Thursday 21 January 2016, 04:32

Cranes climb to record height

The last time Ugandan football fans took an active interest in the biannual CAF Africa Cup of Nations was in 1978, when Jimmy Kirunda inspired the Cranes to a sensational second-place finish in Ghana. It was the third consecutive appearance at the finals, with the KCC defender Kirunda captaining the side on all three occasions.

Since then Ugandans have had to sit idly on the sidelines as the best African teams assemble every second year to crown the king of African football. But now there are signs that things could be changing – in a good way. For one, the East African country has reached its highest-ever position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, having moved one place from December to be ranked the 62nd strongest team in the world. A year ago, they were ranked 15 places lower.

But it was not only the continuous and steady improvement in the ranking that gives fans hope, as results over the last six months have been extremely favorable. It started in June, when the Cranes secured a 2-0 victory at home against Botswana in their first qualifying match for the 2017 AFCON, which will be held in Gabon. A 1-0 victory in the Comoros in September saw them seize the top of Group D by three points.

In November, they turned their attention to the global stage as they competed in the second round of CAF qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. They again won both matches – beating the 2006 World Cup finalists Togo 1-0 in Lome, before adding a convincing 3-0 win at home. The 4-0 aggregate victory saw Uganda emerge as the only East African country to advance to the group stages.

But if all of that was not enough good news for Uganda fans, more was to follow as the Cranes emerged victorious from the finals of the 2015 regional CECAFA Cup in Ethiopia, beating Rwanda 1-0 in the final to secure their 14th title.

Foundations of success Uganda's turn-around began when officials hired former Rwanda coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic in 2013. The Serbian had previously achieved considerable success with Ugandan club SC Villa, guiding them to back-to-back titles between 2001 and 2004. The former striker, who has coached in a number of other African countries including South Africa and Ethiopia, has taken his time to find a winning combination. He called up some 150 players to the national team during his time in charge. He has also brought back veteran striker Geoffrey Sserunkuma, who last played for the national team several years ago.

Micho is confident that he has now found a unit that can take the team to Gabon, or even all the way to their first World Cup appearance. "I believe I have a strong team enough to compete with the other nations. Good preparations will be a deciding factor,” he said.

Two of the most influential players in the side are Denis Onyango and Farouk Miya. Onyango captains the side and the 30-year-old goalkeeper led by example in the AFCON and World Cup qualifiers, keeping a clean sheet in all four matches and saving decisive penalties, both in the 1-0 victory in the Comoros and in Togo in the World Cup qualifier as the Cranes again won 1-0.

Onyango has spent several successful seasons in South Africa, playing for Supersport and Mamelodi Sundowns, with both clubs winning the Premier League whilst the Ugandan international was playing for them. Last month he helped Sundowns win the Telkom Cup, beating South African giants Kaizer Chiefs 3-1 in the final, and again Onyango proved to be the match-winner as he saved two second-half penalties to give his side victory.

What Onyango is at the back for the Cranes, Miya is upfront. The 18-year-old, who plays his club football for Vipers, has enjoyed a breakthrough season, as he proved clinical in front of goal. Although one of the youngest players in the squad, Miya was given the captain's armband for the CECAFA tournament and scored three goals for the side. Earlier, he also managed to find the net three times in the two matches against Togo in the World Cup qualifiers.