What you need to know:
- For close to four decades, Ugandans have chased after that happiness in international football in vain.
- Well, until September 4 when the current crop of Uganda Cranes, tutored by Serbian Milutin 'Micho' Sredojevic, delivered the country to the 2017 Nations Cup due in Gabon from January 14 to February 5 next year.
- For the last 19 Afcon qualifying editions, attempted journeys to Africa’s table of men had been agonising.
The Bible has the Promised Land as that of Canaan, which was promised to Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12:7).
Now, if you do not subscribe to that, the Promised Land is basically a place or situation in which someone expects to find great happiness.
For close to four decades, Ugandans have chased after that happiness in international football in vain.
Well, until September 4 when the current crop of Uganda Cranes, tutored by Serbian Milutin 'Micho' Sredojevic, delivered the country to the 2017 Nations Cup due in Gabon from January 14 to February 5 next year.
For the last 19 Afcon qualifying editions, attempted journeys to Africa’s table of men had been agonising.
This one to Gabon, following Farouk Miya’s solitary goal at Namboole for a 1-0 win over Comoros to qualify as one of two best second-placed teams, was hardly straightforward either - but one that triumphed.
However, looking back, it had been coming. By the end of last year, the Cranes had reclaimed the Cecafa (not held this year) title, qualified for Chan, and made it to the final 20 African teams to progress to Russia 2018 World Cup qualification group stage.
The Cranes exited at the group stages in the Chan tournament for the third successive time early in the year in Rwanda, only finishing third in a group including leaders Zambia, Mali and Zimbabwe.
As of today, Uganda have four points - two behind leaders Egypt in Group E of World Cup qualification - Ghana and Congo Brazzaville are third and fourth respectively.
DREW WITH GHANA
Uganda’s first point came in the goalless draw away in Ghana, on a weekend Egypt edged Congo 2-1.
The Cranes were to pip Congo 1-0 at Namboole last month in their second game before Egypt saw off Ghana 2-0 to consolidate their grip on the top spot.
So fast forward, the way 2016 has ended for the Cranes could easily be traced from how 2015 closed.
Uganda won six away matches out of eight last year - one of them in Afcon and another in World Cup qualifiers.
Micho’s men built on that this year, winning one more away in Afcon qualification, the 2-1 victory over Botswana. That victory rescued a campaign threatening to derail after Burkina Faso had picked four points off Uganda.
HOW CRANES PROGRESSED TO AFCON 2017
June 13, 2015: Uganda 2–0 Botswana, (Massa 55’ Umony 65’)
Micho’s men had struggled to convince their faithful in the run-up to the 2017 Afcon opener against Botswana. Robert Ssentongo could only level on the hour for Cranes to secure a 1-1 draw with Gambia in a friendly Uganda demonstrated defending naivety and lacked precision in the final third.
But fast forward to the D-Day, just over 48 hours later, and the Cranes were in forceful mood, skipper Geoffrey Massa opening the scoring on 55 minutes and Brian Umony adding the other after the hour mark to set the campaign alight.
Sept 5, 2015: Comoros 0–1 Uganda, (Mawejje 26’)
Never before had Uganda ever picked maximum points from the opening two qualifying matches.
Returning to the Cranes set up for the first time since the 2-0 away defeat to Guinea a year before, Tonny Mawejje exposed the Islanders by scoring the only goal of the game midway the first half. Dennis Onyango saved a late penalty from Youssouf Mchangama to confirm Cranes' first away victory of the campaign.
March 26, 2016: Burkina Faso 1–0 Uganda, (Pitroipa 60’ pen)
Uganda entered this match against the 2013 Cup of Nations losing finalists with swagger gathered from the previous two victories over Botswana and Comoros. Yet, this encounter against the Burkinabe in West Africa was also Uganda’s first real test of the campaign. Uganda could have opened a six-point gap on the hosts with victory. However, Burkina Faso passed the test with Jonathan Pitroipa’s 60th minute penalty condemning Uganda to their first defeat as the Burkinabe topped the Group D.
March 29, 2016: Uganda 0–0 Burkina Faso
Memories of Togo doing a double on Uganda in the previous campaign lingered. The Cranes had to win their home game to rescue a campaign threatening to fold.
The two teams battled to a goalless draw and the hosts were even lucky to survive a Pitroipa loop over Dennis Onyango as the goalkeeper was caught off his line to keep yet another clean sheet. Both Uganda and Burkina Faso were now on seven points but the Cranes were behind the visitors thanks to the four points surrendered to the West Africans.
June 4, 2016: Botswana 1–2 Uganda, (Makgantai 50’, Luwagga 9’, Aucho 53’)
Comoros and Botswana are the countries that definitively delivered Uganda from close to four decades of football captivity.
While beating them at Namboole was a duty, the Cranes had to be well drilled to win both ties away. Twelve points from the two are the reason Uganda are in Gabon.
It took Khalid Aucho's 53rd minute winner, just three minutes after Makgantai had cancelled out Kizito Luwagga’s ninth minute opener, to reignite the fading hopes.
Sept 4, 2016: Uganda 1-0 Comoros (Farouk Miya)
Finally! Just like it was in Moroni in the first leg, the 90 places between Uganda, who are ranked by Fifa at 65 (at the time), and Comoros, looked deceptive at Namboole.
The visitors seemed calm in possession, showing some good technique in passing. But they never really troubled Dennis Onyango in the Cranes goal.
However, a 1-0 lead anywhere is always a time bomb. Until the final whistle, the Cranes, who led through a Farouk Miya’s 34th minute goal, were susceptible to witnessing yet another heartbreaking qualification campaign. But Micho’s charges held their nerves to confirm the qualification.
AFCON 2017 GROUP D FIXTURES
Jan 17: Ghana v Uganda
Jan 17: Mali v Egypt
Jan 21: Ghana v Mali
Jan 21: Egypt v Uganda
Jan 25: Egypt v Ghana
Jan 25: Uganda v Mali
*Tournament dates: January 14, ends February 5.
This article first appeared on the Daily Monitor.