Headline: Scottish coach dreams of setting Uganda on the soccer map
Location: Kampala, Uganda
Article Synopsis: Uganda’s football lack; the national team fails to qualify for the African Nations Cup. A couple of foreign coaches have trained the Cranes and Bobby Williamson is among them. A look into why the national team has failed to make it to the African Nations Cup.
Opening Paragraph: Ask someone to describe a typical Ugandan national football coach and it is unlikely they would come up with a 48-year-old, bald, bespectacled Glaswegian. Put in another way, it is unlikely they would come up with Bobby Williamson.
Keywords: Uganda national team, Bobby Williamson, African Nations Cup, foreign Cranes coaches, Scottish coach, Federation of Uganda Football Association
Related media: none
Text: Ask someone to describe a typical Ugandan national football coach and it is unlikely they’d come up with a 48-year-old, bald, bespectacled Glaswegian. Put another way, it is unlikely they would come up with Bobby Williamson. It is a tricky question, of course. There is no such thing as a typical Ugandan coach. Williamson follows in a long line of foreign coaches who have tried to reverse the team’s fortunes in recent times.
His predecessors include the likes of Burkad Pape of Germany, Egyptian Mohamud Abbas, Predo Pasculii of Argentina – he only lasted one month in the late 1990s – Harrison Okagbue of Nigeria and Csaba Laszlo, a German-born Hungarian. “The Cranes”, indeed, have had a dozen foreign coaches in the last 30 years. Ugandan coaches, it seems, are widely despised in their own country. Whenever a local coach has been proposed, accusations have inevitably followed that he would favour players from one club team or another.
As James Bakama, a Ugandan football pundit explains: “The coaches from within Uganda tend to be biased on team selection at a national level. Foreign coaches stand a better chance of being appointed because they select the team based on merit.”
Not that the policy has been notably successful, even if local fans seem happier with a foreign coach at their head. Uganda, a land-locked country in East Africa with a population of around 30 million, has not qualified for the African Cup of Nations since the 1970s. The team’s greatest achievement – a place in the final of Africa’s showpiece event, contested every two years – came in 1978 before they lost to Ghana.
The team will not be taking part in the 2010 World Cup, and has also failed to reach next year’s African Cup of Nations. Williamson is wearing a tracksuit, trainers and has a white towel hanging around his neck. He’s just been to the gym, he explains, as he sits down at a table in the restaurant of the prestigious Kabira Country Club, on the outskirts of Kampala city.
A former striker who played in both Scotland and England, including a spell with Glasgow Rangers, he cut his teeth in management with Kilmarnock and Hibernian in the Scottish Premier League before taking over Plymouth Argyle. It is a respectable rather than a brilliant career resume, and one that has not convinced everyone in Uganda, particularly those who had been hoping that a big-name manager might be lured into taking over the national team. Williamson, however, has at least managed to pass his first test, by surviving in the job for more than a year. He was appointed by the Federation of Uganda Football Association (FUFA) on 19 August, 2008, after Laszlo resigned to join Scottish Premier League side Hearts.
Within days of getting the job, however, Williamson was given an ultimatum – win your first two games against Niger and Benin, thus ensuring qualification to the African Cup of Nations, or face the sack. The team lost 3-1 in Niger but then won 2-1 at home against Benin and FUFA saw enough promise to relent and keep Williamson on.
The Scot says his first priority is to make the players more professional.“The Uganda Cranes, and most football clubs in Uganda, tend to play a diamond formation. I would rather they play the 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 formation, which is easier to play,” he says. “I am not trying to change Uganda’s football style. I want the Cranes to play professional football. I want the Cranes to compete with top teams in Africa.” Recent results suggest that may not be a forlorn hope.
At the Council for East and Central Africa Football Association (CECAFA) Cup at the start of 2009, Uganda, trialing Williamson’s new formation, saw off all comers, including Burundi 5-0 in the semi-finals and Kenya 1-0 in the final, to lift the trophy for the 10th time. “I want Uganda to qualify for a major international tournament. CECAFA gave me great hope, with 16 goals scored against only one conceded,” says Williamson.
In 11 games, indeed, Williamson’s Cranes has scored 24 goals against eight conceded. Under Laszlo, the team scored 37 goals scored in 26 games. Not everyone is convinced, however, and their arguments are fueled by an extraordinary statistic – the Cranes have not won a single away game in seven years.
Sports journalist James Lwanga says: “The Uganda Cranes are over-hyped. They are not a formidable team. One player is a match-winner – the captain, Ibrahim Ssekajja. But he can’t play everywhere on the field. “The coaches aren’t doing much to help them win home and away.”
It’s an issue which Williamson readily acknowledges. He concedes he has not had enough time to interact with the foreign-based players in the national side. “I am used to the players that play in the local clubs here, since I meet them more often,” he says. “I keep in touch with the players that are abroad by email.
“Some players in the international leagues travel long hours to come back to play. Jet lag, as well as the lack of time to train with the players in the local league, doesn’t contribute to spirited performances.” He cannot fault his players’ commitment, however. “They are hard working and grateful for what little they have. The players pray before and after every training session and that has been something I have found humbling.”
Williamson himself has also impressed the fans by his commitment to the cause. Michael Matovu, an ardent Uganda fan from Kampala, has been won over by Williamson’s regular attendances at club matches. “I think Bobby is a better coach than his predecessor because he attends football matches in the local league,” says Matovu. “That gives him an idea on how the players perform and this helps him in selecting players when it comes to the national team.”
Tom Lwanga, an ex- Uganda Cranes player and Confederation of African Football (CAF) Instructor, argues that Uganda’s recent history has not helped the side. “The pinnacle of football in Uganda was in 1978, under local coach Peter Okee. But after that there was war and many players were displaced. The players of the new team never had models to look up to.” There is also a perception that the sport is not regarded as important by the country’s current leaders.
President Idi Amin, who ran the country from 1971-79, was a huge sports fan, and a lover of football in particular. The team consequently was never short of financial backing. Current President H.E Yoweri Museveni, however, has gone on record to say that sports are the preserve of developed societies, while former Local Government Minister the Hon. Bidandi Ssali once declared that sports were not a priority on the government’s list.
Another supporter, Jacobs Odong, argues there are other influences outside Williamson’s control. “The Uganda Cranes problem is beyond the coaches. Bobby can be a good coach but there is more to this than meets the eye,” he says. “The bureaucracy in the Ugandan football administration should not influence team selection. “There are officials who have interests in fielding their own players on the national team.”
Williamson, however, is not downhearted, even if he and his players, as well as all Uganda fans, will have to watch next year’s African Nations’ Cup in Angola from the sidelines, while waiting for the next edition of the tournament in 2012. He has embraced his new life in Kampala enthusiastically, despite being parted for long periods from his family back in Scotland. His wife and son, he explains, both have jobs they love.
Sure, there are problems. It takes him two hours, for instance, to drive through hair-raising traffic from his Kampala hotel to training sessions. But the fact that “there doesn’t seem to be any highway code and people pull out in front of you all the time” has, he says, “been brilliant for me because I’m an erratic driver at the best of times.”
The lack of top-class training facilities is another problem which many feel has held the team back. It is not an issue Williamson himself faces, having been supplied by FUFA with membership of the five-star Kabira Country Club gym and swimming pool during his tenure. How he must wish that his players could enjoy the same official support.