By Joan Akello
Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic, Uganda Cranes head coach talked to Joan Akello about the teams’ preparation for upcoming competitions.
As former SC Villa coach and head coach, what is your assessment of Uganda Cranes?
The first time I came to Africa was in 2000 when I was given as job as coach of SC Villa. For four consecutive years we won cups and after 17 years we won the CECAFA Cup in 2003. I was away from 2004 till 2013. Many things happened. Uganda Cranes had become a sounding brand; I contributed to the career of some of the players in the national team. I was physically absent; studying African football through working in six different countries, but my soul was and has always been here. In 2013, Federation for Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) President Lawrence Mulindwa brought me back to Uganda to end the long wait for the team to qualify for African Nations Cup.
The team was rock bottom of the group qualifiers for World Cup, behind Angola, Liberia and Senegal. We later became contenders but did not succeed in the last match against Senegal. We had a road map that had development competitions like CECAFA and African Nations Championship (CHAN) for the local based players that took place in 2014. After those development competitions, we expanded the pool of quality players by each competing for a place in the senior national team (over fifteen players) and competition within the team for those already in the team.
Uganda Cranes has a reputation for losing critical matches and failing to qualify, what are you doing to end the long wait?
We have learnt through that process. We have gone to Europe, looked at the teams in Holland, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, England and how what they do can suit the reality of Ugandan football. We have also established strategic partnerships with countries in Africa with developed teams mainly Ghana and Nigeria in West Africa, North and South Africa. Together with FUFA President Moses Magogo, we have developed a ten year master plan that even if I may not be around, Ugandan football will move to greater heights.
This plan takes care of every detail to make quality players, a quality team and result into qualifications. We have nine phases and each is crucial. Despite the hectic programme, we have established a plan to pick the best players playing at the local, regional, continental and international levels. We are in close negotiations for three Ugandan players in the Diaspora who have established themselves as professionals and they could add the quality ingredient, the much needed factor for us to qualify.
How are you preparing for the upcoming competitions?
We have different levels of development like scouting, recruitment, and identifying the talent from the grassroots to the national level. Once we recognise the quality of players in Under 20, 23 and the senior team that plays in CECAFA, CHAN, international friendly matches, we shall make it. For Under 17, we want to select from the Airtel Rising Stars and all youth competitions in the country this year. Next year, we shall make selections for 2016 since we will be entering qualifiers for the 2017 tournament. This also applies to U-20 where we shall select specifically from the Coca Cola post primary competitions in Hoima to find the backbone of our U-20 national team.
For U-23, we were supposed to have completed selections but we started in January. We want to qualify for the U-23 tournament in Senegal. It is not easy; we are supposed to play Rwanda, and Egypt that we have no good history of results when we played against them. The first three teams will qualify for 2016 Olympic Games. The fourth team will play against an Asian team. Then we have CHAN; a special competition for local leagues, where we will play against Tanzania. If we pass then we play against Sudan and then go for the final tournament next year in Rwanda. We believe that our Azam Premier League and the Big Leagues are strong enough to produce the national team that will qualify. We want until July 25, the day of the draw for the African part for the World cup qualifiers for Russia 2018, to be in Top 20. So we have to work hard from U-17, 20, 23 to be good enough so that when we enter qualifiers, we are real contenders by trying to be at least second in the group looking towards World Cup 2018. We also want to qualify for AFCON 2015.
How ready is Uganda for the qualifiers?
Our main target competition is 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) at present in Gabon. It is different from when we played against three very good teams, Ghana, Togo and Guinea in a span of three months. Now, we have to spread the quality of our performance in the span of 14 months. The first match is on June 13 against Botswana, second match against Comoros on Sept.5 and next year, the third one will be against Burkina Faso on March 25, 2016 in Ouagadougou. We shall play against Burkina Faso on March 29 in Kampala, around June 12 against Botswana in Gaborone and the last match will be on September 3, in Kampala against Comoros. Many people say this group is much easier. It is easier on paper but harder because Botswana has become a giant killer. It demands us to fully focus and take every match as a special operation to get the best possible results. We have been complacent. We could defeat team on the continent but we have not won when most needed. And that is a mental obstacle. We want to prepare mentally, engage psychologists, analysts, motivational speakers to minimise the pressure that is obviously on the players in the seasons when the matches are there. We shall not leave any stone unturned to put Ugandan football where we strongly believe it will be among the strongest and best in Africa.
What will it take to achieve this big dream in terms of tactics, funds, and administration?
We have top class experts in planning. We should not compare with countries that are enormously investing in their national teams. We appreciate every shilling we get from the government and our sponsors but the funds are not enough. In one and a half hours, what Uganda Cranes can do for the country is the best possible work an ambassador can do. The spiritual owners (supporters) of the team are anxious for us to qualify and that is a big dream to realise. Four areas that need an overhaul and major changes are coaching and analytics, public relations, team administration, and the medical department to give us an edge with the quality of our players and performance to get the results.
Football except being played in the field is played very much out of the field. So we are looking to correct whatever was wrong and keep up whatever was right and upgrade.
What challenges do you face on pitch, off and changes to make considering lessons from the past matches?
We are engaging a company that is analyzing our performance, scouting out on the weak and strong points of the opponent continuously. Everyone is working hard but its small details that decide. We are trying to ensure all our players are active. Our biggest shortcoming in the Senegal match was that 75 percent of our players between the match we won against Angola in June 15 and September 7 against Senegal were not in action. Most of our players had finished their leagues in August, September and October. We need players playing in high professional and European leagues so that when matches come because of playing week in , week out, they are in front of the crowd, under the pressure of must win, with that experience they could come and serve Uganda in the best possible way. This could be one of the technical reasons why we could not match Guinea where seven of their nine players from the Diaspora had played in international professional leagues specifically in the Europa League. Also, for every position, there are three players competing for it and we shall select the best to play. We hope that that formula will uplift the quality of the team and enable us qualify. We need more professional players, bigger support from sponsors, government, better facilities. We need to build capacity of our coaches because I get the players a few days to the match. Before that, they are trained by coaches at their clubs. When I came, there were only 28 coaches with a C license but there are over 200 coaches with C, B and A licenses currently. This is a huge sign from the technical aspect with coaches supporting each other and developing the local talent.
How best do you want the fans to relate with the Uganda Cranes?
The fans look at the Uganda Cranes as a darling and baby that very often makes them smile but leaves them in tears in the end. We have failed in the past but we have to keep the spirit that by the law of averages that it is impossible to fail forever. I am not a person of big promises but I promise extreme hard work, taking care of the details that have prevented us from qualifying, and look forward to making the dreams of the supporters come true.
Why have you stayed yet you had offers from about 17 clubs and 4 national teams?
I came to Uganda 15 years ago, and I have made my name a strong brand. I cannot stop people from all over Africa who are looking for my services, but signing a three year contract with Uganda has made me committed, dedicated and fully focused on my job in Uganda. I have not stayed in Ugandan because of money because I can get much more elsewhere, but because of the dream that I have. I view myself as any supporter of Uganda Cranes. So I am guided by the dream, doing my best to achieve it.
There have been issues of poor team spirit and indiscipline, what are you doing about it?
A comprehensive code of conduct has been brought that will be strictly implemented and a comprehensive awarding system so that players know why they are playing and for whom. That will make them behave in line with the dream of the supporters.
Having experienced the civil war and 1999 bombings in your country Serbia, how has it shaped your world view and attitude towards pressure as head coach?
Such experiences make you lose any sense of fear, pressure. Many people ask me, coach, are you under pressure? I say I am not; I am just trying to be responsible, working hard to utilise the biggest power I have been given- of making people happy.