They’re 83rd in the FIFA world rankings, below the likes of Cabo Verde and Benin, but the Ugandan national soccer team will be dreaming of its first-ever World Cup this spring as the qualification process gets underway.
The path to the 2022 finals in Qatar pits Uganda in a group against Mali, Kenya and Rwanda in the CAF area, a tough set of fixtures for a side that just missed out on the African Cup of Nations.
But the team’s Northern Irish coach Johnathan McKinstry will be feeling optimistic. His team won the CECAFA Cup just three months into his tenure and he has a promising crop of players at his disposal. Here’s a look at what lies ahead of ‘The Cranes’ as they start on the road to the Middle East.
2019 cup win
After failing to qualify for the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) this year, Ugandan fans might feel they have more chance of winning a lottery jackpot than reaching the World Cup Finals – but coach McKinstry has been putting together a resolute side that has already won a trophy and formed a firm defence along the way.
Although favourites for the CECAFA Cup in 2019, their march to the title was particularly impressive, winning all six of their games and keeping four clean sheets in the process. They continued this defensive stability into their AFCON campaign, too, against much better opposition.
Such stability is down to an experienced backline. Marshalled by veteran 35-year-old ‘keeper Denis Onyango, three of their first-choice back four have 160 caps between them, and McKinstry has bedded them down to provide a solid base for their youthful attacking talent.
The problem is that this attack has struggled for goals. Star man Farouk Miya – with 58 caps already at the age of 23 – is a constant threat, but his failure to score in both AFCON qualifying and at the CECAFA Cup is a concern. In fact, goals are in short supply across the team: only Allan Okello and Fahad Baho have more than one competitive goal in the last 18 months.
If Johnny McKinstry can ignite this attack and maintain the team’s defensive record, then we might see a strong World Cup campaign from them this year. But who stands in their way?
While Uganda were lucky to escape a clash with one of the continent’s true heavyweights, Mali will prove to be a tough test and their biggest obstacle to qualifying. Their squad has a string of players who ply their trade in European leagues, including Moussa Djenepo who currently plays in the English Premier League.
Mali qualified as champions of their AFCON qualifying group but, like Uganda, they have never made it to a World Cup. It could turn out to be a straight fight between the two to make the 2022 event their maiden tournament.
Kenya are 21 places below Uganda in the world rankings, but you wouldn’t know it from their form in 2021. They’re unbeaten in four games, a run that included a draw against the best AFCON team of all time, Egypt.
Victor Wanyama continues to be the team’s star player, despite missing their games this year, and Uganda will feel that if they can keep him quiet then they’ll have a good chance of victory. Other key Kenyan players include Teddy Akumu and top scorer Michael Olunga, but their lack of big-game experience may count against them in qualifying.
Rwanda shocked African football back in 2004 when they made it to their first-ever AFCON finals, but they’ve struggled since – something that’s reflected in their lowly ranking of 133rd in the world.
Their 2021 AFCON qualifying campaign wasn’t a disaster, though. They almost took a point off Cameroon in a narrow defeat, and their defence held firm to only concede two goals in six games. However, on the flip side, they only found the net once – and they don’t appear to have found any attacking talent to resolve this issue.
If Uganda are serious about qualifying, then six points from Rwanda is an absolute must. Johnny McKinstry will also be keen to get those wins under his belt, having coached the side in 2015-2016 in one step of his globetrotting career.
Navigating the group stage will be tough, but the third round will be tougher. This stage consists of ten group winners facing off in two-legged play-offs that will see Africa’s finest talent compete for five precious World Cup spots. It’s a reversal of the previous campaign, which saw play-off games to qualify for the group stages.
If Uganda make it to this point, they’ll surely be one of the outsiders. Sides such as Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria will be the favourites to go through, and The Cranes’ best chance will be to draw a lesser team, like themselves.
Still, these ties are often unpredictable, and Uganda would be hopeful of an upset to make it to Qatar.
Uganda’s key men
So, with a group finely poised for a promising campaign, which players can Uganda turn to in their push towards Qatar 2022?
As mentioned, Farouk Miya is their main threat, averaging a goal every three games since the age of 17, and he’s often the spur of the team’s attacking moves. They’ll also rely on the know-how of wingers Emmanuel Okwi and Luwagga Kizito, who hold over 100 caps between them and need to be on form if Uganda have hopes of getting past Mali.
However, a lot rests on the shoulders of young coach Johnny McKinstry. Still only 35, the Irishman has a wealth of African football experience, having been the coach of Sierra Leone and Rwanda in the past few years. He’ll need to be the oil that makes Uganda the sum of their parts, and his eye for smart tactics will be crucial in Group E.
A tough task
Uganda have a tough task ahead of them but they’ll see themselves as second favourites for the Group E crown after Mali. If they can keep their defence tight and see Miya hit his potential, they can just edge the group – then, with the lottery of the third round ahead, anything can happen…