afcon finals, Uganda’s first continental appearance in 39 years.

Azira also played at his second Afcon finals in Egypt two years later, until his final game - the defeat to Malawi that also ended Uganda's interest in the Afcon 2021 finals.

The midfielder will continue playing club football, but there is also a glimpse of what might do after active football.

Azira served as head coach for the Daniel Island Soccer Academy U-16 and U-18 Boyz teams in Charleston, SC. 

He also served as an assistant coach at UMS-Wright in Mobile, Alabama for two seasons, helping lead them to a state title in 2011. Player, gentleman, coach!

Fact file

Full name: Micheal Azira

Date of birth: August 22, 1987 (age 33)

Place of birth: Kampala, Uganda

Height: 5 ft 10 in (1.78 m)

Position: Midfielder

Club information

Current team: New Mexico United

Number: 23

College career

 2008–2010: Lindsey Wilson Blue Raiders

 2011: Mobile Rams

 Senior career

 2010–2011: Mississippi Brilla

 2012–2013: Charleston Battery

 2014–2015: Seattle Sounders FC

 2015→ Seattle Sounders FC 2 (loan)

 2016–2018: Colorado Rapids

 2018→ Colorado Springs Switchbacks (loan)

 2018–2019: Montreal Impact 

 2019–2020: Chicago Fire

 2021– New Mexico United

Honours 

Charleston Battery

 2012: USL Pro Championship

Seattle Sounders

2014: U.S Open Cup

 2014: Supporters Shield

National team

2016–2021: Uganda, 

10 caps

 International highlights 

Playing at Gabon 2017 and Egypt 2019 Afcon finals

 amwanguhya@ug.nationmedia.com  

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