While the competition at the Confederation of African Football (Caf) awards ceremony last Thursday was stiff, The Cranes and goalkeeper Denis Onyango emerged in glory, putting them further in the spotlight at the forthcoming Africa Cup of Nations, writes JOHN VIANNEY NSIMBE.
After the Uganda Cranes were voted national football team of the year 2016, and Denis Onyango the best player based in Africa, there is a good feeling back home.
It is not usual that such awards normally make their way to Uganda, and clearly it is something that has made many proud. Fufa vice-president Dennis Mbidde said it was such a momentous occasion to hear Cranes being read out as the best national team, as much as Onyango’s individual award, on top of being selected in the continent’s best eleven.
Not only was it a novelty, but Mbidde said, it showed how much work has been put in by Ugandans, to earn this recognition. However, even as the Fufa CEO, Edgar Watson, received a grand welcome back from Nigeria (where the awards night was held) on Saturday at Entebbe airport, carrying The Cranes award, there is no doubt it will bring extra attention to the team in Gabon.
Former Cranes defender Tom Lwanga, who played in the 1978 Afcon final against Ghana told The Observer he was really delighted about this award, especially when you consider how uniting that national team has been over the years.
Lwanga feels that this is a proud moment for all Ugandans and it is all because of the things that Cranes has done. But on the other hand, Lwanga hopes that it does not turn out to be a poisoned chalice for the team. In Lwanga’s thinking, maybe the award could have been given to the team after or way before the Afcon was due, as is the case now.
He said: “You see, for Uganda and Onyango to win these awards at this time comes with added focus and attention on them. Everyone now expects the best team and player in Africa to stand out and put up a show at the Afcon.”
Lwanga added that the team has now got to double their efforts so that they are able to defend the honours they have got. Right now, Lwanga noted, it is difficult for Cranes coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic to approach games with less burden of expectation. Now the ante is up: The best in Africa must show it on the grand stage.
It will be an abomination if Cranes fail to emerge from group ‘D’ at the least. However, Mbidde said he is not worried about that.
“I believe that the awards we got are going to affect the team in a positive way, and give them the motivation to play good football and get to the quarter-finals. We are good enough to make it that far, especially when you consider that Cranes is not a team that concedes a lot.”
But at the same time Cranes does not score a lot, although on Friday, they beat Slovenia 1-0 in a closed-door friendly game, courtesy of a Muhammad Shaban strike. However, it also has to be considered that since Cranes’ last qualification to this stage was in 1978, they do not boast of tournament experience and pedigree.
Ordinarily, The Cranes are unlikely to send fear into many opponents like the known African giants, Egypt, Senegal, Ivory Coast or Algeria will. But since they beat all of them to the award of 2016’s best, they will pay more attention to the possible threat Cranes pauses, which had them recognized for their 2016 feats.
And those feats have everything to do with Onyango, and the successes he has also enjoyed at this club in South Africa, Mamelodi Sundowns. Having guided Uganda to its first appearance in the Afcon in nearly 40 years, being the first Ugandan to lift the Caf Champions League, the debate has clearly shifted as far as Onyango is concerned.
While it is unlikely for anyone to suggest that this is the best Cranes team ever in the history of the game, following this earned accolade, many are going to argue that Onyango is way up there amongst the top Ugandan footballers.
Lwanga said as much, recently. But he still insisted that Onyango could not be the best despite winning a top African award, which no other Ugandan ever won.
However, what this all has come down to, as even Lwanga points out, is that Onyango has built himself a legacy, that will be difficult to match. It is a landmark achievement.
Notably, Micho also came close, as he was earlier shortlisted among the best coaches of 2016. While his close friend from Mamelodi Sundowns Pitso Mosimane won the ultimate prize, the fact that Cranes was picked as the best national team, edging out even DR Congo, which won the Chan tournament in January 2016, should be enough to make Micho feel fulfilled, as that was a first, and it happened when he was in charge.