Monthly Archive for June, 2008

Dan: Match Report

Yesterday we watched Uganda play Angola in a combined World Cup and African Cup of Nations qualifier. The match was played at the Nelson Mandela National Stadium in Namboole, one of the eastern suburbs of Kampala, and it turned out to be quite a fixture.

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As well as Angola, there are two other teams in Uganda’s qualifying group: Benin and Niger. Each team must play each-other at home and away. At the end of these six games, the two teams with most points will move to the second stage of qualification, while the two with the least will be eliminated.

Before the match on Saturday, two of the six games had already been played – Uganda started their campaign with a 2-0 win at home to Niger last month, but the week after were soundly beaten 4-1 away to Benin. This left them needing a win at home against Angola to stand any real chance of qualification.

Angola will host the African Cup of Nations tournament in 2010, and, as hosts, qualify automatically. However, they must still qualify for the World Cup finals in South Africa, also being held in 2010. Having played at the last World Cup in Germany two years ago (two draws and an emotional 1-0 defeat to ex-colonial power Portugal), Angola are these days reckoned one of the best teams in Africa.

For the Ugandans (nickname: “the Cranes”), qualification for both tournaments hangs on their performance in these six games. Routinely described as “minnows” (at best) and “whipping boys” (at worst), few people we spoke to in Kampala before the match held out much hope for the Cranes… Uganda have never qualified for the World Cup, and since their heyday in the 1970s have not put out a team that has ever worried the elite of African football. (A notable victory at home to Nigeria a few years ago being the only exception.)

To avoid the anticipated crush, we arrived at the stadium two hours before kick-off. A huge circular edifice of crumbling concrete, the Crane’s nest resembles on an smaller scale the famous Maracanã of Rio de Jeneiro. In the pouring rain, Uganda’s national stadium was almost empty. We took our seats high up in the windy stands and began to wonder if we’d made a mistake in attending such a self-evidently one-sided contest.

An hour before kick-off, the official pre-match entertainment began. This consisted of a tall man, wearing nothing but a pair of tight shorts (and painted entirely in the yellow, green and black of Uganda) running around the pitch while playing a trumpet. He was soon joined by other painted compatriots, as well as a portly chap in a white admiral’s uniform of the sort beloved by the illustrious Field Marshall Dada himself.

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Eventually the teams emerged, and a half-empty stadium did its best to cheer them on. National anthems out the way, Uganda, playing in bright yellow kit, kicked off and the contest began.

In the early stages Uganda made all the running. Seven minutes into the first half, a clever through-ball from midfield gave Ugandan centre-forward Eugene Sepuya a great opportunity to give Uganda the lead. On a muddy, sodden pitch Sepuya took advantage of a moment of indecision from the last defender. Knocking the ball behind the back-pedalling Angolan, Sepuya motored through the mud-bath and bared down on goal.

From just outside the penalty box the Ugandan struck a sweet left-footed volley into the corner of the net. And after a moment of disbelief the crowd erupted.

It was a great start, and as Uganda continued to press everyone sensed that more goals were coming.

On the twentieth minute, Uganda were awarded a corner. The cross was quickly taken, delivered high into the penalty box and met by Ugandan defender Andrew Mwesigwa, whose thundering header eluded the outstretched arms of the goalkeeper and into the unguarded net.

2-0 to the Cranes. Pandemonium.

Uganda were on fire, finding their rhythm and knocking the ball around with real confidence. Angola looked stunned, unable to cope with the crisp passing and physical commitment of their opponents.

At one point Grania turned to me and asked with some apprehension if I could hear a siren. I listened. Yes, definitely a siren, of the sort Londoners heard during the Blitz. We wondered vaguely if we should be leaving the stadium, but as everyone else was ignoring the wailing we decided against it. Then a few minutes later we identified the cause of the problem: a man with a rusty wind-up siren was walking around the back of the stadium, deafening everyone, and as he circled the crowd cheered with renewed energy.

At half-time, we picked up some traditional Ugandan snacks – grasshoppers fried with onion and lots of salt. Quite delicious, and a welcome change from the suspiciously vague “meat pies” we endure at English football matches.

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The second half resumed to a thunderous roar from the home crowd. Immediately, Angola began for the first time to threaten the Ugandan goal, managing several long-distance shots that were only just dealt with by the nervous Ugandan goalie.

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But then, against the run of play, from nothing substitute Dan Wagaluka made it 3-0 with another incredible strike.

As we celebrated, the rain-clouds cleared and rays of brilliant evening sunshine began to fall across the pitch. Not even a last-gasp goal to the Angolans could spoil the party. As the referee blew the final whistle, joyful Ugandans danced in the aisles, and a long conga line grew around the stadium.

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Leaving the stadium in high spirits, we jumped on a boda-boda and headed home. On our way back into town, crowds of people lined the busy road, cheering at the sight of every car, boda and bus displaying a Uganda flag. Horn blazing, and waving our flags high, we weaved our way through the insane traffic with big smiles on our faces.

A fantastic day.

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