Mandela National Stadium, to give it its official name, sits atop Namboole Hill, on the eastern outskirts of Kampala. Opened in 1997 and built by Chinese contractors, with Chinese investment, it was the focal point for two of Uganda’s defining moments in 2016.

On 20 February, in the bowels of an increasingly dilapidated stadium, Dr Badru Kiggundu, the head of the national electoral commission, announced the re-election of Yoweri Museveni as president. The result extended Museveni’s time in power beyond 30 years and despite opposition claims of malpractice, he was sworn in for a fifth term in office. But not even President Museveni was in charge last time Uganda’s national football team qualified for the Cup of Nations. Nicknamed the Cranes, after Uganda’s national bird the crested crane, they finally ended a 39-year absence from the competition by defeating Comoros 1-0 at Namboole on 4 September. Victory secured a trip to Gabon in January 2017.

Whilst tensions ran high in Kampala in the immediate aftermath of February’s election announcement – the capital city is a stronghold of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change party – palpable tension before the football match gave way to overriding emotions of relief and joy; expressed most audibly by the incessant blaring of motorbike horns and vuvuzelas. But politicians were not absent from the celebrations.

All three leading presidential contenders offering their congratulations on social media and the president’s wife, Janet Museveni, who also doubles as the Minister of Education and Sports, was present to observe what she described as “an answer from God to a national prayer”: a national prayer that many Ugandans, 78 percent of whom are under the age of 30, have been saying for a very long time.

 

Back to the 1970s

 

Uganda’s last appearance at the Cup of Nations came in 1978; Idi Amin was President and not one member of the current squad was born. Having qualified for the 1974 and 1976 tournaments, no-one could have expected they would have to wait almost four decades for a return.

In 1978, Uganda excelled in what was then an eight-team competition. They won two of their three group games – against Congo and Morocco – to qualify for a semi-final against Nigeria, a game they won 2-1. Hosts Ghana proved too strong in the final, prevailing 2-0, but only Ethiopia, winners in 1962, have performed better than Uganda’s 1978 performance from teams of the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA).

Phillip Omondi was Uganda’s hero at the tournament; scoring in each of the three victories to tie as the top goalscorer. Omondi, whose domestic career was split between two spells at Kampala City Council FC and a five-year stint in the Middle-East at Sharjah FC, is arguably the greatest talent Ugandan football has produced. Hassan Badru Zziwa, a veteran sports journalist, was quoted in the local Daily Monitor newspaper as saying “no one in Uganda could match Omondi’s achievements both at club level and the national team. He was so crafty he could virtually do anything with the ball. At times he would make you think he had the ball tied to his boot laces.”

The goal he scored in the semi-final victory over Nigeria is one that has passed into local folklore as it has passed through generations. Depending on whom you choose to believe, he dribbled past three, four, five or even the whole Nigerian team, before rounding the keeper and finding the net. What is clear is that it was a remarkable goal, scored by a highly skilled footballer who may well have been a household name outside of Uganda in a different era.

But Omondi never had the chance to fulfil his potential on the international stage and, in 1999, aged just 42, he passed away from tuberculosis – still holding the record of being the last Ugandan to score a goal at the Cup of Nations.

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In the last four decades, Uganda has won 11 CECAFA Cups – the oldest football tournament on the continent played between nations in Eastern Africa. However, Cranes fans and players alike have increasingly yearned for a bigger stage on which to perform.

Since the turn of the century, the team has been on a generally upward curve. At 119th in the FIFA World Rankings in 2001, Uganda reached a high of 62nd in 2015, a rise that has coincided with more competitive efforts to qualify for the Cup of Nations. September 2016 was the fourth consecutive time Uganda had entered the final round of qualification matches, knowing that their qualification destiny rested in their own hands, but the first time they qualified.

In 2010, under the guidance of Glaswegian Bobby Williamson – the former Kilmarnock and Hibernian manager having been appointed in 2008 – Uganda started their campaign to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations in a tricky group – alongside Angola, Kenya and Guinea-Bissau – well, taking 10 points from the first four games. Even defeat to Angola in the penultimate round of fixtures appeared only to be a stumble; the end of a 32-year wait seemed in sight.

Facing arch rivals, and neighbours Kenya, Uganda knew that all they had to do was match, or better, Angola’s result away in Guinea-Bissau to secure their place in the tournament to be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. But even with star man David Obua leading the line – then playing his football for Hearts in Scotland – they were unable to make the breakthrough and a goalless draw, compounded by Angola’s 2-0 win, left Ugandans inside Namboole despondent.

Williamson was still at the helm for the campaign to qualify for the 2013 edition. With the Confederation of African Football (CAF) taking a decision to move the competition from even to odd years in order to avoid a clash with the World Cup, there was limited time for qualification and home and away play-off system was proposed. Four games stood between Uganda and a place in the finals.

Trailing the Republic of Congo 3-1 after the first leg in Pointe Noire, a comprehensive 4-0 victory at home sent the Cranes through to a match with holders Zambia. The Zambians held a 1-0 advantage from the first leg but it was wiped out 25 minutes into the game in Kampala. An unanswered goal would have put Uganda through but after missing a couple of guilt edged opportunities, the match went straight to penalties.

A tense, agonising shootout followed, which many supporters in the stadium could not watch. They turned their backs to the action and prayed, but to no avail. On the 20th kick, Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene saved from Patrick Ochan and Ugandans were again left to ponder the what ifs and ask why it was that the country could make Namboole a fortress in ordinary circumstances – they never lost a competitive home match under Williamson’s tenure – but fail to deliver when it mattered most.

Williamson described the penalty loss as a “bitter blow to the entire Uganda football fraternity”, whilst the local Observer newspaper’s headline asked: “Is (sic) the Cranes cursed?”

 

Micho time

 

Serbian Milutin “Micho” Sredojević, who had a month previously been relieved of his duties as Rwanda’s head coach, took over from Williamson in May 2013 and soon embarked on yet another qualification campaign, hoping this would be 18th time lucky. After edging past Madagascar on away goals, they saw off Mauritania with victories in both the home and the away legs to qualify for the qualification group stages. The top two in each group would make it to Equatorial Guinea along with the best third-placed team.

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Uganda took four points from matches with World Cup regulars Ghana but lost both home and away to Togo, the only two matches the sparrowhawks won during qualifying. Again it came down to the final match but this time Uganda had to travel to Casablanca to take on Guinea who were playing their home match in Morocco because of the security concerns surrounding the Ebola outbreak.

Ugandans were glued to the television coverage, knowing that avoiding defeat would be good enough to send them through. But after an hour they were 2-0 behind and down to 10 men. Captain Andrew Mwesigwa’s concession of a penalty and subsequent red card for hauling down Seydouba Soumah was emblematic of Uganda’s now traditional final round collapse. It would be the final act of Mwesigwa’s international career.

His replacement, prolific forward Geofrey Massa, who has 33 goals in 43 appearances for Uganda, has been the one to finally bring an end to 39 years of heartbreak. After victories over Botswana and Comoros, the crunch double header with Burkina Faso, 2015 Cup of Nation finalists, produced one point and no goals, leaving their qualification chances in the balance. But victory away in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, gave hope to long suffering Cranes fans and put them in a familiar last round position: win and qualify.

Comoros, the 139th best team in the world according to FIFA’s ranking index, might not be have been the most formidable opponents on paper but, with Uganda’s recent history of last day failures, nothing could be taken for granted.

A first-half goal from 19-year-old Farouk Miya proved to be enough for a final round victory at last. At the final whistle the crowd inside Namboole, which had swollen to over 40,000 in the second half as word spread across the city of probably victory, rejoiced, invading the pitch and covering the green of the grass with an array of red, yellow and black. Above the din of vuvuzelas, the stadium’s old sound system could barely be heard but when it did crackle into life it announced a result that, unlike in February, all Ugandans could celebrate.

Celebrations began all over the city; pork joints were inundated with requests and bars filled up with revellers keen to mark the momentous occasion. Micho described it as his biggest achievement in management and many of the players joined fans in celebrations that went on well into the early hours. As well they might, with each squad member having been promised $10,000 by the government for qualifying.

Whether or not that money will be in the players’ pockets by now is a different story, however, as it emerged shortly after qualification that Micho was owed five months’ worth of salary. Outraged Ugandans campaigned on social media to #PayMicho and, under the weight of public pressure, the Federation’s hand was forced.

 

Gabon 2017

 

Uganda drew Mali, Egypt and Ghana in the 2017 Cup of Nations group stages – a near replication of their 2018 World Cup qualifying group which also contains the latter two. This was a tough draw against teams that have players with experience of playing football in Europe. But Uganda should not be underestimated. They are unbeaten in competitive matches with Ghana in the last three meetings and goalkeeper Denis Onyango has been in superb form for South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundown’s; his nomination alongside four other African based players for the African Player of the Year Award is recognition of that. A solid backline will be important but so too is a potent attacking threat and Massa’s goal to game ratio could make him a surprise package in the tournament.

The bookmakers don’t agree. Uganda, along with Guinea-Bissau and Zimbabwe, are the rank outsiders at 100-1 but you can be sure that one or two optimistic Cranes fans will be putting a few shillings on their team to defy the odds. Most will do the bulk of their supporting from Kampala. With return flights from Entebbe to Libreville starting at over £500, there won’t be many who have either the money or the time to witness the action first-hand.

The absence of large numbers of travelling fans has been an age old problem for the Cup of Nations, with matches not involving the hosts often sparsely populated and lacking a vibrant atmosphere. Instead, on 17 January, a nation will be inexorably drawn to events in Port Gentil. Ugandans across the country will crowd around TV screens and radio handsets to follow the opening match with Ghana hoping that the team can channel its ‘Mujje Tulumbe’ spirit and go one better than the last time they were at the finals, 39 years ago.

By Jamie Hitchen. Follow @jchitchen