Uganda’s journey back to the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) took 39 years. It is a tale of decline, instability and near-misses before the Cranes finally qualified for the 2017 tournament with a team full of youthful promise. Now, after two weeks and two defeats in Gabon, they have only pride to play for ahead of their return to Kampala.
A late Egyptian goal in Port-Gentil on Saturday night was all the more cruel for being undeserved. Uganda seemed to had done enough in the second-half to secure a goalless draw. That would have given them a fighting chance to advance to the quarter-finals.
In fact, even a win would not have flattered them. For a 15-minute spell in the second-half, the Cranes pressed convincingly for a goal, with 19-year-old Farouk Miya – the great hope of Ugandan football – cutting swathes down the right-hand side.
Instead, they became the first team to be effectively eliminated from Afcon. A 1-0 loss to Ghana in their Group D opener, combined with this latest 1-0 reverse, leaves them pointless, goalless and stranded at the bottom of Group D.
Their Serbian coach, Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic, said that Egypt’s experience had prevailed. “It was one moment which decided it,” Micho said of Abdallah Said’s 88th minute goal. “Our best was not enough. We have been dragged and trapped in a situation where you think you can get more than a draw. We came here for three cup finals. We lost the first cup final to Ghana [with one penalty], here we lost a cup final in a counterattacking situation. It’s an expensive lesson to learn. Egypt are a a team with huge experience who waited for their moment.
“This level of competition demands total concentration on the things which decide the games. We didn’t deserve to lose. When you are at Afcon a lot, you get used to keeping concentration like that […] we have come after 39 years, we are learning the lessons in the hardest way.”
When the legendary Phillip Omondi inspired the Cranes to the final in 1978, few would have imagined the struggles that would follow. More than 70% of Ugandans are under the age of 30 and have no memory of the Cranes competing at the highest level.
But Uganda have been flying the flag of East African football in recent years by dominating regional competitions. In 2011, they only needed a win at home to Kenya to qualify for the following year’s Afcon tournament. But the team got stage-fright at a packed Namboole stadium. A penalty shoot-out defeat to Zambia meant they missed out on Afcon in 2013 and qualification for the 2015 edition was similarly a last-hurdle loss to Guinea, a fraught match played in Morocco during the Ebola crisis.
Group D was always going to be the hardest of challenges and Egypt, in their first Afcon in seven years, were marshalled by former Valencia manager Hector Cuper, a master of the defensive arts.
The team-sheets emphasised the gulf – on paper at least. Uganda’s players earn their wage from, among other places, Throttur Reykjavik in Iceland, Than Quang Ninh in Vietnam and Al Ahed in Lebanon. Egypt, meanwhile, boast English Premier League quality in Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny and Stoke’s Ramadan Sobhi, alongside a cluster of regulars from Cairo giants Al Ahly.
Egypt started the brightest, with their best work unsurprisingly channelled through Mohamed Salah. The Roma forward plays as a No. 10 for his country – linking, feinting and flicking with both feet to draw the team together. His pace in behind also caused Uganda problems down the Cranes’ left-side.
One moment in the 21st minute typified his display, controlling a high ball in an instant before turning the defence and shooting just wide. In the 23rd minute, Salah raced clear again but his lofted cross evaded the onrushing support. Just before half-time, Uganda goalkeeper Denis Onyango did well to advance outside his own area to head the ball away as Salah threatened through the centre.
It was not all one-way. Uganda sensed opportunities down their left and started to spread the play. Miya began out wide on the right and struck a shot across Essam Elhadary after a neat run. After the break it was Miya’s cross which was turned in by Joseph Benson Ochaya but it was correctly ruled out for offside. He did it again on the hour, storming down the right before forcing 44-year-old Egypt keeper to flap at a fine backpost cross.
There was a sense that Uganda were the likeliest to score. But with the clock running down, Micho brought Miya off to protect the point.
Two minutes from full-time, Egypt took their chance. Again it was Salah who floated into the middle, turned on the edge of the box and laid off a perfect pass to the onrushing Said who struck a low, hard shot across Onyango into the net.