It is almost 20 years since the Uganda Kobs team of 1999 went down to South Africa for the All Africa Games and almost came away with the thing. Eventually they were stopped by the hosts South Africa in the semifinals, but not before charming the life out of neutrals and opponents alike.
And just as well. That team’s line-up read like a chapter out of a book about Uganda’s most gifted footballers. The most notable were Ibrahim Sekagya, Sulaiman Tenywa, Hakim Magumba, Andrew ‘Fimbo’ Mukasa, Hassan Mubiru, Willy Kyambadde, Aggrey Bigala, Bobic Odowa, Phillip Ssozi, Molly Byekwaso, Abubaker Tabula and Wilber Musika.
But there were also no lesser footballers like Andy Lule, Alex Isabirye, Hussein Ssali, Sam Kawalya, Robert Ssejjemba, Sam Jjuuko, Robert Kabanda, and David Lukwago. Almost all of them have now retired to a life of limited success at managing or relative obscurity. Ssozi even had a stint as a music deejay. But before this they enjoyed solid careers for club and country and almost all of them had stints in various professional leagues.
This group’s distinguished achiever is undoubtably Sekagya. He still coaches in the US and his interesting journey to Austria via Argentina has been well told before. Tabula also tried the Europe via Argentina route but without as much success.
Kawalya, Lule, Kyambadde, went to Vietnam and back. Kyambadde was so good, he did it twice.
Mubiru never even bothered to try it out. Rwanda was all it was for him, while the demons that held Andrew Mukasa hostage denied us the opportunity to see the full potential of the most gifted goal scorer Uganda has ever known
But nothing captures the failed promise of this cohort like the majority who headed to United States.
Remember this wasn’t a time when people went to US to further their football careers. But Andrew Jjobwe, Ssali, Musika, Ssejjemba, Mike Ssebalinga, and Bigala all left.
Only Ssebalinga found a reason to return. The rest stayed back in pursuit of many things completely unconnected to a football career.
We can’t judge their choices. To most of them after the early promise, Ugandan football quickly became a low ceiling beneath which they couldn’t find the economic security they hoped their talent would provide. We never built for them the football structures that could absorb and pay for their talent.
We never offered them the career guidance their talent deserved. We thought their talent alone would suffice in the navigation of the treacherous path of life. As a nation, we let them down.
Fast forward to 2018. As we celebrate Uganda Cubs and their triumph from Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier and progress to the 2019 Nations Cup, we must be mindful of the dangers of early success.
It isn’t an end in itself and our recent champions aren’t even half as gifted as the class of 1999 were. So what chances do they have without proper football structures and education?