“We believe we have the talent and energy to go deep into the tournament”. These were, in their explicit form, the words of Uganda Cranes head coach Jonathan McKinstry in the build-up to the delayed 2020 CHAN (African Nations Championship). The continental showpiece was exclusive to local-based players currently taking place in Cameroon.
He could be forgiven for being bullish after a decent display by his troops in the pre-CHAN tournament which served as a warm-up for the main event in the host country, Cameroon. In this competition, the Cranes went unbeaten, beating Zambia and Niger, and drawing with the hosts.
A goalless draw in the opener, which some with good reason say could have ended badly for the Cranes given the fact that Rwandans hit the woodwork twice. Called it a lucky result for Uganda, which made the next fixture against Togo a must-win for the team.
Despite Saidi Kyeyune’s blockbuster strike from thirty-five yards, which is surely a contender for the goal of the tournament. Uganda went down 2-1 to the West Africans, plunging us once more in the matchmatics that has so often plagued our relationship with the national football team.
Needing to beat defending champions Morocco to even stand a chance of progressing to the knockout stages, the Uganda Cranes instead put in a chaotic and disorganized performance to suffer a 5-2 drubbing at the hands of a team that was frankly yet to light up at this tournament, confirming the end of their CHAN journey.
Despite all the bravado and tough talk, the painful facts are that the Uganda Cranes are getting yet another early flight home from CHAN, as was the case in 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2018. A serious inquest into what is already a hugely embarrassing phenomenon will have to be done. The question on many fans’ and journalists’ lips is “Why does Uganda always breeze through qualification, only to struggle at the finals?”
Why does Uganda always breeze through qualification stages but struggles at the finals?
That question is reinforced by the fact that the Cranes blew away East African neighbours Burundi 6-0 on aggregate to qualify for this particular tournament, but little of that explosiveness came to the fore in Cameroon.
Some blame is being placed on McKinstry’s feet, with the Northern Irishman’s credentials being attacked by an increasing number of people. The major accusation he faces is that he lacks knowledge of the players, and therefore fails to deploy them effectively.
His critics like to point out his use of veteran Tony Mawejje, a traditional destroyer who has spent the bulk of his lengthy career protecting the backline and recycling possession in an advanced role.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, McKinstry made the bizarre decision to play URA FC schemer Shafik Kagimu, who thrives as an advanced playmaker at his club in a deeper central role.
Now, there’s the real possibility that the coach has his reasons for doing that. Perhaps he sought to exploit Kagimu’s playmaking in a deeper role to increase the team’s creativity. But playing Mawejje higher up the pitch simply cannot be explained.
It is against this background that irate fans are calling for Jonathan McKinstry‘s dismissal, with the inevitable calls for a local coach at least for the team of local-based players making a return.
In any case, the coach did try to shuffle things up in the ill-fated final group match, pairing URA teammates Kagimu and Kyeyune in midfield in the hope that they would transfer their good club form to the national team. The result was utter humiliation. How much of this can be blamed on McKinstry is the hot topic now.
The players must also face several questions about their dire performance at the 2020 CHAN. With the exception of KCCA FC goalkeeper Charles Lukwago who kept Uganda in the game against Togo, and actually managed to keep the score manageable against Morocco.
It’s difficult to point out any other player whose performance at this showpiece will be remembered with any fondness.
There are some like Lukwago’s club mate, Brian Aheebwa, who could point out the limited creativity and service he has received throughout the tournament and use it as an excuse for their anonymity.
Kyeyune, who ends the tournament as the Cranes’ top scorer with two goals, after he netted a freekick that turned out to be nothing more than a consolation can also be aggrieved as he only got to start one game and will point to his contributions every time he has stepped on the pitch as proof that the problem lies not with him, but rather the coach.
Uganda Cranes players should also take responsibility for the performance and not only blame the coach
For the other players though, there can be no hiding place. Wingers Pius Ojera and Vianney Sekajugo were largely ineffective, which partly explains why the strikers Aheebwa and SC Vipers Muhammad Shaban could only feast on crumbs.
If the attackers were invisible, the defenders were calamitous. Patrick Mbowa scored an unfortunate own goal against Togo before Mustafa Mujuzi’s handball led to the penalty from which Morocco equalized on the stroke of half time.
Aziz Kayondo’s costly slip saw Morocco take the lead through Soufiane Rahimi while veteran Denis Iguma had the roughest of games, being at fault for two of the goals the Cranes conceded against Morocco.
The major persisting query is what causes the sudden downturn in performance at the CHAN finals. Is our league just not good enough to produce players with the ability to compete with their continental peers or is the problem more psychological in that they suffer stage fright on the big stage?
Was the expulsion of longtime goalkeeping coach Fred Kajoba on the eve of the pre-CHAN tournament for breaching COVID-19 guidelines a huge distraction to the team?
All these questions will have to be answered, and it wouldn’t be a surprise were some heads to roll in the aftermath of yet another embarrassing early exit. Whose heads those will be is yet another question.
Author: Timothy Ainebyoona
Timothy is a dynamic analyst passionate about news and all things sport.