FBL Review: Trigger-happy owners, organized cops, dual license menace and a fallen legend

Police celebrate winning the league. PHOTOS/DERRICK WENANI 

What you need to know:

This season also underscored the significance of 'home advantage,' as evidenced by 97 home victories out of 146 total wins, translating to 67%.

What a season the 2023/24 betPawa Big League was! There was exhilarating drama, breathtaking goals, defining moments here and there, and some heartbreaking disappointments.

The 2023/24 season served the perfect footballing feast.

This season also underscored the significance of 'home advantage,' as evidenced by 97 home victories out of 146 total wins, translating to 67%.

Police, for instance, secured 12 out of their 16 wins at Kavumba, while none of the teams below fifth place managed an away win against sides that survived relegation.

Despite the excitement on the pitch, the teams lagged in terms of social media, media coverage and fan engagement.

Only the three promoted teams and Onduparaka maintained a visible online presence, making it challenging for fans to access information and engage. But then there was the Ugandafootball portal that turned up.

This is an area ripe for improvement, as increased media activity could significantly boost the league's popularity and fan base.

Two-faced double-licensing

The biggest talking point of the season was the introduction of double-licensing.

A  controversial system, which allowed players to feature for two clubs in different divisions concurrently.

There have been some gains like URA’s Bruno Bunyaga who exploded into the scene and caught the eyes of his former coach David Obua as well as the national U-20 bench.

However, the system led to some bizarre cases such as that of Mohammedi Nsereko, who featured for three clubs violating Fifa’s regulations on player transfers.

Nsereko played for Gaddafi at the beginning of the season while also featuring for Kaaro Karungi on a duo license.

He crossed over to Kataka in the second round, contravening Article 5.4 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, which states: “Players may be registered with a maximum of three clubs during one season. During this period, a player is only eligible to play official matches for two clubs…”

Onduparaka and Mbale Heroes lodged petitions over his eligibility but Fufa seemed determined to protect their new baby.

Clubs were also at loggerheads in deciding who pays which bills and allowances.

VAR saves nine

While double-licensing was controversial yet within the rules, the use of ‘video assistant referee (Var)’ in the Kataka-versus-Blacks Power wasn’t.

Referee Muzamir Waiswa, overwhelmed by an unclear situation in the 85th minute, wrongly awarded a penalty to Kataka after adjudging Ivan Okello to have handled the ball off a Swamad Okur corner kick.

The fixture was played on Sunday, October 1, last year.

Protests from the visitors from Lira forced Waiswa to consult Fufa’s pitch-side broadcasting van for a replay.

He rescinded his earlier decision and awarded an advantage to Blacks Power.

Although this ad-hoc use of unauthorized Var was against the rules, Fufa allowed it to stand, fueling discussions about affordable video systems for referees.

Police coach Simon Peter Mugerwa. 

Fifa is currently testing cheaper options like the one improvised in this situation.

Organized cops

Police’s reorganization at the start of the season paid off handsomely. The 2005 Uganda Premier League and 2006 Cecafa winners failed to bounce back instantly after their relegation in 2022.

Mixed results at their Kavumba grounds and poor away form saw them lose the race on the final day of the 2022/23 season.

The bad fortunes were partly blamed on their former coach Angelo Lonyesi’s indecisiveness on whether to solely fight for promotion or gamble it with the Uganda Cup.

They lost their promotion to Nec on the final day and the Cup final to Vipers.

The club’s management threw away their own Lonyesi and acquired the services of Simon Mugerwa early enough.

“The task is clear: to work hard and take the club back to the Uganda Premier League because the club is at that level,” said coach Mugerwa back then.

Indeed, Mugerwa’s clear vision and organization allowed him to build a formidable squad that dominated from the start, scoring 44 goals and boasting the second-best defense in the league after Lugazi, conceding only 18 times.

At the heart of their success story was their lead striker Isaac Ogwang who was reuniting with his high school coach after years of trial and error in the jungles of Ugandan football.

Ogwang was the second most lethal striker in the league with 14 goals, one behind golden boot winner Dickson Niwamanya from Booma.

Improving regions?

Young Elephants are the only debutants that have faced the axe this season. The side was promoted from their respective regions alongside newbies Kiyinda Boys and returnees Mbale Heroes and Kigezi Homeboyz.

Unlike last year where three debutants Soroti City, Adjumani TC and Northern Gateway were flushed back, three of the promoted teams survived.

Also, Nec, who is among the pioneer beneficiaries of the new system performed relatively well in the topflight. Lugazi and Heroes who were promoted to the Big League last season continued their climb as well.

This indicated a narrowing gap between the third and second divisions although it may also point at cracks as most teams go for overhauls in their coaching and technical units after achieving promotion.

Either way, the second division has expanded in leaps and bounds covering far towns and districts like Kabale, Lira, Mbale, Nwoya, Yumbe, Ibanda and Masindi. The Big League has spread its wings.

The revolving door

Coaching changes were rampant throughout the season, highlighting impatience and high expectations of club owners.

Even the tactical and experienced coaches in the division were not spared by impatient and trigger-happy owners.

Lugazi, who just got promoted, proved that sometimes a knee-jerk reaction can cover a rot.

The club started with William Kyeswa but replaced him with the experienced Richard Makumbi after five games.

Makumbi’s ability to turn around ‘The Leaders’s fortunes from 11 points from six games to take them into contention in an unbeaten streak, raking in 18 points from eight games was also noteworthy.

However, a run of one win and five draws from February to mid-April saw the club owner Abdul Kawuulu Mwanje slam the door on him.

Makumbi has made his name as the promotion master after taking 13 teams locally and in Kenya to the topflight. Stand-in coach Gerald Efit managed both transitions.

His fellow old guards Asaph Mwebaze and Mark Twinamasiko weren’t spared either.

The two coaches were shown the exit by Heroes and Booma as well.

Mwebaze has guided Maroons to promotion thrice while Twinamasiko is recognized for his achievements with The Saints and Kitara.

Veteran George Nsimbe also had a stint at Kiyinda and so were Sadiq Ssempijja at Jinja North and Francis Mugerwa at Blacks Power. Besides Police, Kaaro and Kigezi, the rest suffered instabilities on their bench.

Okhuti retires again

Ceasar Okhuti’s dual role at Onduparaka was one of the season's intriguing stories. Okhuti reinvented the forgotten odd job – the coach-player.

The former Ugandan international seems undecided about his retirement.

Okhuti was unveiled at Onduparaka as head coach to steer the team at the start of the season but did not quite believe in the manpower at his disposal.

In the roles, Okhuti scored eight goals, and a couple of assists, taking The Caterpillars to fifth with 41 points, five shy of promotion. He announced that he has retired again but we’ll keep on the look if he ties his laces again.

Veterans dance

Okhuti was not the only former big star trading in the division. Former Uganda Cranes stars and big-name players like Savio Kabugo, Geoffrey Sserunkuma, and Muzamir Mutyaba found new homes in the league.

Lugazi made headlines with the unveiling of Kabugo who has gained good mileage at KCCA, Villa, in Ethiopia, Botswana and DR Congo. The 2017 Uganda Premier League and Fufa player of the season Sserunkuma and Mutyaba found safe havens at Kataka and Mbale Heroes respectively.

The duo were among a galaxy of former stars like Ben Ocen, Francis Onekallit, Ashadu Bugembe (all at Police), Richard Wandyaka (Jinja), Richard Ayikoh (Lugazi) and Nelson Mandela (Onduparaka).

Fans pushed Mbale Heroes to promotion. 

Kataka spots

After Ndejje’s departure, Kataka will take the crown of the oldest side in the division.

From losing twice in the old Super Mini-League playoffs system in 2008 and 2009, failing in the Covid-shortened 2021 playoffs, and missing promotion by a point in 2022, the club that was promoted to the Big League in 2016 has seen it all.

They were top contenders until five matches to the end line when they faltered by losing three and drawing two to finish seven points adrift the target.

The club has finally parted ways with their longest servant Godfrey ‘Toldo’ Awachango their former player who retired in 2009 before ascending to coaching.

Toldo was held responsible for the only game abandoned out of the 196 fixtures. He ordered his players off the pitch prematurely during Kataka’s trip to Kyetume on October 22, last year.

Looking ahead

With four teams bowing out, five places are vacant but the system can only accommodate four up. This means that the 2024/25 season will remain with an odd 15-team composition. 

The four come from the inter-regional playoffs; champions of Buganda take on Kampala, Eastern versus North East, West Nile face Northern and Western battle Kitara. The playoffs will go on until next month but for a sneak peek into the future, former topflight clubs Proline, Myda, and Paidha Black Angels are close to making a comeback, adding to the anticipation. 

Proline will face the Buganda winner between Simba and Ntugasaze; Myda has either Mbale Garage or Busei from Iganga; and Paidha battle Northern Gateway from Lira who were relegated last season.

The winners from the respective playoffs will be joined by Gaddafi, Busoga United and Arua Hill, who were relegated from the topflight.

The eight that sportingly retained their status are; Booma, Kataka, Onduparaka, Blacks Power, Kiyinda, Calvary, Kaaro Karungi and Kigezi.

Inter-regional league playoffs

Myda vs. Mbale Garage/Busei

Paidha Black Angels vs. Northern Gateway

Ntoda vs. Buhimba Saints United

Proline vs. Simba/Ntugasaze

Top scorers

Dickson Niwamanya (Booma) - 16

Sam Ssemugugu Lugazi FC 15

Isaac Ogwang (Police) - 14

Anyama Emmanuel (Kaaro Karungi) - 11

Innocent Maduka (Blacks Power) - 10

Awards

Winners - Police

Fair Play Award – Young Elephants

Golden Glove – Fahad Emuran (Lugazi) – 12 Clean Sheets

Golden Boot – Dickson Niwamanya (Booma) -16 Goals

MVP – Denis Kalanzi – Police 

Promoted teams – Police, Lugazi & Mbale Heroes

Relegated teams – Jinja North, Kyetume, Young Elephants & Ndejje University