It is now five years and counting but the Mandela National Stadium also called Namboole still sits quiet atop Namboole hill in Wakiso District – a thing senior journalists, Uganda Cranes players and veteran footballers have described in this report as, “disturbing and a killer to the game.”
Government agencies charged with the renovation of the stadium have been caught in contradictory speech of when the stadium is supposed to resume operations.
State Minister for sports Mr. Peter Ogwang says the works will be done by June this year while Mr. Moses Magogo, the President of the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) and contractors are conflicted on whether the pitch can be ready for use in three months.
In an interview for this story, the state Minister for Sports Peter Ogwang says that Shs 81 billion has already been released for the final touches to ready the stadium to welcome players and fans in June.
“This is the first phase which will give room for the renovation process to take place. Immediately after the upgrade, the stadium will resume its normal business,” Mr Ogwang says.
During our undercover inspection at the facility early this year, we found the facility sitting dormant. The once green playing surface has been stripped and is now bare ground covered with soggy patches and heaps of dust all over the place. The chairs in the pavilion for the general side and the Very Important Persons (VIP) remain dilapidated.
Out of observation, the graders and trucks that are parked on the sides of the pitch reveal that there is work taking place but leave one wondering whether the scope Minister Ogwang gives for the games to resume may not be farfetched.
“We are working but we don’t know when the work will be done. There is little work to do during the day. We are paid for the days that we work but I am not an engineer so I may not be able to tell when the work will get done,” one of the casual laborers says, insisting on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Uganda Cranes is not alone in this homelessness predicament as out of 54 African football teams, 24 have no home ground.
In May 2019, the former Minister of State for sports Denis Hamson Obua confirmed the government’s commitment to renovate the Namboole stadium.
The contract was handed to the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) Engineering brigade to manage the renovations at what was referred to as subsidized prices for the work that started in January 2022.
Last month, Lt. Col Peter Kidemuka, the project Engineer of Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) Brigade indicated in various media interviews that they would be soon commencing phase two of the renovations which would include working on the plumbing equipment, repairing the pitch, pavilion, and dressing rooms, installation of desks and air conditioners in the media and VIP sections, seats in the general public stands, and upgrading floodlights as directed by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
He projected that the works would be complete by June this year before the facility can host games.
While appearing in a media interview last month, Mr Magogo said,
“CAF has given us until the 10th of February to be able to submit a stadium that has been homologated by the administrative body. Between now and the deadline, I don’t think there are miracles that can be done for Namboole to be ready,”
“FUFA is not in charge of the renovation of Mandela National Stadium. We are also clients at the stadium. Together let’s all be patient and wait for the team on the ground to deliver a renovated stadium,”
FUFA has since been forced to identify a stadium in either Egypt or in one of the West African states that can host the upcoming AFCON qualifier games.
In October 2019, Mandela National Stadium was closed for an upgrade prompting Uganda Premier League (UPL) clubs like Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) FC, Kyetume FC, and SC Villa that had been using the ground to host their games to find other alternative venues.
The closure of the stadium came on the foothills of the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF) and the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) report that faulted Namboole for having faulty floodlights, poor drainage system, worn-out playing surface, dilapidated pavilions and poor dressing rooms suggesting that all these needed renovation and upgrade.
Top recommendations of the two football governing bodies on Namboole Stadium included; new seats in the general public stands, a new green playing surface, decent changing rooms for both players and officials, a new running track (tartan), installation of desks and air conditioners in the media and VIP sections, a modern LED scoreboard and upgrading of floodlights.
Jamil Ssewanyana the Managing Director of Namboole explains that the facility was not in good condition to host any national and international matches.
“The pitch needs an overhaul to put it at competitive standards. Over usage is also a big challenge that we shall manage from previous experience. Whatever we have at the time is an old version of the stadium but already had a drawn plan in a short and long run project,” Ssewanyana says in an interview.
In 2020 when the Covid19 pandemic hit, the Namboole stadium was used as a “hospital” and quarantine center.
The Mandela National Stadium has a seating capacity of 42,000 but all local and international games for both the clubs and cranes were shifted to St. Mary’s Stadium in Kitende, which has 2500 sitting capacity.
When CAF classified Namboole as one of the pitches not fit to host national teams class A matches, the government earmarked Shs 97 billion for general rehabilitation and revamping of the facility.
Before 1997 when Uganda Cranes hosted their games at Nakivubo Stadium right in the heart of the city, scores of fans turned up. These fans who are now jokingly referred to as the 12th player on the pitch became synonymous with football here.
This vibe was then hit with a sudden shift to Namboole Stadium as the home ground. The numbers greatly dwindled. The glamor and strength in the supporters waned and euphoria on the match days faced a still-birth.
For years, the Federation for Uganda Football Association (FUFA) struggled to revive the hype and make the supporters brave the long distance of about 12km out of the city center. Slowly and slowly, the love shrugged back into the game.
Former Cranes Captain Phillip Obwinyi who played at both pitches says the team struggled to adapt to the new Namboole after the sudden shift from Nakivubo.
“We were not used to the lockers, the noise in the stadium reduced and that meant we had to pick ourselves up all on our own. Players always complained but that was the order of the day. We were also sure that we were at Namboole to stay so we had got used to it,” he says.
“There is always something about the home ground. Every team struggles when they move away from what they have been used to because of the things that they have gotten used to, especially the dressing rooms for players to seats for the fans,” says Raul Kanyike, a senior sports journalist.
Qualifying for AFCON
That bright afternoon which later became a glamorous evening for the Uganda Cranes might have been better described by the weather, probably it was Farouk Miya’s 36th minute strike that put Uganda through their first Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), or probably the preparation that the team put in and team selections for all the games against Burkina Faso, Botswana and Comoros.
Many people that we have talked to for this report indicated that there was always something about the 12th player at Namboole Stadium despite the team’s preparation.
For instance, on match days, Jinja road came to standstill as fans thronged the stadium to enjoy the game as their countrymen made them proud in a profoundly patriotic manner. All roads literally led to Namboole as there were single lane drives.
“Namboole has been a fortress for the Cranes over the years and since 2020 when matches weren’t being played there, something changed in the tide of results at home,” Darren Allan Kyeyune, a BBC sports correspondent in Uganda says.
“The earlier Namboole gets complete, probably, the faster, better and more consistent home results will come for the Cranes. There’s also that superstition that Cranes have with Namboole, they just don’t lose games there, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, will all attest to that fact.”
It’s had an impact as a result of the change and it could take some time to regain that fear factor when teams visit Uganda,” he adds.
Experts say that the earlier the stadium is finished the better for the development of the game in the country and the more people will love the game.
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