from HASSAN ONYANGO in Kampala, Uganda
KAMPALA – UGANDA coach Milutin Sredojevic was only aged ten and none of the players in his squad had yet been born when Uganda reached the zenith of international football.
It took controversy to deny them of glory.
The Cranes, as the humble East African side is ever affectionately known, stole the hearts of many in the continent with a breathtaking run in the Africa Cup of Nations in 1978, culminating in a second-place finish.
A team consisting mainly of civil servants held its own against opponents featuring established professionals, among them Congo, Morocco and Nigeria before setting up a date in the final against hosts Ghana.
Under dubious circumstances, as the Ugandans suffered a mystery illness ahead of the final, and in front of a vociferous crowd of 40 000 at the Accra Sports Stadium, the West Africans secured a 2-0 victory to land a third title and bring an end to Uganda’s fairytale run.
Over 39 years later, the Cranes are making a return to Africa’s prime football tournament with the well-travelled Sredojevic leading a team high on confidence, ironically beginning with an encounter against Ghana at the Stade de Port Gentil on Tuesday.
The Serbian is reveling in the underdogs’ tag ahead of the eagerly-anticipated match and dismisses the notion of revenge.
Egypt and Mali are the two other Group D contenders.
“My team has no experience playing at this stage,” says the loveable coach who has been at the helm since 2013.
“However we know the expectations of the entire country when Uganda’s Cranes play against the giants. It will not be different on Tuesday,” says “Micho.”
He downplays any quest for revenge after the loss in the decider in 1978. “History of the matches played between Uganda and Ghana will not be part of Tueday’s outing.”
In the most recent encounter, in October, Uganda held the Black Stars to a goalless draw in Tamale, Ghana in a Group E World Cup 2018 Russia qualifier.
“We had good results against Ghana recently. Millions of people are waiting for us with happiness and this is our motivation,” says captain Geofrey Massa.
Indeed, Uganda’s football-mad population of about 40 million will be eager for revenge for the 1978 heartbreak.
The hopes are placed on a team that like the “Class of 1978” will not be intimidated.
“We are not here as tourists, we came here for business. We are here on
purpose and we will start it against Ghana,” the captain says assuredly.