Cranes keep altitude through stormy skies
© AFP

Uganda stumbled to the finish line of qualifying for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations and so missed out on the currently ongoing continental finals, even though they had control of their preliminary group from the start. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Cranes, but the Bobby Williamson-coached team rebounded with pride to sweep aside all challengers at the regional Cecafa Cup. That success has bumped them up seven spots in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings to 82nd in the world and 18th in Africa.

With a highest-ever ranking of 63rd at the end of 2010, the Ugandans are no slouches in African football, but since the Scottish boss arrived in 2008, they have been on an increasing upward swing. After running neck and neck with 2006 FIFA World Cup™ finalists Angola in qualifying for South Africa 2010, the Cranes came even closer to reaching the this year's CAN, which would have been their first continental championship since finishing second in 1978.

It has been a long, painful wait for Uganda's football-mad supporters, and their fate seemed to be heading in a different direction after they defeated their nearest challengers, again Angola, 3-0 in Kampala to open the 2012 campaign. They won two of their next three matches without giving up a goal. However, they failed to hold on to a four-point advantage over the Palancas Negras with two rounds to play, falling in Luanda and then drawing for the second time against improving local rivals Kenya. That trip at the final hurdle, a frustrating scoreless affair at home, was particularly hurtful given that captain and key figure David Obua had fallen afoul of authorities in the run-up to the contest and is now out of the national team picture. The drama signaled a precarious time for the Cranes, who had been making steady progress up to that point.

At just the right time
There was no chance to wallow in the missed opportunity as the yellow and black unit were back playing in an exhibition tournament in Morocco just a month later. They beat the hosts to buoy their spirits and then began preparations in earnest for the 35th edition of the Cecafa Cup, a tournament for east and central African nations. Despite trepidation over suffering further disappointment, the Cranes had reason for confidence heading into the event, which was hosted by ambitious Tanzania.

Not only had Williamson spent his time in Uganda wisely, building up a larger and more cohesive unit for the national team to choose from, but the Cranes have dominated the event historically and are seen as neighbourhood strongmen. But the countries of the region have been improving, fighting to keep up with advances on the rest of the continent. And though Uganda ended up lifting their 12th trophy – Kenya have the next most with not even half that amount – it turned out to be no simple achievement.

After qualifying for the knock-out rounds with a 4-0 victory over Somalia in their second match, the Ugandans slumped to a 1-0 loss to surprise packages Burundi. That cost the Cranes a position at the top of the group and sapped some of their momentum. However, they showed a good touch of mental strength in overcoming Zimbabwe in the quarter-finals and the Tanzanians after extra time in the last four - matches they could easily have lost. Their run of fortune continued in the final against Rwanda when they came from behind twice, including through a late own goal, and held on to win in a penalty shoot-out despite missing two of their first three attempts.

I still feel disappointed we’re not there because we had such a good campaign. We missed out by one point.
Uganda coach Bobby Williamson on not being at the Cup of Nations

The semi-final had also gone to extra time, so Uganda had won a pair of two-hour matches in just three days. No matter that they had missed a much bigger prize just two months before, the effort was enough for Williamson to express happiness afterwards. “The boys dug deep. We had hard tournament, especially the last games,” said the former West Brom and Rangers striker, who has coached the side to three successful Cecafa Cups now. "We're a good team, and we showed how we can play. It has not been easy."

Despite the gratifying victory, Williamson admitted that he was downhearted at the start of the Cup of Nations. “I still feel disappointed we’re not there because we had such a good campaign. We missed out by one point,” said Williamson in a newspaper column. “I feel we would have done well.” But as the coach undoubtedly knows, the calendar turns and more football tournaments come. Uganda kick off their qualifying campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil in June, once again drawn with Angola in Group J, but also facing tough challenges sure to come from Senegal and Liberia.