Nantongo sacrificed versatility for opportunities

Kawempe Muslim skipper Nantongo is relishing her roles for aid the team. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE 

What you need to know:

Kawempe signed Nantongo in 2016 as a back up striker when she was still a student at Kakungulu Memorial and kept her as part of the club even though she moved to St. Noa Girls School Zana with coach Fahad Vumbula Mayambala for the next three years.

Aisha Nantongo prowls at the heart of Kawempe Muslim's defence like a cat. 

She is a solid reassurance in a team of youngsters. Looks tough as nails and her physicality is undoubtedly a striker's nightmare. All this knowledge comes from years of versatility because she was never a defender in the beginning.

Kawempe signed her in 2016 as a back up striker when she was still a student at Kakungulu Memorial and kept her as part of the club even though she moved to St. Noa Girls School Zana with coach Fahad Vumbula Mayambala for the next three years.

In Kawempe, Nantongo who had her formative years in girls' football at St. Mary's Kitende and London College, found an old pal in Tracy Jones Akiror with whom they had shared midfield roles at St. Juliana Primary School.

"Tracy told the coach that I could play in midfield and that is how I started to switch roles again," Nantongo shares in an interview with Daily Monitor ahead of the second leg of their semifinal clash with Uganda Martyrs High School (UMHS) Lubaga this weekend.

Switching to defence

In 2020, long after Akiror and a host of other experienced stars with whom Nantongo had won three topflight (then Fufa Women Elite League) titles had left Kawempe, Nantongo was switched to defence. This was ahead of the rebranded Fufa Women Super League that was cut short due to Covid-19. Nantongo's new role became more pronounced in the shortened version of the competition played at Fufa Technical Centre, Njeru in 2021.

"We had young exciting players that could play in midfield but they needed protection and guidance at the back," Nantongo, who had then also stepped into the captaincy role, recalls. 

It was after this season that Ayub Khalifah, who also doubles as her club coach, summoned her to the national U-20 women's team ahead of the age group's World Cup qualifiers. 

National team experience

The qualification campaign was ended by Ghana at the penultimate round but before that there had been a crazy loss to Ethiopia in the U-20 Cecafa final in Njeru after Uganda had taken a 2-0 lead at halftime. 

"I think we got too comfortable, overly excited and forgot how to manage the game. But there was also a substitution that left us disorganized at the back. By the time Ethiopia scored their winner, my left back had crossed past me to the right, we were in disarray," the 21 year old, who started playing football in her primary school days among boys in her village in Kasanda under the tutelage of coach John Iga Matovu, explains.

An injury to Shamirah Nalugya ensured Nantongo was moved to midfield for the World Cup qualifiers against South Africa and Ghana.

"The games against SA went well and probably the first leg against Ghana. But Ghana played the ball away from our midfield when we went away for the second leg. By the time the coach decided to push me back to defence, we had already conceded three and we were just fire fighting. We lost 5-1," Nantongo shares.

Fortunately for Nantongo, the losses did not matter as she had done enough to convince the senior national team, Crested Cranes, coach George Lutalo that she was good enough to; start in the defence that won the Cecafa Championships last June and to be part of the squad that played at the Africa Cup of Nations, where Uganda stopped at the group stages.

"We lacked experience to play at that level. But we also carried some injuries into the tournament that did not allow us to use the entire squad.

We had good preparations but I think the managers forgot that we would play under the lights. We did not play any friendly games at night during the build up so on a personal level, night football was a new experience and I am sure it was the same for most of the girls."

Preparation is key

Nantongo still hopes for more call ups and does a lot of personal training in preparation for this.

"I do not train for a specific match. My aim is to be ready for anything and keep focused on my football.

Most of my opportunities have come in defence so that is where I am focused now. But I am also aware that I cannot play any more age group football while the national team also has a few games. I am preparing myself to play professional football, probably abroad," Nantongo, who has also attracted attention from clubs at home, says.

"There has been interest here and I must admit the money has been attractive. But it is difficult for me to just jump ship without thinking of how far Kawempe has brought me and what the needs of the team are."

Unfinished business

One more reason to keep pushing at Kawempe is that Nantongo, who took over skippership from Akiror and Mariam Nakabugo, is the only captain yet to win a major trophy for the most successful club in the country.

"That stings! The fans and club have a right to demand a trophy from me. The Uganda Cup offers an opportunity to change that but we have to play the perfect game in the second leg," Nantongo who hobbled off with a recurring knee problem in the first leg 1-0 loss at UMHS last weekend, says.

She insists she will be ready to play and show more responsibility. As a senior player, Nantongo has sometimes let younger colleagues take set piece duties even though everyone knows she is probably a bigger threat at those.

"When you play with a niggle, you try not to be selfish and a spoiler. I also trust the girls to do the job when I cannot," Nantongo concludes. Silverware still eludes her captainship but her contribution to Kawempe is surely full of sacrifice.

Name: Aisha Nantongo
Date of Birth: April 6, 2002
Parents: Jane Athieno (mother), Abdul Ssentongo (deceased)
Primary School: St. Gonzanga Mirembe Maria, Kasandha
Secondary School: St. Noa Girls Zana (both O and A Level)
Club: Kawempe Muslim
National Team: U-20; 2021 and 2022. Crested Cranes; Cecafa Women champion, AWCON appearances