It has been more than three decades since the Cranes of Uganda have made an appearance in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals, but a storming start to the 2012 qualifiers is offering real hope of a return for the once-proud national team.
Scottish coach Bobby Williamson has engineered a solid beginning to their qualifying group, with a 3-0 home win over Angola to start the campaign in September, followed by a potentially priceless draw away against neighbours, and long-standing rivals, Kenya last month. It means there is now a growing expectation the Cranes will stay atop Group J and qualify for the 2012 finals, 32 years after their last appearance, when they finished as continental runners-up to Ghana in 1978.
“I think there is a good chance,” Williamson told FIFA.com regarding his side’s hopes of reaching the finals again. “Everybody expects it. For the last few tournaments, Uganda have been very, very close, sometimes just missing out on goal difference, so the potential is there. I don’t think we’ll waltz in, but we have given ourselves a good grounding. If you had said before the qualifiers that we’d have four points from our opening two matches, a lot of people would have been pleased with that.”
The qualifiers are stretched over a long period and there is little room to afford any slips. But we’ll be as well prepared as we usually are.
The coach is on his first international assignment after a career in Scotland with Kilmarnock and Hibernian, and then in England at Plymouth Argyle and Chester City. Williamson took the Uganda job just over two years ago, completing their 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying schedule and since steadily seeing the Cranes climb the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. His ambitions are now set on helping the Ugandans to the 2012 Nations Cup, to be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and then to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, a tournament for which Uganda have never previously qualified.
But Williamson insists there is much work to be done ahead of consecutive matches against the group’s surprise packages, Guinea-Bissau, in March and June. “Guinea Bissau are not the whipping boys that some suggested they might be,” Williamson said. “I spoke to the Kenya coach, who told me of their potential. They play on an artificial turf and that is also going to be factor for our players to contend with."
An eye on the domestic
The 49-year-old Williamson, a former striker with West Bromwich Albion, has the same dilemma more and more of his contemporaries across the African continent have to deal with, in that he infrequently has an opportunity to work with his full squad.
It is a double-edged sword, for Uganda have more players based at overseas club than at anytime before, which ensures they are more competitive, fitter and better exposed to the disciplines of the modern game but that they are rarely under Williamson’s charge. For example, in the impressive three-goal roasting of Angola the goals came from Scotland-based David Obua, China-based Andrew Mwesigwa and Geoffrey Sserunkuma, who plays in South Africa. Williamson says he does what he can to develop the game in Uganda. “I’m much better acquainted with the local players and have had much more to do with them in my time here,” he explained.
In late November Williamson will take his Uganda team to Tanzania for the regional East and Central African Senior Challenge Cup, a further opportunity to work with up-and-coming talent. “I’ve worked with the locals in the last two tournaments and that has helped me a lot.”
Williamson said his priority was to keep winning and “keep the feel good factor high”, but he said he realises there is still a long haul ahead of him and the Cranes. “The qualifiers are stretched over a long period and there is little room to afford any slips. But we’ll be well prepared as we usually are.”