Uganda's impressive CHAN start

Posted by Firdose Moonda

Vincent Kayizzi is the most experienced player in the Uganda squad.GettyImagesVincent Kayizzi is the most experienced player in the Uganda squad.

Five days before Uganda's national team notched up a first ever win at the African Nations Championship (CHAN), they received the inspiration they would draw on as they went in search of that victory. The squad were sent off from the upmarket Serena Hotel to listen to motivational speaker Peter Kimbowa. He told them to aim high in South Africa.

"We are warriors. We may have had setbacks before but will not crumble. A setback is a setup for a comeback. Remember a season of mourning is not a lifetime of misery. We need the right mentality, cohesion and team spirit to win even at the last minute," he said.

As it turned out, Uganda did not need any last-gasp heroics against African Nations Cup (ANC) finalists, Burkina Faso. Young striker Yunus Sentamu, who has just completed his A-levels and made his international debut 10 days ago in a friendly against Mauritania, gave them the lead in the 15th minute and doubled it in the 73rd to put Uganda on top of their group.

In so doing, he also earned his country's football development four million shillings (US$1600) courtesy of sponsors, Airtel. The mobile phone company promised two million shillings (US$800) for every goal the Cranes scored at the competition. Uganda have already suggested the corporation will be forking out a fair bit. Their two goals so far amount to double what they managed throughout the entire competition the last time they took part.

It's still too early to read too much into Uganda's win over a Stallions' team that look nothing like the one that played in the ANC final, because they did that entirely with foreign-based players. But it's a good sign for a team that has made steady progress in recent years.

Uganda have consistently found themselves ranked in 80s on FIFA's charts over the last three years. They peaked before that, reaching 63 in October 2010 and have since hovered in almost the same position (currently 86), which leaves them mid-table on the continent. Over the last two years, they've strung together impressive results, including pushing then-continental champions Zambia to a nail-biting penalty shootout in an attempt to qualify for ANC 2013 (Zambia eventually won 9-8 in the sudden-death spot kicks) and reaching the quarterfinals of the CECAFA Cup last December.

Still, there was concern with the group chosen to compete at CHAN, because of their inexperience. The bulk of the group are in their early twenties, with 29-year-old midfielder Vincent Kayizzi the most experienced squad member.

That made it even more satisfying for coach Micho Sredojevic when his collection of mostly green-behind-the-ears players produced what was widely hailed as an eye-catching, creative and dominant showing. "I can't hide it. I am extremely happy for my young boys. They followed the instructions according to our game plan and I think we deserved to win," he told Uganda's New Vision newspaper. "From the first five minutes and all the chances we created, it was the real Ugandan heart of aggressiveness from my team."

The goals -- the first after Sentamu beat the defence and rounded the goalkeeper and the second, which was finished off from a movement that began on the right flank -- showed Sredojevic the team are able to put into practice what they are learning in practice sessions. "I am happy because this was a result of four weeks of hard work. Sentamu's second goal was something we have been working on in training," he said.

"Sentamu has the knack of being in the right place at the right time and he shows plenty of composure in his finishing. We are changing everything because we've had a problem of scoring from open play in the past, but I believe this style of play accommodates all these young players who like to use the ball."

Attractive football will get any team noticed and that's exactly what it's done for Uganda at this early stage of the CHAN competition. Now, it will be important for them to keep it going. The Cranes have already identified Morocco as their biggest rivals in the group stage, after Zimbabwe held the Atlas Lions throughout their opening encounter.

Captain Dennis Iguma will use the speech they were given at home for motivation once again. Then, he was adamant that even though the Cranes are seen as underdogs they "will not let Ugandans down." So far, so good.


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