As the lowest seeded team in the group, few expected the east Africans to challenge for a place at the finals, and Uganda coach Milutin Sredojevic admits that having four points from their opening two matches is not something that people would have expected. “It is like a flyweight fighting in the super-heavyweight division and the lighter boxer winning the bout. However, we have not yet won anything as there are still four matches to go. But we are putting in a good challenge and we are very happy about that.”
The Serbian has coached in Africa for well over ten years and has had stints with the Rwandan national team as well as Ugandan glamour club SC Villa, which he took to two league titles, a Ugandan Cup and the prestigious regional Cecafa Club Championship. So far with Uganda, Sredojevic has managed to find the right mix between experienced players such as goalkeeper Dennis Onyango, defenders Andrew Mwesigwa and Godfrey Walusimbi, and forward Geofrey Massa, as well as a host of inexperienced, yet very promising youngsters.
Toe to toe with the Black Stars
Massa, who plays his club football in the South African Premier League with the University of Pretoria, believes the results are coming Uganda's way because the players are entering the field with a new-found sense of unity and purpose. The striker, who has been part of the national team set-up for over ten years, also says the crop of talented young players who are willing to learn. “They give 100 per cent when they are on the field. And we are playing as a team and that is why we are getting the results.”
Massa is the joint-top scorer in the qualifying competition with four goals, and he scored twice in the teams' last match against Guinea. “We are not individual players playing a game of football, we are a group of players who play together as a unit.”
While most of the Black Stars players play for European clubs in major leagues, Massa's team-mates ply their trade for the likes of Sporting Covilha, Victoria University, Binh Duong or Vipers. For Massa, there is little difference between the players in the two national teams though. “We have some great players in Uganda, it is just that often they do not get the same opportunities. Furthermore, a match is not played between individuals, it is played between teams, and we have a strong team.”
Looking to change history
It is a view shared by Sentamu, who has just helped his Congo DR club Vita Club into the final of the CAF Champions League. He scored two important goals for Vita en route to the final: the only goal of the game in Egypt against Zamalek to take his team through to the round of the last four and also in Vita's stunning 2-1 semi-final win in Tunisia against SC Sfaxien. “I think the success that the national team, and even me helping Vita into the Champions League final, will show people that we have good footballers and given the chance, we can compete with the best,” he explained.
The Cranes came agonizingly close to qualifying for the 2013 continental finals in South Africa after Massa's goal gave them a 1-0 victory against the defending champions Zambia in their final qualifying match. Having lost the away leg by the same score, the game had to be decided on penalties, which the Chipolopolo won 9-8.
The East African team has long been a force to be reckoned with at home in the Mandela Stadium in Kampala and have been unbeaten in Nations Cup and FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers in Uganda since March 2004, when South Africa won 1-0. Since then, the Cranes have played 20 matches at home and drawn just three with an astonishing goal difference of 39-6.
Their away form has been less impressive and has, time and again, seen their hopes quashed. Massa says that this time around there should be no such disappointment. “Our fans have been waiting too long for us to qualify for the finals, and it will be great for the whole country if we are amongst the finalists in Morocco next year.”