Thirty-four years ago, Uganda was unraveling. Idi Amin, the despot who came into power in 1971 and whose regime coordinated the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Acholi and Langi tribespeople, remained in power, but his hold on the country was slipping.
In October 1978, Amin’s forces crossed into Tanzania, attacking Ugandan exiles across the border. The act led to a war of liberation and subsequent power struggle that culminated with General Yoweri Museveni’s election as president in 1986 after seven years of civil war.
Around the same time Ugandan forces were reaching into Tanzania, the country had a rare reason to rejoice. 1978 marked the last time Uganda’s national soccer team, the Cranes, competed in the Africa Cup of Nations, the soccer tournament to determine continental supremacy on the pitch. Despite the fact that Uganda had been under a tyrant’s rule and was facing years of strife, the sport had given its citizens at least temporary reason for pride.
Such moments are rare when it comes to Ugandan sport. The country has never qualified for the World Cup. Since its first foray into Olympic competition in 1956, it has collected only six medals, including one gold, but nothing since 1996. It is a meager history, one that is not lost on Ugandans.
Last Saturday, however, Ugandans once again had reason for hope: the Cranes stood at the threshold of qualification for the Cup of Nations.
The battle against Kenya was billed as the most important match since the country gained independence. Pitting the Cranes against their border nemesis, it was the final qualifier before next year’s tournament, and the match would be at Namboole Stadium in Kampala where Uganda had not lost during qualifying. A win against Kenya would punch the Cranes’ ticket to the Cup of Nations.
There has always been something mystical about attending sporting events. I remember my first experiences going to Seattle Mariners games in the Kingdome when I was about five years old. The thing that sticks out about those first few experiences is the excitement surrounding and inside the stadium.
I remember the Tuba Man outside the stadium and the hot dog and peanut vendors n the streets. I remember the rich voice of the guy that sold programs: “Programs! Get your Mariner programs, here! They’re going two at a time.”
I remember the long walk up the switchbacking cement ramps and finally entering the stadium.
And I remember the moment when you came out of the tunnel from the concourse and finally saw the inside of the stadium. The perfect white of the Mariners’ uniforms. The crisp symmetry of the batter’s box. The banners of team logos vivid like baseball cards brought to life.
I have been to hundreds of sporting events since my first trip to the Kingdome, and I always look forward to the moment when I first set eyes on the stadium, see the field for the first time, and feel the electricity in the building.
I’ve been to the loudest stadiums in the NFL and seen unbeaten teams square off in midseason. I’ve attended baseball playoff games in October. I’ve been to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day in a stadium that sat 94,000. I saw Michael Jordan play in the NBA Finals.
Nothing comes close to last Saturday.
Tickets for the match did not go on sale until the week before, and they were not easy to come by. Sold at gas stations and supermarkets, each retailer received a daily quota of tickets, and when they were gone, that was it. Fortunately, a Ugandan friend was able to secure a ticket for me early in the week.
At 20,000 Ugandan shillings (about seven dollars), the tickets were affordable to everyone and they were getting scooped up rather quickly. On my way to work Wednesday, I saw a crowd of about 100 men milling around the parking lot of a gas station at 8:30 a.m. My driver Daniel explained they were there hoping tickets would be available.
By Thursday, the match was sold out, and tickets were scarce. On the streets, young men walked between cars in traffic selling Uganda jerseys and flags. Bodaboda drivers used vuvuzelas as horns. Ugandan flags flew from radio antennas of SUVs.
During a meeting with the commissioner of the Gender and Labor and Social Development Ministry on Thursday, the commissioner’s secretary interrupted us to tell him about a conference he’d been invited to on October 12. He genuinely could not place the day.
“It is next week,” she said. ”Wednesday.”
“I am sorry. All I know right now is October 8. Everything is Cranes.” That about summed it up.
It may be difficult for an American to understand the energy and excitement in Kampala preceding the match. Soccer is the national sport here; really, it’s the only sport. Imagine football, baseball, and basketball rolled into one. Now imagine that everyone in the country was fanatical about it. Then imagine that the outcome of a match affected the nation’s identity.
In the days leading up to the match, high-ranking members of parliament visited the team’s practices. The Friday before, President Museveni stopped by.
A column in the paper said the match was an opportunity to “reawaken government, stir the corporate world, [and] enhance Uganda’s global status as a football nation.”
In many ways, the match against Kenya was about the legitimacy of a nation desperately yearning for recognition.
Leading up to the match, everyone I’d spoken with told me I needed to show up early. The match was scheduled to start at five o’clock, and all week long I’d heard that I needed to be at the stadium at least two hours before kickoff. As the week went on, that estimate changed. The day before the match, I spoke to Justice K, who said he had secured a ticket. He said he would leave for the stadium, a 30-minute drive, at midday.
Now I’ve arrived to sporting events five or six hours before they began, but that was always to have a few beers in the parking lot. For the Cranes match, people were saying that because all tickets were general admission, in order to get a seat, you needed to be in the stadium three or four hours ahead of kickoff. In America, you typically can’t get into most sporting events until two hours before it is scheduled to begin.
I anticipated madness. Come 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, my neighborhood cued up the insanity.
I awoke to the sounds of vuvuzelas and chanting, which for me was kind of like waking up to the sound of Santa stuffing my stocking on Christmas morning.
“We go, we go! Uganda Cranes, we go! We go, we go! Uganda Cranes, we go!” It was eight and a half hours before kickoff.
On the bodaboda ride into town to meet friends, my red Uganda jersey drew smiles and honks from pedestrians and motorists. Flags were waving, horns were honking. We were fifteen miles from the stadium.
In my head, I kept hearing the sound of “Classic Battle,” a song from those old, grainy NFL Films productions.
The ride to the stadium was a parade of Uganda coming to worship at the altar of sport. About two miles from the stadium, traffic began to back up as the congregation descended on Namboole. Weaving between cars on the back of the bodaboda, men leaned from windows, screaming, their bodies painted like the Ugandan flag. Cars were pulling off the road, parking miles from the stadium.
On the walk up the long road to the stadium, face painters and vendors and ticket scalpers and fans all formed a beautiful ribbon of red, black, and yellow. Past security and inside the fences that surrounded the stadium, fans were eating, drinking, and dancing. A young boy, seemingly alone, came up to me and gave me a fist pound. He was wearing a worn sports jacket and a plastic Halloween mask that looked like one of Donald Duck’s Ugandan nephews. I asked him who would win.
“Uganda,” came his sheepish reply.
The din of whistles and horns, chanting and music, created a chorus of passion. You had to yell to speak to the person next to you.
It was barely 12:30.
When I finally entered Namboole Stadium at about 1:15 p.m., almost four hours before kickoff, and looked out over the field from the northeast corner, it was nearly three-quarters full.
Somehow, the young boy with the sports jacket had followed us through the throng to the cement pews inside and ended up sitting next to me. On my phone, he spelled out his name, Regaen. I asked him where his parents were, and he told me they were at home. I asked him how old he was. He said twelve, but didn’t look a day older than eight. I asked him how he had arrived. He told me his mother had given him a ticket and he had walked the few miles from his home by himself. This was his first time in Namboole Stadium.
Someone behind us gave him a Ugandan flag and tied it around his neck like a cape. The woman on his other side tied the sports jacket around his waist. The soccer orphan had been adopted by our section. After my friends and I bought him a Coke and some chicken, he said he was leaving. Maybe he was off to score some more free food or maybe to get a better vantage of the field.
Before he left, he said goodbye and turned to look out at the field, and I saw the wonder in his eyes. It reminded me of my first trip to the Kingdome. I turned to one of my friends and said, “He will remember this day for the rest of his life.”
Before 3:00 p.m., the stadium was packed, and police had to quell a massive altercation between Ugandans and Kenyans in the small sliver of the stadium where Kenya’s tickets had been allocated.
By 4:30, you could not stand in the aisles. The stadium’s capacity is about 45,000 people. There were a lot more than that last Saturday.
When the Cranes came onto the field and Uganda’s national anthem began, you could feel the emotion of a country. The men and women around me sang in full throat, their arms raised in praise, congregants singing their spiritual hymn.
There are cynics who argue that sports are a childish endeavor, dismissing the importance fans place on an outcome, saying, “it is only a game.” This common refrain is often appropriate when athletic events are cast against the other realities of life. But last Saturday, Uganda’s match against Kenya was much more than a game.
It was an opportunity for a country that has endured turmoil and tumult unfathomable to many Americans to rejoice together. Victory meant international vindication and hope for a brighter future. Defeat meant absolute devastation.
In the first half, the Cranes controlled the match and had several chances to score, but could not finish. In the second half, as shadows crept across the field with the match still scoreless, excitement gave way to nervous energy. Needing a win to advance, the Cranes desperately assaulted the Kenyan net, but the Kenyan goalkeeper rebuffed every opportunity. With less than ten minutes remaining, that nervousness amplified as chance after chance came up short.
From my seat at the far end of the stadium, opposite from the goal the Cranes attacked, it seemed they had scored on two separate occasions. I roared with Ugandans around me in exultation at what we thought was a goal, only to see the game play on. I was told afterward by people who watched on television that twice the ball had been cleared off the end line, literally inches from triumph.
When the final whistle sounded, the score 0-0, Ugandan players collapsed on the field, many in tears. Sadness and anger mixed in the stadium, while Kenya’s small contingent of fans rejoiced.
The day of celebration had ended horribly wrong. Uganda had been unable to claim victory when it most desperately sought it. Leaving the stadium, it seemed as though some had prepared for such a result. Everywhere you could feel the disappointment spilling out of the stadium, and I wondered if the expectation of disappointment had infected another generation of fans.
You see, that is something else about sports. Fans measure their relationship with a team by its emotional components. As a fan of the Seattle Mariners, I remember their horrific early years, I was at the Kingdome in 1995 when they were eliminated from the American League Championship Series, and I have watched as they’ve come up short time and again to the point that it is expected. As a Mariner fan, I hope for the best, but I expect disappointment.
It may seem absurd, but it is reality. For me and many sports fans like me, not only in America, but here in Uganda as well, the success and failure of our teams become a part of life. As I was leaving the stadium, I could not help but feel the sadness of the Ugandan people.
Truly, the Cranes’ defeat meant something more than just a loss. The energy that had been so palpable hours earlier had eroded, and the defeat had become a part of life, not merely a game to which Ugandans had escaped for a few hours. And perhaps that is part of the beauty. For those that cherish sports, the drama that it produces is tangible. Sure, at its core, it is a game, but when the outcome of that game can give a city hope and a nation pride, or send them to agonizing despair, it has touched something that is profoundly human.
As my friends and I headed back down the hill away from the stadium, the defeat had touched something in the people of Uganda. And then, in the mass of people, I felt a tug at my shorts. It was Regaen. I smiled at him and he smiled back. The plastic mask was propped up on top of his head, the Ugandan cape around his shoulders, covering the faded sports jacket that he was again wearing.
I asked him how far he had to walk. He pointed into the darkness away from the road and over the hill. As is often the case following a painful defeat, it seemed like a long walk home.