How the Nouakchott miracle was realised

Sunday March 07 2021
socer01pix

Spirited Fight. Hippos’ Yiga (R) vies for the ball with Tunisia captain Zied Berrima. PHOTOS | CAF MEDIA

By George Katongole

The national U-20 team, the Hippos, reached the country’s first continental final in 43 years. The senior team, Uganda Cranes were the last in 1978.   

The U-20 stars are managed by KCCA deputy coach Morley Byekwaso. The passionate youngsters have been epic powered by consistent performances, brilliant and inspiring displays and a unique story.

The national team was only making a debut at the continental stage yet a place in last night’s final despite the odds being stacked against them.

Fufa Juniors League

The circumstances under which the players have been groomed owes in whole to the intentional junior competitions in the country.

The squad is built around the Fufa Juniors League, a competition then for U-17 players in the 2016/17 season. It was not the most organised tournament and faced objections from clubs.

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Actually 20 of the 25 players have been through the tournament which has now grown into the Reserve League for teams in the top flight Uganda Premier League.  The Fufa President Eng. Moses Magogo took serious risks to have the tournament in place. Even though promised support has been a pain of its own, the teams have managed to assemble the best players for the competition.

Fufa’s Youth Development Manager Bashir Mutyaba fervently did a fine job in his role and forged bonds with coaches, team owners and players and the rewards now ring true.

In the years gone, there was hardly any follow-up with the selected players from the annual Copa Coca-Cola tournament.

Schools’ football

No doubt there is a great story to be told by Fufa for its role in this moment of success, but the supporting school system and the two most important youth football tournaments; Copa Coca-Cola and Airtel Rising Stars have offered a fertile ground.

Flashback to the Copa Coca-Cola finals in 2019 at the packed Kakindu Stadium. 

The strength, speed and exuberance displayed by eventual winners St Mary’s SS Kitende and losing finalists Jinja SS in a well-attended final, was mightily impressive. Uganda’s youth football was flexing its muscles.

Naturally, it was a battle for supremacy in school football. Lawrence Mulindwa, whose St Mary’s SS, Kitende has at one time offered a bursary to most of the top footballers the country prides in, always fishes around for the best talent in preparation for the next tournament.

In Jinja, Kitende fielded the likes of burly forward Richard Basangwa, Najib Yiga, Robert Kitabalwa, Aziz Kayondo, Bobosi Byaruhanga, Ivan Ashaba, Andrew Kawooya, and Steven Serwadda, among others.

In the blue corner has always been Dinah Nyago making Kitende uncomfortable. Actually, her well-hatched plan dethroned Kitende in the 2017 Masaka finals.

Nyago, through coach Charles Ayiekoh and later Hassan Zungu built an astonishing reservoir of young talent. The school, synonymous with street strikes and running battles with police before Nyago’s arrival, became a bastion for youth football.

New Generation 

In the 2019 final, Jinja exhibited exceptional rising talents like Isma Mugulusi, tournament MVP Edrine Mukisa Opaala, top scorer Lawrence Tezikya and outstanding defender Kenneth Ssemakula, among others. Buddo SS, Amus College, Kibuli SS, Kimaanya and Old Kampala, are the others feeding the conveyor belt.

Let’s be clear here. Uganda at the moment could easily field two different starting XIs capable of going a long way at such a stage.

Goalkeeper Jack Komakech, 18, rose through the ranks of Ascent Soccer Academy (formerly Football For Good), a team that represented Ndejje University and URA in the Fufa Juniors League.

The key to success, of course will be finding the right balance and maintaining the spirit and camaraderie we have witnessed in Mauritania.

“But the players need to be patient and passionate. 

“Development is a process that takes time and to excel they must be willing to pay the price of the learning process. Performing well at the junior level does not guarantee excellence in senior football,” Zungu says.

Ready for the big stage?

What is sure is that this Hippos team has a real chance to produce some of the great Ugandan footballers if they are followed up properly to the big stage.

The most exciting news is the fact that some of the heroes are playing consistently for top flight clubs.

Looking at key players like Byaruhanga, Sserwadda, Derrick Kakooza, Gavin Kizito, Musa Ramathan, Ivan Eyamu and Ssemakula, these are players that have already made an impact in league football with equally excellent displays.

Kakooza has been in sensational form during the Bika Bya Baganda tournament scoring for fun for his Nte Clan while also bursting nets for Armless Brigade (Police’s reserve team) before he was promoted to the senior team. He already has two goals to his name this season.

The attacker is already good. It is frightening to think how good he could become. He has attributes of a poacher with the ability to penetrate defences, an unflappable calmness and excellent ball control – yet he is still a boy.

Coach Charles Ayiekoh, who handled some of the best players at Jinja SS during his reign as the head coach of the senior team said, the players need to be trusted to get enough playing time.

“KCCA trusted the likes of Mustafa Kizza and Allan Okello. They kept rising because of the confidence they were gaining and it is paying off,” Ayieko says.

Incredible Mugulusi

Byekwaso has played a three-man midfield to accommodate teenage sensation Mugulusi. Anybody who has watched Mugulusi make those magical touches, deadly passes, an exquisite first touch and long range shots on goal, would understand why Mugulusi is highly rated.

Naturally gifted and competitive, he looks relaxed and it is difficult to overlook him alongside Byaruhanga and Serwadda.

Recruited from Canaan School Lugazi, the 17-year-old made his debut for Busoga United In November 2019 against Vipers and he did not disappoint despite the team losing. And it is in the blood as his elder brother, Ibra, features for Bul FC.

Given the extraordinary quality of the U-20 squad, Byekwaso’s boys are just getting started. 

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