How Uganda won over Shaban, lost his mates to South Sudan

Rashid Toha chose South Sudan over Uganda. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE 

What you need to know:

The coach emphasized the need for players with a good height, physique and game intelligence to compete with West African and Arab teams, attributes that he found lacking in native Ugandan players.

Uganda Cranes fans poured a flurry of superlatives on the team’s new face Elio Capradossi after his impressive debut against Botswana. 

Born in Uganda to an Italian father and Congolese mother, the former AS Roma defender represents another piece in a never-ending globetrotting cryptic puzzle to find the right players for Cranes.

The 28-year-old spent eight years in the Roma’s youth system from 2010. During that period, Capradossi represented Italy at six different youth levels from the U-16 to U-21 but never made it to the senior team.

Physical and intelligent

His chance to play for Uganda presented when Cranes head coach Paul Put tasked his namesake Paul Mukatabala, the national team officer, with finding players around the globe with a Ugandan connection.

The coach emphasized the need for players with a good height, physique and game intelligence to compete with West African and Arab teams, attributes that he found lacking in native Ugandan players.

“His (Put) conclusion was that we must search far and wide for any players with Ugandan connections who can help us bridge that gap in terms of physique and game understanding,” Mukatabala explained on a social media post.

Capradossi, with a 6ft 1in build, seized the opportunity when it was presented.

“I had an opportunity to play for Italy because I was already in the set up having played for the Junior National Teams but never made it to the senior team,” he said.

Capradossi's debut performance was remarkable, but it was striker Shaban Muhammad who stole the shine. Shaban and his friends, from the West Nile region that is richly-talented but often feel marginalized, at one time felt like Capradossi and almost shifted his allegiance eight years back.

In a parallel story, three days earlier and 5,000 kms away, midfielder Gaddafi Wahab curled in a crucial free kick that secured a point in a 1-all draw against Togo in Lome. 

Wahab had taken the free kick in the 68th minute, eight minutes after making his debut for South Sudan. Both games were part of the 2026 World Cup qualifiers. Besides Wahab for the free kick was Joseph Dhata, a former Express ad Vipers player now at Nec. 

Defender Joseph Dhata won the Golden Boot in the 2023/4 Stanbic Uganda Cup. PHOTO/EDDIE CHICCO 

Inside the Togo box, there was a towering Rashid Toha, Emmanuel Loki, Tito Okello and a host of three other Sudanese shirts lurking. Rashid Okocha, Ivan Wani, Gerige Atendele, Wiliam Gamma and goalkeeper Richard Anyama were the other recent converts waiting for their chance to play for South Sudan on the bench. All the named players were born and bred largely in the West Nile belt of Uganda but shifted their allegiance recently. They’ve largely played for either Onduparaka or Arua Hill in the UPL.

Parallel paths

Interestingly, both Shaban, Wahab and Toha made their unofficial debut in the Uganda Cranes colours on the same day.

The trio were part of a golden Onduparaka legion that stunned the country in the mid-2010s with their match from the bottom of the pyramid to the Uganda Premier League in 2016. En route, the team went on an unbeaten streak in the Fufa Big League and also reached the final of the 2016 Uganda Cup.

With a largely vibrant young team, hopes were high that many of the Onduparaka youngsters would bring their beautiful free-flowing football to the Cranes, but they were unlucky and grew impatient with frustrations. They had beaten the Cranes in a regional tour test March in 2016 with Shaban, Wahab and Toha leading the band.

Crawling South Sudan

Their frustrations caught the attention of the South Sudan Football Association who had chosen to take the easier path of naturalizing players for their national team. South Sudan is the youngest nation in the world having gained independence in 2011. South Sudan entered the Fifa books in May 2012 and played their first recognized international match two months later in a 2-2 draw against Uganda.

Rumours that South Sudan was dangling a carrot worth between shs15m to shs45m to lure the trio and the other Gaddafi, Gadinho, reached the-then coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic but he could not accommodate them. The Cranes were at their peak at that time (2016).

“If they take them, what can we do? We can’t take them now for the senior team because I have no space,” Micho told this reporter in April 2016. Shaban and his peers made their work on the pitch and their fans made their presence felt, prompting Micho to reconsider his decision, albeit partly. He summoned Shaban, Toha and Wahab for an Eastern Regional Tour in June 2016.

The trio finally donned the famous red jersey on June 25, 2016 in a 1-1 draw in Mbale. Micho later praised their potential.

“Toha for me has a great future; I see a piece of Nemanja Vidic, who I coached for five years, in him. Wahab didn’t express himself well but has a great future,” Micho rated.

Shaban came on as a substitute on August 11 the same year against Zambia in an international friendly. He was named on the bench in the 1-0 victory over Congo in a 2018 World Cup qualification and his official debut came at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Unlike his peers, Shaban had played for Uganda at youth level (U-17 and U-20) and it was just a matter of time before he graduated.

Racing against time

However, unlike Capradossi who waited for an Italian call until he changed the phone codes at 28. Toha, Wahab and several others could not wait longer. They succumbed to natural pressure that comes with age and chose the easier route. Wahab feels he should have made this decision long ago.

“It was not an easy decision to make because it took me time but I wish I had decided this a long time ago because I feel comfortable and enjoying the moments,” Wahab says without any remorse.

According to football administrators and commentators from West Nile region Adams ‘Otelul’ Lematia and Mercy Munduru, a variety of reasons contribute to the exodus.

“Westnile players have often felt not valued and their talents unnoticed by the Ugandan system. It took almost eight years for Okocha to be summoned for the first time and this only happened after he left West Nile and was spotted at one of the games by the Fufa President. That goes to say something about the system, yet, in South Sudan, they are valued and feel more at home and their talents more appreciated,” Munduru opines. Okocha made his debut for South Sudan in the same week against Sudan in Juba. Lematia agrees that the proximity to South Sudan than Kampala, the cultural similarities and the ancestral history play a key part.

No regrets

Tito Okello, a striker who was among the first of the current lot to ditch Uganda, shares the same sentiments. Okello scored the lone goal for the Bright Stars in a 1-0 that jeopardized Uganda’s chances of going for the Afcon 2021.

Forward Emmanuel Loki. 

“I don’t regret scoring against Uganda where I was born, raised and nurtured my football skills. I would do the same again and again in any match pitting South Sudan against Uganda at any level,” he told Daily Nation back then.

The weird part about this is that the same players are very affectionate and emotional about representing their provinces West Nile and Acholi in the Fufa Drum.

That said, West Nile has churned some of the top talents in the country including the Leti brothers Mike and Charles (RIP), Ceasar Okhuti, Leo 'Black Bomber' Adraa and Brian Umony among others.

Goalkeeper Richard Anyama. 

Fifa rules are clear. To play for any nation, one must at least be born in that country or his parents or grandparents or through naturalization, without needing to give up another nationality. A player eligible to play for multiple countries can only represent one.

Ugandan-born players that have featured for South Sudan

Bernard Agele, Joseph Dhata, Rashid Toha, Emmanuel Loki, Tito Okello, Rashid Okocha, Ivan Wani, Gerige Atendele, William Gamma and Richard Anyama

Players' details 

Tito Okello (striker) – 21 appearances; five goals and 1 assist

Debut – Uganda 1-0 South Sudan, November 12, 2020

Home City - Gulu

Former clubs in Uganda – SC Villa, Bul, Vipers

Rashid Toha (Defender) – 20 appearances; 1 goal & 1 assist

Debut – Sierra Leone 1-1 South Sudan, October 6, 2021

Home district - Adjumani

Former clubs in Uganda – Onduparaka, Vipers & Arua Hill

Ivan Wani (Defender, winger) – 20 appearances; 1 assist

Debut – South Sudan 0-1 Malawi, November 13, 2019

Home District – Jinja

Former clubs in Uganda – Busoga United, Maroons & Bul