Lessons abound as Uganda celebrates ISF World Cup

Uganda's flag flies high at the opening ceremony of the ISF World Cup in Dalian, China. PHOTOS/COURTESY OF USSSA MEDIA 

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Amus College girls' team also made a splash, racking up a staggering 32 goals in one game.

Team Uganda returned from the International Schools Federation Football World Cup in China with their heads held high.

Amus College boys' team came agonisingly close to gold. They battled their way to the final, only to be edged out by the host nation 5-3 on penalties after a thrilling 2-2 draw. Bukedea Comprehensive, making their debut at the championship, secured a well-deserved bronze medal with a victory over another Chinese side. Notably, Bukedea had fallen short against Amus College in the semi-finals, showcasing Uganda's growing strength.

Amus College girls' team also made a splash, racking up a staggering 32 goals in one game. Their top scorer, Ednar Wanda, led the charge, and their impressive performance secured them a respectable eighth-place finish. St. Mary's College Kisubi, the other Ugandan representatives, had a mixed run, finishing 31st.

Despite their lower ranking, SMACK captain Mark Ahimbisibwe acknowledged the valuable experience gained. He highlighted the need for Ugandan teams to close the gap with more established countries.

“We need to work hard as Uganda to reach the levels other countries have been working on. For China, we thought they were underdogs but they surprised us and won. But we’re proud as Ugandans because sometimes we trained together and this improved us a lot,” Ahimbisibwe said.

Bukedea's Godfrey Ssekibengo in action at the ISF World Cup in China

This performance marks a significant milestone for Ugandan schools on the global stage. It surpasses the previous best showing – a bronze medal secured by St. Noa in Morocco back in 2023. Interestingly, that tournament saw Amus College striker Allan Oyirwoth catch the eye of scouts and earn a development opportunity in England.

The Ugandan delegation, accompanied by the Minister of Sports Peter Ogwang, returned impressed by the high standards witnessed.  Ogwang particularly commended the infrastructure, specifically the training centre that hosted the competition.

“I learned a lot in terms of infrastructure because we were hosted at an academy training centre that was able to host an international competition of this magnitude," Ogwang said.

Patrick Okanya, the former president of the Uganda Secondary Schools Sports Association (USSSA), echoed the sentiment, emphasising the importance of continuous improvement for Ugandan schools to reach even greater heights.

 Triumph highlights facilities gap

The young footballers may have returned home with a medal haul and big hopes for the future, but their success underscores a critical missing piece – proper facilities.

Justus Mugisha, president of USSSA, was awestruck by the Dalian Youth Sports Centre in China, where the International Schools Federation Football World Cup was held. 

"These are the kind of facilities I dream to have back at home in the near future," he said, highlighting the vast difference between Ugandan and Chinese infrastructure.

Chinese girls showcase their culture during the opening ceremony of the ISF World Cup in Dalian, China

China's commitment to sports development stands in stark contrast to Uganda's situation. The Dalian Football Youth Training Centre, completed in 2019, boasts 23 training pitches, a stadium, and facilities for hundreds of athletes and coaches. This investment reflects China's broader focus on public health and Olympic dominance.

In Uganda, sports facilities remain an Achilles' heel. Built primarily during decolonisation for show rather than development, most facilities are in disrepair and cater solely to a few elite sports. Limited options for physical education and school sports further hinder development. These "white elephants" offer little to aspiring athletes who lack proper training grounds.

The path forward requires a multi-pronged approach. The Ministry of Sports must work with investors to create modern facilities catering to both elite and amateur athletes. This will provide the foundation for a thriving Ugandan sports industry.

The USSSA also has a role to play. By reinvesting a portion of government funds, they can create a legacy program supporting school sports infrastructure. This investment, coupled with improved facilities nationwide, will unlock Uganda's true sporting potential.

Beyond the beautiful game

Uganda, the famed "Pearl of Africa," is a treasure trove waiting to be explored. Yet, Ugandan schools participating in national sports tournaments are missing a golden opportunity to leverage sports tourism.

In 2023, the USSSA Boys football championship was held in Fort Portal City. But the itinerary was about just winning and losing, missing the cultural wealth of Tooro. Imagine the itinerary had a day off where young people visited the awe-inspiring Kibaale Forest National Park, the "primate capital of the world," teeming with chimpanzees, colourful monkeys, and over 372 bird species! They would have marveled at the majestic Lake Kyaninga, a crater lake unlike any other. Even in Masaka during this year's competition, no teams visited the prized sandy beaches famous with Buddu.

In China, schools understood the power of sports tourism. Competition days were seamlessly interwoven with cultural experiences. Delegations visited historical sites, learned about safeguarding and anti-doping, and even enjoyed a day of cultural exchange, showcasing their traditions.

The Fort Portal tournament held a stone's throw away from the iconic Amabeere ga Nyinamwiru caves, lacked any organised visits to this historical landmark. The iconic Omukama palace stood proudly nearby, yet its significance remained unknown to many participants. Even Kichwamba, with a deeply moving memorial for a 1998 massacre of 80 students, went unnoticed despite hosting games.

This lack of planning is a missed opportunity on multiple levels. It shortchanges the cultural experience for visiting athletes, diminishes the potential economic benefits of tourism, and fails to showcase the rich history and beauty of Uganda.

The key lies in collaboration. Schools, USSSA, and tourism bodies must work together to create a holistic experience. USSSA must think about the impact of well-organised opening and closing ceremonies that celebrate Ugandan culture too not just patched-up band appearances. Athletes must return home not just with medals but with unforgettable memories of Uganda's breathtaking landscapes and vibrant traditions.

Uneven playing field

Uganda's recent success at the ISF Football World Cup is bittersweet. While the medals shine brightly, a closer look reveals a system riddled with financial woes and inconsistent selection processes.

Asia Kakai of Amus in action against the Czechs.

The withdrawal of St. Mary's Kitende and St. Noa due to financial constraints exposes a critical flaw: a meagre budget (Shs8b) for national school sports competitions. This paltry sum struggles to cover events like the local USSSA competitions, regional FEASSSA Games and ISF tournaments, leaving ambitious schools like Bukedea, this year's surprise bronze medalists, scrambling to fill the gaps.

Further fueling the fire of inconsistency is the selection process. Whereas Uganda fields individual school teams as national representatives, other countries present a more unified front. Kenya, for example, meticulously selects their national youth teams through well-funded tournaments and international training camps.  Similarly, Botswana and Nigeria prioritise national team building, ensuring their athletes are at a competitive advantage.

This fragmented approach disadvantages Ugandan athletes. While some schools, like Bukedea, manage to build strong teams, others lack the resources to compete on a global scale. This inconsistency creates an uneven playing field, hindering Uganda's ability to truly excel.

The path forward is clear. Increased funding for school sports is paramount. A well-structured national selection process, similar to Kenya's, could further elevate Ugandan youth football. Imagine the impact of a national U-19 tournament, leading to a centralised training camp – a breeding ground for team spirit and a stronger national identity.

Uganda's young footballers have proven their talent. It's time the system empowers them to truly shine by addressing the financial and structural roadblocks that currently hold them back.

ISF Football World Cup

Final - Boys

Uganda 2-2 China (Pens. 3-5)

Final - Girls

China B 1-1 Kenya (Pens. 5-4)

Third-place: Boys

Bukedea 1-0 China A

Uganda's performance in summary:

Amus College - Silver

Bukedea Comprehensive - Bronze

Amus girls - 8th

SMACK: 32nd