Alex Muhabi’s decision to retire from the beautiful game was made public knowledge by FUFA in an address to the press the previous month. This unforeseen resolution by the veteran referee put a climax on a career that spanned for a period of 21-years and transcended from merely territorial boundaries.
The professional doctor narrates his ordeal as a match official and the milestones reached during his 16-year tenure in the Uganda Premier League, seven years as a FIFA referee and the non-customary fights he had to endure since making his debut in 2000.
Muhabi believes it’s the experiences (both desirable and non-desirable) gained over the longevity of his officiating career that justify his decision to retire.
He flashes back to 2014 where his ecstasy following the reception of a FIFA badge was a short-lived tyranny with a withdrawal initiation the following year 2015 nevermind the fact that his badge was reinstated towards the backend of 2016.
The politics that informed the decision to withdraw his badge after receiving it was what caught his eye and would eventually prove to be detrimental to his career in his own words. He further expounds that his elevation into a professional referee had not only taken patience but also hardwork considering that it took five years for him to become a FUFA referee back in 2004 to start with.
Muhabi stands out alongside the current prisons procurement director Mohamed Ssegonga as the only referees from the pearl of Africa to own FIFA badges and get to retire without having them scrapped.
The latter took his retirement following the conclusion of the 2010 AFCON tournament held in Angola where he represented the country as a referee. His immediate decision to retire and concentrate on personal issues was mutual but has since lost interest in any field happenings due to what he cites to be poor administration from the body responsible.
That withstanding, Muhabi officiated eleven games on the continent following the reception of his FIFA badge in 2014 before a plethora of changes would happen at CAF with the most notable one being the withdrawal of Charles Masembe (an instructor and continental referees’ committee head then), a decision that was always destined to negatively impact the trajectory of Ugandan referees and their ending quest for opportunities on the continent.
This directly accounts for the fact that prior to his retirement, Muhabi had last officiated a CAF Confederation Cup game played in Tanzania in the November of 2020 and an AFCON qualifier game during the 2019 qualifiers where Mali hosted South Sudan.
As expected, his contemplated regret in the aftermath of retirement is not officiating at AFCON or the World Cup, something he strongly attributes to the politics on the continent.
He however maintains that his stay on the whistle has always been motivated by passion and not money since the cash is a distant stretch to start with and would go further to describe his decision to retire as an offspring of gradual developments of disrespect, lack of motivation and recognition.
He had this to say in a short interview: “Referees are always the last people to be thought about in Uganda and yet they keep referring to us as match officials. We need much more respect and recognition.”
It will indeed be foolhardy for anyone to disguise the school of thought that Muhabi’s retirement decision was fueled by his poor relationship with referees’ committee head Ronnie Kalema. Muhabi in response however dismisses these claims and highlights no friction between them but was non-committal to telling when the two last had a conversation.
It ought to be remembered though that in 2019, following Muhabi’s return from Mali after officiating the 2019 AFCON qualifier game between Mali and South Sudan, he was slapped a four months suspension from officiating games by Kalema.
This pulled the federation’s leg into constantly reporting that the referee was serving a disciplinary suspension whenever CAF sanctioned him for his services on the continent. The trend would continue until his retirement thereby missing out on officiating the AFCON and World Cup qualifiers.
For more perspective, his suspension was sparked by the refusal to travel and officiate a Big League game in Masindi just a day after officiating as centre referee for the StarTimes Uganda Premier League match between BUL FC and Police FC. His decision to excuse himself from going to Masindi had been communicated to the Federation’s referees’ committee early enough according to him.
Speaking about this unprecedented retirement, Ronnie Kalema advised Muhabi to join them in nurturing young referees and thanked him for his incredible work and bringing honour to Ugandan referees on the continent. He would further add that replacing his genius was always going to be a job of considerable difficulty especially now that it’s barely a month left for the referees’ fitness test.
FUFA has since embarked on the process of badge distribution which isn’t on the basis of competence and performance but rather guided by the idea of regional balance. Buganda currently has no centre referee yet many argue that Ashadu Ssemeere stands out.
Additionally, the Kampala region has for some time now clamoured to the federation to instil a badge in the hands of Ronald Kirangwa who seems the hands-on favourite in the considerations. The case of George Olem as the other likely replacement isn’t farfetched either.
We ought to also remember that when the federation scrapped badges from Denis Batte and Brian Nsubuga, the two were replaced by William Oloya and Ronald Madanda respectively who have since struggled to get continental appointments.
That said, the referring department in the country is clearly struggling and our misgivings in the department have taken centre stage since 2010 when Mohamed Ssegonga officiated in AFCON. The result is that no Ugandan referees have relieved such special moments and one will have to go back to the 2002 World Cup Finals jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan when Ali Tomusange represented the country.
The record maker’s message (Tomusange) has been eloquent enough highlighting that there is a lot to do as far as refereeing is concerned to have officials on the big stage. He also however maintains hope in Okello Dick who was an assistant referee during the 2021 CAF Champions League Finals in Morocco between Al Ahly and Kaizer Chiefs.
“If all goes well I think we may see him (Okello Dick) in next year’s World Cup and I have observed his progress carefully,” said Tomusange.
He would continue that some issues in refereeing are beyond their control as a committee or people grooming these referees since some are political.
FUFA president Moses Magogo recently commented about the process of giving out badges to referees by CAF but doing nothing beyond or below this as administrators. This was in the aftermath of the 2021 CAF Champions league finals.
Muhabi believes that refereeing in Uganda needs resurgence or else the situation will continuously deteriorate day after day. His legacy in professionalism and maintenance of a clean record should serve as a benchmark for future referees in the country.