Maher Mezahi examines the rise of Uganda ahead of Africa's footballing showpiece
Milutin 'Micho' Sredojovic bought every Bee Gees album as a kid growing up in the Yugoslavian village of Prokuplje, and the head coach of the Ugandan national team has often returned to the lyrics he learned as a child in his travails within African football.
"Even today," he told Ugandan television, "the work I am doing is staying alive."
The dominant narrative ahead of the Cup of Nations, though, is more one of revival than survival. Things have come full circle for The Cranes since their forty-year absence on the continental stage.
Expectations are not nearly as high for their first match against Ghana as it was in 1978 when Phillip Omondi’s golden generation finished runner-up to the very same opponent, but the country is nevertheless ready for its footballing rebirth.
Micho has a talented spine at his disposal to guide his team through Group D.
21 year-old Farouk Miya is an attacking prospect with unbridled potential who spearheads this team. The Anderlecht striker likes to make dragging runs, opening space for Tonny Mawejje – Micho’s midfield general that slots in behind him.
Goalkeeper Dennis Onyango is the metaphorical tailbone sitting at the base of the spin and holding down the fort in goal. The 29 year-old Kampala native, who plays his football for CAF Champions League champions, Mamelodi Sundowns, was recently voted 2016 African Player of the Year – an accolade awarded to those playing on the continent.
In addition to a talented core, another major reason for an upturn in form seems to have been rigorousness in preparation, especially in away matches. Ugandan journalist, Darren Kyeyune, cites this as the real difference between this team and those who failed to qualify for previous Cup of Nations.
"There was a lot of homework done for the away games due to advanced preparation."
Micho ratified that position. "Believe it or not, I have a pile of match notes as tall as me," he said with a smile after the Comoros match.
The Cranes showed resilience on the islands, as midfield general Mawejje crucified The Coelacanths with an early goal in the 22nd minute, and Onyango parried a penalty kick.
A supporter waits at the Stade de l'Amitie, ahead of the opening ceremony and group A soccer matches between Gabon and Guinea Bissau at the Africa Nations Cup in Libreville, Gabon, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
Perhaps more important than the coach or the talented spine that make up the Ugandan team, however, is the unbreakable spirit that holds this team together. Take the story of the team bus driver, Mohamed Kabali, for instance.
Kabali has acted as team bus driver for the last five years, after spending most of his life driving heavy vehicles. Kabali travels with the team across the continent and watches the matches in the stadium as a supporter.
When the Cranes lose a match, Kabali takes it upon himself to cheer the players up. He and the captain, Onyango, walk up and down the aisles teasing the players so that a quick recovery can be made.
Micho understands the importance of peripheral figures in his team and insisted on hiring Kabali. His psychological understanding of his players is what makes him a universally respected figure in Africa.
Foreign coaches on the continent are usually placed in one of two categories: satellite managers who only visit the country during preparation camps; and, invested managers in the mould of Claude LeRoy, who live in the country they coach.
Micho has lived in Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania adopting the same lifestyle as his superiors, players, and supporters.
Though Uganda are no one’s betting favourites, Micho understands his country’s belief and that is what he communicated to state television before the team’s departure to Gabon.
"Possible is everything and impossible is nothing, that is the philosophy we live by."