After three match-days, Uganda sat joint top of group B of the AFCON qualifiers with seven points, level with pre-draw favourites Burkina Faso.
At that stage, qualification seemed to be certain for the Cranes who had also featured in both the 2017 and 2019 finals.
However, it is unimaginable that that on Monday, March 29, they finished third in the group following a 1-0 loss away to Malawi in their final qualification game.
For a side that has a dream of ensuring that AFCON qualification is routine, at least according to their FA President, it is a major disappointment.
To compound the frustration, Uganda will not be part of 24 nations, yes you read right, 24 nations, that will be in Cameroon next year at the finals. This will be the first time that almost half of the continent takes part in the finals after the number was increased from 24 in the last edition but Uganda will not be among the fold.
Under the guidance of Abdallah Mubiru, the team collected just a single point from their final two games and failed to score a single goal.
It is a disappointment that is hard to swallow as a Ugandan but one that we must learn from if we are to ensure participation at AFCON becomes a routine.
However, where did it all go wrong for Uganda, a side that promised so much at the start of the campaign?
Drawn alongside Burkina Faso and two nations that are ranked 123rd (Malawi) and 163rd (South Sudan) in a four-team group, it was always hard to bet against Uganda not finishing in the top two.
Many thought it would be a straight shoot-out between the Cranes and Burkina Faso, for top spot with the one among those two sides, who got the better result at the other’s home, finishing as leaders.
After the goalless draw in Ouagadougou, many fans and journalists felt like the task was half-way completed by Uganda and it was just a matter of taking care of both South Sudan and Malawi and top spot would be achieved with a win at home to the Stallions come match-day five.
A 2-0 victory at home to Malawi and a scrappy 1-0 win against South Sudan at Kitende saw the Cranes maintain their course for qualification as they sat joint top of the group on seven points.
Speaking to one of the players, who i will not mention here, he assured me that qualification was all but done, with the view that they would pick at least four more points in their final three games to seal their spot in Cameroon.
Then everything thing turned against the Cranes in crazy fashion.
First, they shockingly lost to South Sudan in Kenya, a result that many suggested had to be the catalyst to axing head coach Johnathan McKinstry.
FUFA responded by not firing the North Irishman but rather suspending him for the rest of the qualification campaign with Police FC tactician Abdallah Mubiru put in temporary charge of the team.
Against Burkina Faso, at home, statistically the hardest of the final three games, Uganda could only manage a goalless draw at Kitende, leaving them requiring just a point away to Malawi on the final day.
“Malawi? Who is Malawi when we could go in Ouagadougou and pick a draw.” Many would be hard on the streets, Radios and TVs even on social media, echoing their confidence in regards to getting the job done.
In their post match interviews following the draw with Burkina Faso last Wednesday, you could easily read the confidence in the tone of both captain Denis Onyango and Mubiru in regards to getting the desired point in Blantyre.
But that would not be, in the end, as Uganda miserably lost 1-0 to Malawi, a side that is ranked 40 places below them (at the time of writing) and hence finishing third in the group to fail in their bid to reach a third successive AFCON final.
Change In Cranes top Management
Following the loss to South Sudan on match-day four, the FUFA Executive held a meeting to evaluate McKinstry’s performance as head coach of the Cranes.
What transpired from it led to the coach being asked to step aside for the last two games of the qualification, after which, a way forward is to be forged.
At that point, many took lightly, the effect the move could have on the team that had been with McKinstry for the best part of the past two or so years.
With three local coaches put in charge (Mubiru, Livingston Mbabazi and Fred Kajoba) opinion was immediately split among Ugandans especially journalists.
Some claimed the three could get the job done while others though it was wrong to put them in charge with two games to play in a campaign that had promised so much at the start but was now showing signs of crumbling.
“We have been in close contact with McKinstry in regards to the team and we will continue working with him on some issues during the final two games.” Mubiru said during the announcement of the squad that Uganda would use for both the game against Burkina Faso in Kitende and away to Malawi.
That statement suggested that McKinstry was to a small extent still in charge of proceedings despite the fact that he had been suspended.
Was Mubiru and the other two making the decisions or was McKinstry, the suspended one, being consulted in regards to the big decisions? That is something Ugandans probably will never know but an issue that must have played a big invisible role in our poor showing in the final two games.
At the end of it all, save for the second half performance at Kitende, the Cranes were poor in those two games and they looked like a side deprived of top leadership as Mubiru and co stood on the touchline, at times seemingly clueless.
The South Sudan Double Header
Uganda is the undisputed heavyweight of the CECAFA region as they have dominated the region straight from the underage teams, Women football to the senior Men’s teams.
When the draw was made in 2018, it was easy to think that six points off South Sudan was almost certain for a side that had been at the past two AFCONs.
In the first game, Sudan sat deep, were on the receiving end for 90 minutes and nearly stole a point at Kitende only for substitute Halid Lwaliwa to head home what would prove to be the winning goal with just six minutes in the clock.
After the game, concerns were raised but to many, it was just one of those games where a team fails to get going with the other sat so deep in it’s own half, defending for their lives..
A couple of days later, a confident Cranes made the short trip to Kenya to complete the double header against the minors who are ranked 80 places below Uganda as of the February 2021 FIFA rankings.
An unconvincing start by the Cranes saw, they fell behind just before half time, to a Tito Okello penalty and despite an improved showing in the second half, South Sudan held on to the only points they would get from their six games in the group.
A lot of question were asked in regards to the tactics, team selection and mentality of the players as they had failed to take maximum points from a side that was supposed to be the whipping boys of the group.
After both Malawi and Burkina Faso beating South Sudan home and away, it would be easy for anyone to suggest that Uganda failed to qualify because of the loss in Kenya.
Beat South Sudan home and away, Uganda would have sealed their spot in Cameroon with a total of 11 points (in second position), that is if the other results remained consistent.
Khalid Aucho’s Dismissal From Camp
Just days before the do or die games against Kenya in the 2012 AFCON Qualifiers, a certain David Obua was dismissed from camp.
Uganda would go on to draw 0-0 with the Harambe Stars and thus failing to reach the finals as they required victory on the day.
The same scenario once again unfolded in the build up to our last two games in the latest unsuccessful bid to reach the finals.
Barely five days to the game at home to Burkina Faso, Khalid Aucho was dismissed from camp for allegedly going against the team’s code of conduct as he refused to board the means of transport prepared for him on arrival at the Airport.
At the time, it looked like it would have little or no impact on the team as he was suspended for the game against Burkina Faso and could only feature in Malawi.
His replacement in the starting team, Tadeo Lwanga put up a man-of-the-match show at Kitende and Aucho’s absence would not be recognised.
However, his peers in the team, were feeling it as two of them openly told me that members of the Cranes kept on speaking about him(Aucho) in camp.
Psychologically, he was having an effect on them and the entire team but with the games coming thick and fast, it is an issue that could easily be ignored.
Aucho is no Obua and their impact on the teams may be miles apart as it was the latter’s goals on which Uganda thrived in the 2012 campaign as opposed to the former who rarely scores in the national colours.
However, his importance in the Cranes side can not be down played as he has been one of the most consistent performers in a Cranes Jersey over the past four or so years.
His understanding of the game alongside Mike Azira in the middle is second to none around the region and despite Lwanga ably replacing him on the pitch, Aucho’s energy and abilities on the ball were evidently missing in the game against Malawi, one that he surely would have started had he not been dismissed from camp.
Injuries During The Last Qualification Window
Uganda has in the recent past been lucky as they have rarely seen injuries destabilize their preparations going into crucial qualification games.
However, this time round, that has been completely different.
Days before the team entered camp, it was revealed that right-back Bevis Mugabi would not be available as his club-side Motherwell FC had declined to release him following a stint out with injury.
Abdu Lumala who impressed at the AFCON 2019 in Egypt and the 0-0 draw in Ouagadougou was summoned after over a year without competitiveness due to a recurring injury. And when he was taken off at halftime on match-day five, it was clear he was not in the best of physical shape.
Defender Timothy Awanyi and striker Fahad Bayo who both feature for Israel side Ashdod FC are understood to have reported to camp with injuries.
Awanyi could not make the match-day squad against Burkina Faso and Bayo only managed the last 35 minutes of the contest after coming off the bench.
The two would later not make the trip to Malawi as they were both ruled out with injuries that they failed to overcome in the training sessions that followed after the draw with the Stallions.
Striker Patrick Kaddu pulled his hamstring in the 55th minute of the game against the Burkinabe and failed to shake it off in time for the Malawi game.
Mike Azira and Emmanuel Okwi have also featured in the two games while carrying minor injuries and that has greatly affected their performances as they looked a shadow of the players on whom Uganda more often than not tends to rely on heavily.
Halid Lwaliwa, who was solid as they get at the back, against Burkina Faso, could not feature in Malawi due to injury and was replaced by Ronald Mukiibi who also joined camp while carrying a knock.
In what was two crucial games in the qualification campaign, Uganda’s camp was massively hit with injuries, robbing the technical team of an opportunity to name the strongest team for any of the two games.
The COVID-19 Comics In Blantyre
COVID-19 has been a major player in football across the world and it has been used as a vital tool when trying to win games in African.
Hours before the game against Malawi, Uganda was informed that midfielder Tadeo Lwanga had tasted positive for the virus.
The Malawi FA insisted that the player could not be eligible to feature while Uganda, who claimed to have received negative results for the said individual, resorted to CAF to try and resolve the issue.
The players and technical team were put in panic as they waited for CAF’s intervention in regards to the matter.
With Lwanga’s status pending, the doctors then delayed results of three other players who are believed to have been Onyango, Ibrahim Orit and Faruku Miya, further disrupting the Cranes camp.
The results of the three players were only revealed two hours to kick-off while Lwanga was cleared just 60 minutes to the game.
As a result, the Simba SC midfielder was not named in the starting team as the technical team thought he was not in the best frame of mind to start the game and when he came on, Lwanga was clearly a shadow of the man that had dominated Burkina Faso just four days prior.
As Uganda prepared to go out in search for that vital point that could have seen them seal their spot in Cameroon, their camp was kept in guessing mode as Malawi played what would later play a decisive role in the performance of some of the Cranes players, the now-famous ‘COVID-19 Card’.