Recently a colleague asked what was to be credited for Uganda’s return to the Women Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) after 22 years.
The answer lies not only in beating Ethiopia in the penultimate qualifying round and beating belligerent Kenya in the final qualifiers.
Uganda had to work consciously for seven years to put itself in such a situation.
In 2013 Uganda took part in qualifying for the U-20 Women’s World Cup. Before that, after Wafcon 2000, Uganda hardly competed and a generation of talent disappeared.
The 2013 squad included current national team stars; Goalkeeper and captain Ruth Aturo, midfielders Tracy Jones Akiror and Hasifah Nassuna, and forwards Sandra Nabweteme, Viola Nambi and Ritah Kivumbi.
They were seen as the future, although their experience was limited to a few grassroots and school football tournaments.
Uganda defeated South Sudan 13-0 on aggregate, earned a bye against Egypt and then dropped out of the tournament before their final clash with Ghana because Fufa believed they were not ready to compete at the time.
Fufa instead chose to form the Fufa Women Elite League (FWEL) in 2015 to offer girls more competition and better coaching, and later the Fufa Women Super League (FWSL) to start the path to professional women’s soccer.
Clubs select their talent from schools and some schools have also formed clubs to strengthen their school teams. It’s a symbiotic relationship that has increased the quality and quantity of players more than tenfold.
The last iteration of the FWSL showed the progress made since 2015 as it was so competitive it was decided by the last shot of the ball between eventual champions She Corporate and their pursuers Kampala Queens. Only goal difference separated them.
Phionah Nabbumba was named the tournament’s most valuable player (MVP), but Uganda Christian University (UCU) forward Hasifah Nassuna has also managed to hit 100 league goals in seven seasons. Defenders Margaret Namirimu and Lukia Namubiru also made notable efforts for Corporate and KQ, respectively.
All 10 FWSL clubs except She Maroons had had a player called up to the national team, although some players had made extra efforts as top performers in previous lineups and youth teams to back their calls for call-ups.
But in fact, all 26 players – including the nine who play abroad – in the Crested Cranes Wafcon roster can trace their success to the foundations laid in the local leagues.
Nambi and Kivumbi were the first to reportedly go to Sweden for professional football, having played for UCU in 2015, and it’s been a relatively mad blow to Ugandan talent abroad ever since. They were followed in 2016 by Nabweteme, who went to Southwestern Oklahoma State University (Swosu) on a football scholarship.
She was followed there by Joan Nakirya and Sandra Nantubwe, both of whom were barely called up for the national team. The scholarships continued in 2018 when Yudaya Nakayenze went to Seminole College in Florida and later to Lindsey Wilson University in Kentucky, where she was followed by Tracy Jones Akiror the next year.
In between, Fazila Ikwaput and Riticia Nabbosa had professional stints in India at Gokulam Kerala and the former also went to Kazakhstan, where she represented BIIK Kazygurt in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
The then little-known Joan Nabirye also joined Vihiga Queens in Kenya in 2020. Since then, she has been joined by a number of Ugandan players who have not followed through on their call to the national team.
Nabirye, who received her first steps in football at Asubo-Gafford in the FWEL, made her name in the Cecafa Caf Women’s Champions League qualifiers in Nairobi last August and in the finals of the competition in Morocco last November.
The pros on the continent are also igniting like wildfire, with Sheebah Zalwango being just one of the players plying the trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It’s not even clear how she got there, but that’s what brought the former Asubo-Gafford midfielder to the national team.
Europe is now back as an option as Nabweteme has been in Iceland and hopes to move to Spain after Wafcon.
Aturo, Vanessa Edith Karungi, Juliet Nalukenge and Fauzia Najjemba are based in Finland, Denmark, Cyprus and Kazakhstan respectively.
Najjemba and Nalukenge, who are not in Morocco, were purely rewarded for their exploits for the youth national teams.
The U-17 Teen Cranes and U-20 Queen Cranes World Cup qualifying campaigns and regional tournaments have helped some of the young players gain experience. Najjemba leads a string of young players who Crested Cranes coach George Lutalo trusts as good enough despite not yet celebrating their 20th birthday. These include; Lillian Mutuuzo, Zainah Nandede, Margaret Kunihira, Shamirah Nalugya, Asia Nakibuuka, Sumaya Komuntale – whose club Tooro Queens have been relegated from the FWSL – and Rines SS forward Joanita Ainembabazi, who did not represent the youth teams but is 18 years old.
Aisha Nantongo, who only celebrated her 20th birthday in April, belongs to this group. In many ways, the Crested Cranes’ success is due to Fufa getting many things right. In the end it just pays off.
Kampala Queens: Margaret Kunihira, Lillian Mutuuzo, Zainah Nandede, Shamirah Nalugya, Lukia Namubiru
*Fauzia Najjemba, who works at BIIK Shymkent in Kazakhstan, will also be there
Pigeon lady: Fazila Ikwaput, Riticia Nabbosa
They corporate: Margaret Namirimu, Phionah Nabbumba
*Vanessa Edith Karungi, who lives in Denmark, is associated
Kawempe Muslim: Asia Nakibuuka, Aisha Nantongo
*Tracy Jones Akiror, now at Ann Arbor, and Sandra Nabweteme without affiliation are employees
UCU Lady Cardinals: Hasifah Nassuna
*Austria-based Viola Nambi, Sweden-based Ritah Kivumbi, US-based Yudaya Nakayenze and Finland-based Ruth Aturo are associated
Rines SS: Joanita Ainembabazi
Uganda Martys HS: Daisy Nakaziro
Tooro Queens: Sumaya Komuntale
*DRC-based Sheebah Zalwango and Kenya-based Joan Nabirye have their roots in Asubo-Gafford