Micheal Azira is a soft-spoken, mannerly and altogether pleasant individual. When we met to chat, someone in the sparsely populated room wasn’t instantly recognizable. Before we began, he went over, politely introduced himself and accompanied his greeting with a warm handshake.
You get the impression he is someone very happy with his lot, grateful for the life and opportunity, soccer, hard work and study has provided for him, wife Callaghan and family.
But family life had to be put on hold for a month recently after being selected by Uganda coach Sebastien Desabre to represent his country at the African Cup of Nations, despite not taking part in any of the qualifying campaign.
Micheal, now 31, admits to surprise when the call came. “I hadn’t been in the national team for a while, two years ago at the 2017 AFCON, but I know the media was also pressuring the Federation asking, ‘Why are you not calling Micheal, he plays in a better league compared to the players we have. Why are you not calling him?’
“It took them a while to decide. Then the new coach (Desabre), called me and said, ‘Michael, we want you to come back. I asked why are you calling me now, you didn’t call me in the qualifiers. The team is set up already, and qualified. Why do you need me?”
Azira had pretty much given up on further international honours, having travelled too many times only to not see game time.
“Every coach has different players that he wants. And I used to go, but [previous coach Milutin Sredojevic] wasn’t playing me, so I told him if I was going to travel for 23 hours and not play, it doesn’t make sense me leaving my club and coming [to Uganda]. It’s too much. So with that I told him you don’t have to call, it’s fine.”
Desabre managed to convince Azira that the past was the past, that things had changed and he wanted to build the team ‘the right way’. He had given the player assurances that he would be fair in team selection, mentioned he had watched Micheal on video playing for the Impact, and that there was an opportunity for him to come play on his team.
Some eyebrows were raised amongst the Ugandan footballing public that some players were being called up that hadn’t actually contributed to the qualifying campaign regardless if they had previously been overlooked or not. Micheal shrugged this off, clearly seeing the bigger picture.
“When I made my decision to play, I was like, I’m going there to play for the national team. It was not about me. I decided to go because I wanted to be part of something bigger than me, so I didn’t go there to be negative or anything.”
The last time Uganda won a match at the AFCON finals tournament, brutal dictator Idi Amin was still in power.
That was in 1978, when Uganda’s team of policemen, soldiers, prison guards and civil servants upset all the odds negotiating their way past the more fancied and mainly professional outfits of Morocco, Tunisia, Congo and Nigeria. They lost tamely in the final however, 0-2, to hosts Ghana, when several players had begun to feel unwell with stomach aches and other symptoms of food poisoning upon arrival at the stadium.
No-one knew it then, but it was the last finals game The Cranes would play for 39 years.
Micheal Azira and Uganda upset the trend, qualifying for the tournament in Gabon 2 years ago, but finished bottom of the group without recording a victory.
Two years on, more experienced and a change of coach later, there was greater optimism for Egypt, where Uganda would play all three group games in the 75,000 Cairo International Stadium. Micheal speaks of his experience playing against the hosts and Mo Salah.
“Seventy-five thousand is a lot of people. The only time I played in front of so many. It created a great environment. It was really nice to play in front of them, winning some hearts. We had great respect from the Egyptian crowd. They really loved us. They thought we played better than them, 17 shots on goal to their 7, but they scored twice. Many Egyptians were saying afterwards that Uganda should’ve won. It was nice for them to say.
“I felt good going into the game. We play against big crowds in Atlanta, Portland and Seattle and there’s big numbers in those stadiums. Still seventy-five thousand is a lot, but coach Desabre was really well-organized, and he told the team forget the crowd, to focus on us.
“I know some players were a little overwhelmed, but we talked in the locker-room. We said, ‘Guys, we won’t be able to talk to you on the field. You need to know your job. You need to do the right thing. No-one is going to be calling you all of the time, so it was about the preparation and it was really good for us to be ready for that kind of environment.
“It was nice to have someone like him [Salah], with his potential, on the field with us, that we only watch on TV and who is aspiring to be the world’s best player. It was really good.
Good Start - First Win in 41 Years ...
The key for Uganda was in getting off to a good start in their opening encounter with DR Congo. They were two goals up by half-time against their more fancied opponents and successfully managed to see the game out without conceding.
“[Going into the tournament] the friendly win over Ivory Coast in Abu Dhabi gave us a lot of confidence. Then we knew in the camp if we can win the first game it would set the momentum for us. It could determine our going through. And the group of guys we had, everyone was just working hard for each other, so we’re like, ‘We can beat these guys [DR Congo], they’re no better than us, and that camaraderie we had with each other helped us to win that first game.”
It was a huge result for Uganda. Their first finals win in 41 long years. A really big deal.
“There were a lot of people drinking and partying back in Kampala after the game. They post a lot of stuff in the media and the news and we go through some of it a little bit, but I don’t follow it as much because I’m not too much into the [social] media.
“But people showed they were really supportive, messages from ministers and the government as well. People were really happy.”
Before the big showdown with the hosts, Uganda knew a point against Zimbabwe in their second game would guarantee a place in the Round of 16. The Cranes duly obliged, again taking the lead through Emmanuel Okwi, his second goal of the tournament. They were pegged back 5 minutes before the interval, but that ended the scoring and progress was assured.
First Salah, then Mane
So four days after going face to face with Mo Salah in the third group game, Micheal and his team-mates went head to head with another of Liverpool’s Champions League winners, Sadio Mane and Senegal, another of the tournament favourites.
It was indeed Mane who settled the game with a 15th minute goal running from the midfield unchecked, onto a pass to slot home past Onyango the Ugandan ‘keeper and captain.
It was to be the only goal of the game, and there was disappointment in the Ugandan squad as they had given as good as they’d received throughout the ninety minutes.
“Senegal, I know they have good players, but if you look at the game, they didn’t outplay us. It could’ve been better and their goalkeeper made some good saves. I thought we should have scored. Even Mane afterwards said, ‘Guys if you had scored on us, we were finished’. But they know how to control the pace of the game, when to foul, when to take their time ... ”
Micheal pinpointed Senegal’s experience of tournament football as the key ingredient which saw them through against Uganda, none of whose players had ever before played knock-out soccer at a finals tournament.
Algeria - Deserved Champions
But he wasn’t surprised to see Algeria defeat them in the final.
“Algeria was the best team, I knew Senegal was going to lose. It wasn’t very pretty, but they won. Senegal tried and put a lot of pressure on Algeria, but if you look from the beginning [of the tournament], Algeria was different. They played together, they pressed so high.
“Mahrez for instance was with the team, he didn’t play for himself. You could see him defending. You always need those kind of players. Good players but they can also sacrifice whatever they need to do, sacrifice individual goals for team goals.”
Payment Disputes and Training Boycott
African soccer has been plagued with wage and payment disputes as long as professionalism has existed on the continent, and this tournament was no exception. This time around, stories emerged from the camps of Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Nigeria and indeed Uganda whose players staged a training boycott due to unpaid wages and bonuses prior to their Round of 16 game with Senegal.
“These things happen. It does affect the players’ mindset a little bit. But at the end of the day you need to get what you are owed. People promise something that they don’t deliver, it’s not right.”
Micheal fully understand’s the delicate nature of a situation which could be viewed from various angles. No player will refuse to represent his country, nor would he want that perception to exist, so they are limited in available options in attempting to find satisfactory resolution.
“It never looks good , but at the end of the day, you know that someone has the money, and they are not giving it to you, it’s not right, so that creates friction between the officials and players.
“And there is always that friction. If you look at different countries, Ghana, they had to eliminate an entire Federation of officials and bring in new people, and Nigeria. And that is what’s holding soccer back the country. If they could find the right people to run the system, it would be really great.”
It took some high-level intervention to resolve the impasse between players and officials; a call from the country’s president, no less.
“We had a meeting. The president of the country [Yoweri Museveni] called and said, ‘Guys, go play. We’re behind you. I will support you in every game that you need.
“[President Museveni] has been supportive of the national team a lot, so it was nice of him to come through, and the Federation later came through too, so it ended well.”
Desabre, the Coach
Micheal was impressed with his new national team coach, who created a better camp than what he’d experienced in 2017 under Milutin Sredojevic, but the liaison was destined not to last, Desabre has moved on after the tournament to Egyptian Premier League club, Pyramids FC.
“Desabre was more professional than Milutin. He plays soccer and understands how to work with players. If there is anything you need, he tries to make sure you get it. If you don’t feel good he makes sure you get the right treatment and the right rest you need.
“Milutin, he’s different. He was always so under pressure. Up tight. He’ll take you out to stretch two hours before a game. Please, we need to rest. In a day you would have three or four meetings and another game, and you’re like, please, we need to rest.
“So that was the difference.”
Exit and Disappointment
Despite advancing from the group, the Ugandan team were bitterly disappointed not to find a way past Senegal in that round of 16 meeting. There was a sense as they played their way into the tournament and became comfortable with their surroundings, they could go deeper in the competition.
“Yeah, it was a disappointment. Any team that plays likes to go as far in they can go in this tournament, it’s one of the biggest tournaments for us in Africa. I know it doesn’t get too much attention, but it’s something very important to African countries.
“But at least the fans were happy, they could see the team had given of their best. Senegal never outplayed us, because they mostly played long balls to Niang, whereas we tried to play out from the back. Disappointed, yes, but it was really fun for us and the country really enjoyed what they saw.”
Being Away From Home
The most difficult aspect, apart from eventual defeat for Micheal, was being away from his wife Callaghan and family for nigh on 4 weeks.
“Yeah it gets boring in the hotel, feels like you are doing the same thing over and over, but I try to stay in touch as much as I can, through FaceTime, talking to my kids. It’s difficult but my wife is very supportive. She’s amazing. I don’t know how she does it. Callaghan is very supportive of me, and my career and has been very important in my life for me to get to where I am today. And she knows how to take care of the kids too.”
An International Future?
At 31, does Micheal see an international future with Uganda, or is Egypt2019 to be his swan-song?
“I don’t know. A new coach will be coming. Desabre was good. I even told the president of the Federation, ‘You better keep this guy’.”
“I would like to play for the national team, but the young players need an opportunity as well. The country needs to start developing new players. It’s not about me. Uganda can’t just rely on a few players' and when they retire then there’s an empty hole. I feel like it’s time for them to build something. They should learn from the AFCON experience, so they can build on it.
“The future can be bright for Uganda ..... if they do the right thing!