In February 1994, two years before American singer R. Kelly released his famous track I Believe I Can Fly, a boy with a very special future ahead of him was born in the Ugandan city of Entebbe. The child in question was called Denis Iguma, who would go on to help the Cranes take flight and qualify for the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, the first time they will have graced the continental finals in 39 years.
Uganda clinched their place at the competition by sharing top spot in Group D with Burkina Faso, the two sides finishing with the same number of points and the same goal difference. As if that achievement were not enough, Iguma and his team-mates also beat Togo 4-0 on aggregate to advance to the final round of the African qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
Looking back at those two wins over the Togolese in an interview with FIFA.com, the 22-year-old national team star, who plays his club football for Lebanese side Al Ahed, said: “We’ve done well in the qualifiers up to now, reaching the last round thanks to the win over Togo. We played against them in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers (two years ago) and we lost both times.
“The coach and the players have learned from their mistakes. We weren’t the favourites but we achieved our objective by sticking together and believing in ourselves. We won in Togo but we still had to finish the job off. We believed in our ability to do that though.”
Taking on the Uganda post in May 2013, with three other foreign coaches having held it in the previous ten years, Serbian coach Milutin Sredojevic immediately made his mark, with the former Orlando Pirates and Rwanda boss making Uganda one of the toughest teams to beat in African football. In his first three years in charge, Sredojevic has seen his side climb 20 places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where they currently lie 65th overall and 15th in Africa.
Iguma has nothing but praise for the 47-year-old Serbian: “The team has done really well since he came in and our performances have improved a lot over the last two years. Thanks to the coach and the ideas he’s brought in, we’ve played some good matches. He uses more players and calls on the youngsters, who run and fight a lot on the pitch, and I think that’s good.
Football is easy when you believe in yourself. If you do that, you can achieve your objectives.
“On a personal level, the coach has helped me believe in myself more, and I know what I’ve got to do on the pitch now. He’s helped me develop as a person, both in the team and in my family. In the process, I’ve become a professional and I put everything I have into reaching my objectives.”
Having secured their place at Gabon 2017, Iguma and Co now face the task of reaching Russia 2018. Facing them in Group E of the final qualifying round are three African heavyweights in the shape of Ghana, who have appeared at the last three world finals, an Egypt side determined to return to the big stage, and Congo, who lie 12 places above Uganda in the World Ranking.
Explaining why he has faith in his team’s chances, Iguma said: “Our national motto is ‘For God and My Country’. Football is easy when you believe in yourself. If you do that, you can achieve your objectives.”
Believing that the Cranes need to stay grounded, however, he added: “There are no small teams in football. The other sides in our group are strong and they have some quality players who play in Europe. Most of our side play in Africa, with only a few based in Europe. We give our all for our country though.”
Uganda will begin their campaign on 7 October, away to Ghana, a team Iguma and his colleagues know well: “Games against Ghana always end in a result. We’ve always beaten them at home and always lost to them away. It won’t be easy for us because they know us well too. We need to work hard and not think that we’re going to beat them. If we’re going to get a good result, we need to go there thinking that we’re outsiders.”
In November comes a home match with Congo at the Mandela National Stadium in Kampala, a game Iguma is looking forward to, not least because the Uganda fans invariably turn out in force to see their national team.
“We have a big advantage at home and it’s not easy for our opponents to take points away with them from Uganda,” he said. “We have a lot of fans and the support we get from them gives us a big boost. That’s why we have to try and win all our home matches and pick up points where we can away.”
With morale high in the Cranes camp, they believe a place in Russia is within their grasp, not least because Iguma has already shown that he has what it takes to help them soar.