Bonanza to shine light on women’s football biggest proponents

Olivia Mbekeka. Photo/John Batanudde

What you need to know:

  • Twenty nine years later, the football federation Fufa, and a couple of partners led by Guinness are set to start an annual celebration to mark the growth of the game in the country through the Women Football Bonanza.

Legendary Cranes goalkeeper Paul Ssali has lived almost every documented minute of women’s football in Uganda.

Ssali, commonly referred to as Gogolimbo, recalls 1994 as the year women's football started receiving attention in the country after the late Rebecca Kazibwe, an Express fan, pushed through for a friendly match between female fans of her club and those of rivals SC Villa.

Twenty nine years later, the football federation Fufa, and a couple of partners led by Guinness are set to start an annual celebration to mark the growth of the game in the country through the Women Football Bonanza.

Paul Ssali

Ssali is one of the people that will be celebrated at the fete that will be held today at the Sheraton Hotel, Kampala. For this year, the bonanza will mostly be a celebration of those who have walked the journey.

“I decided to leave men’s football and concentrate on women’s because of their dedication,” Ssalis shared in an interview with SCORE.

“Women, unlike men, at the time were not focused on money but having fun. They liked what they were doing and it was also a virgin game that needed support,” Ssali, who also led the team to its first Women Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) in 1998.

In the beginning, the players were “old women” according to Ssali. But they had to go back to the grassroots.

After 1998, Uganda returned to the 2002 Wafcon and did not qualify again until 2016 when Fufa rebranded the national team from She Kobs to Crested Cranes.

In between that time, pulling out of tournaments – for both the senior and junior teams – was the norm.

Chris Kalibaala

Ssali is now the manager of the women’s senior national team and works with some male veterans of the women’s game like Chris Kalibala.

Annet Nakimbugwe and Hasifah Nassuna. Photo/John Batanudde

Kalibala, a Fufa executive committee member, also ran Western United – one of the clubs that competed in the inaugural edition of the Fufa Women Elite League in 2015. That now defunct team had some of the country’s most famous female faces in football. National team midfielder Riticia Nabbosa and referee Shamirah Nabadda are some of them.

Kalibala, a man of few words, continues to serve the women’s game as a national teams’ coordinator but is also deeply involved in the growth of the game in schools.

Ayub Khalifah

One does not talk about schools' girls' football in Uganda without mentioning Kawempe Muslim SS coach Ayub Khalifah.

Khalifah is arguably the most decorated women’s football coach in Uganda. His triumphs range from grassroots trophies to some with the youth national teams at regional level.

Khalifah’s longevity in the game is informed by his ability to rejuvenate himself. He started coaching girls in 1999 when two girls Sumaya Muyamba and Sarah Kabanda insisted on playing with boys.

From that time to about 2014, Khalifah watched generations of players waste away because there was no formal competition for girls’ football. Most of the players that finished secondary school had no pathway to continue playing.

When the FWEL was finally established in 2015, Khalifah’s Kawempe Muslim were more prepared to win it than anyone else and they did so four times on the bounce. No other club has won the topflight league in this country more than once.

At the time it felt like a reward for the coach’s involvement in the game over the years.

Khalifah’s legacy in the game is well established as one could hardly summon a national team without at least five players that passed through his hands.

Nantanda, Nakimbugwe, Mbekeka

But before the men’s contribution really got appreciated, the women’s game really belonged to female players.

The trio of Majidah Nantanda, Annet Nakimbugwe and Oliver Mbekeka stands out from a crowd of women that perhaps touched legendary status as they led Uganda at the Wafcon in 2002.

Nantada was a leader of women. She has continued to be a champion of the game at grassroots level, a national teams coach and a Caf instructor.

Mbekeka was arguably the most talented. She was so good that when women’s football failed to pick on here, she and Nakimbugwe were treated to princessly status in Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mbekeka has since gone on to captain the national team and serve in coaching roles for the U-20 and senior teams. She also took Lady Doves to two club football finals in 2019.

These lead a host of other former female players like Hadijah Namuyanja, Christine Wanyana and others who have embraced coaching.

Nakimbugwe was not only versatile on pitch but also gave birth to arguably Uganda’s biggest female talent and achiever on the local arena of women’s football – in Hasifah Nassuna.

Hasifah Nassuna

Those who watched the first editions of the FWEL had the chance to watch the mother, playing for Buikwe She Red Stars and later Kampala Queens, pass on the baton to her daughter – then playing at Kawempe Muslim.

Nassuna has gone on to captain the national team and score over 100 goals in the national league. She is a trailblazer for a generation of players that are also celebrated such as; Sandra Nabweteme, Fazila Ikwaput and is now being followed by the likes of Fauzia Najjemba.

Jean Sseninde. Photo/ John Batanudde 

Each of these is unique in their own way. Nabweteme enviably balanced her education and football in the USA before turning into a professional player while Ikwaput is regularly the top scorer of the national team in most tournaments that they take part in and has also played in the European Champions League. Najjemba is slightly younger than the rest but has forced her way into the senior team’s leadership circle.

Shamirah Nabadda

But while this generation has had many promising players, some like referee Shamirah Nabadda found the pathway to the top a bit crowded.

Nabadda played against Nassuna before the latter made it to even 10 goals in the league in 2015. But quickly made the switch to the whistle in 2016 and was a referee at least four times as the talisman chased a century of league goals.

Nabadda has had her own success and has represented Uganda at Caf Women’s Champions League, Wafcon and is the female referee that has taken charge of most men’s games in the Uganda Premier League.

Jean Sseninde

The former Crested Cranes also had a unique career that took her through some clubs like Queens Park Rangers and Crystal Palace. But she stopped actively playing not too long ago and has taken on many projects in the game.

She has been mentored by Nantanda and is therefore big on grassroots. She has established her own club Red Ants but also serves as a Caf general coordinator on match days and holds a UEFA B coaching license.

The catch

According to Uganda Breweries Limited, there will be recognition for many achievers in this code of football at the bonanza. The symposium will include a dialogue on the state of women’s football, addressing crucial aspects such as finance and savings for female athletes.

“It is important to note that women in sports, especially in male-dominated fields, often don't receive the recognition they deserve,” Head of Beer Uganda Breweries limited Matilda Babuleka, said.

“This is an event that will shine a light on the incredible women who are shining brightly in Ugandan football. It is also important to note that inclusivity is a core value for our brand, and this event provides a unique platform to showcase our unwavering commitment to this principle. We are thrilled to celebrate women who defy expectations and excel in what is generally perceived as a male sport,” she added.