Football in West Nile is a paradox. The region is famed for being the home of sporting talent, especially in football and athletics. Yet most never realize their full potential.
Most of the top-performing schools in the post-primary Copa Coca-Cola competition, the biggest base for youth football in Uganda, are poached from schools or academies in West Nile. Others are schemed from Lugazi or Jinja, where their ancestors have emigrated to work in the sugar plantations.
St Mary’s Kitende, Kibuli SS, Buddo SS, St Julian Gayaza, Masaka SS, among others have time and again used players from West Nile to their pomp. It is said while St Julian was starting its sports program in the 2000s, they parked their school bus in Arua Town and went around inviting any eligible players to board. The late Peter Ssebulime, who was the coach, screened out the cream and since then, St Julian are among the strong sides in the school competitions with meager resources.
Mvara SS, Arua Public School, Nile High, Moyo SS and Mehta SS (a West Nile detach) attract the biggest number of talent scouts. Take the example of Alionzi, winner of the 2014 Copa title with Kibuli SS, he was picked from Arua Public where he sat his O-Level. So what’s wrong with West Nile?
Blame the environment
Foremost among those who are called to lead West Nile’s football, stands Bosco Dudu. The KCCA youth coach is a zealous, devoted man who acknowledges that football in West Nile needs mentors.
Through him, West Nile saw the arrivals of midfielder Gift Ali, Vitalis Tabu, Rashid Agau, Gaddafi Gadinho, Sabir Rajab, Sabir Simba and goalkeeper Sijali Safi, among others, during his spell at Arua Central FC.
Dudu, who spent his early years in the humble surroundings of Arua before joining Buddo SS and St Juliana-Gayaza believes that by daily toil, talent from West Nile can come to fruition.
“The off-pitch environment is not the best for our players,” said Dudu. “The players don’t get the necessary support to stay in football beyond their early years. First of all, the mentality of the parents is that their children should concentrate on education. If that does not work out, agriculture and the booming cross-border business entice them away.”
Dudu believes that a strong mind needs to be inculcated among the players. Citing the case of current URA goalkeeper Alionzi, whose mother was bitter for choosing football, Dudu explains that preparing players early enough for what awaits them beyond the margins of West Nile and removing the fear from among their parents, are key elements.
The pride of West Nile talent-wise in the StarTimes Uganda Premier League has Gadaffi Wahab (Wakiso Giants), Mohammed Shaban (Vipers), Agau (Maroons), Alionzi (URA), Rashid Toha (Vipers), Caesar Olega (Maroons) and Ali Feni (Wakiso Giants) Geriga Atendere, among others. KCCA, famed for their talent development, last season had Ibrahim Saddam Juma, Mustafa Kizza, Sadat Anaku, Gift, and Filbert Obenchan among their starters while junior team members include– Jurua Hassan and Oscar Mawa.
Hamza Olema, the head coach of West Nile Regional League side Araka is highly displeased with lack of excellence for the several youngsters.
“We have so many talented players at the youth stage,” Olema said. “If pride and lack of guidance played no part in a player’s development, then 80 percent of the boys from West Nile would be playing football out of Africa,” Olema told West Nile Sports website in a recent interview.
“Most of our players lack guidance which breeds high levels of indiscipline and disrespect when they are not with familiar coaches,” the former Lweza, El Merreikh and Onduparaka player, said.
“I remember being benched at El Merreikh and it did not go well with the coach. Little did I know that efforts to explain myself would amount to indiscipline,” said one of the few West Nile players to ever play in the Caf Champions League.
The latest frenzy about talent hovered over Ezra Bida and Idd Abdu Wahid. Bida, highly regarded by West Nile legend Mike Letti as the Muhammad Shaban especially after emerging MVP during the 2013 Airtel Rising Stars, is yet to settle in any team at 20. While Idd, a member of the 2018 Afcon U-17 Qualifiers (CECAFA Region) in Tanzania, had to get back to the basics after a move to Italy was delayed because of personal character.
“Football requires a combination of hard work, commitment, and discipline because it is these factors that any professional football agent, administrator, or manager needs in a player.”
However, he adds that to lessen the gloomy image, it will have to take combined efforts from the region in terms of personnel and infrastructures.
“Due to lack of proper academies, player development has become a gamble. We don’t’ have adequate right coaches and infrastructure to enhance early development. Growth of a player without the mental basics makes no sense at all.”
From 1980 to about 2005, the Mvara Zonal League was the hope of West Nile giving birth to some of the finest footballers West Nile has ever produced. Letti, Samson Caesar Okhuti, Eric Anyole (RIP), Jerry Ajule (RIP), Charles Letti, Leo Adraa, Jimmy Pariyo (RIP), Cliff Buzu, Allan Pariyo, Bonney Aritua (RIP), Edward Mindrea (RIP), Andama Goerge, et al.
Participation in the league was guaranteed to persons who were known occupants in the respective zones without the need for licenses. Identification was by face value. But acts of corruption and its cousins of poor officiating and use of ineligible players seeped through sending away loyal fans.
In 2012, former Fufa president Lawrence Mulindwa tried to bridge the gap with the West Nile Cup but it died with him when he quit the presidency.
In 2013, Trevor Dudley was excited with the talent in West Nile and after years of success with Kampala Kids League (KKL), he offered West Nile the same quality sports leagues as those established under KKL.
The Kids League (TKL) handled football and netball programmes transmitting health and education messages in West Nile also extending to Gulu, Amuru, Kitgum, Arua, Pader, Lira, Apac, Kumi, Moroto and Nakapiripirit.
TKL trained more than 2,000 volunteers to run the programmes. It was a great success considering the partners that came on board including; UNICEF, USAID, CORE Initiative, Nike, Hewlett, the World Health Organisation, Sport Relief and UK Sport as well local corporates such as Stanbic Bank, MTN, Western Union, Airtel, and General Machinery. During the CHOGM conference in November 2007, TKL was visited by Prince Charles. But the program stumbled when Dudley returned to Europe.
In 2012, when Arua businessman Benjamin Nyakuni and partner Joel Erema finalised establishing Onduparaka after seeing many talented players go to waste, there was one clear message in their desire to build a great team capable of competing in the top flight. Most of these players coming from the schools, TKL and Airtel Rising Stars (ARS) project were to form the basis for the club.
Goalkeeper Alionzi, who was in the select ARS and Copa sides, had to refuse joining Mike Mutebi at KCCA becoming a standout player in Ondupara’s promotion from the Big League. The highly talented Gadinho, who had previously played for Kira Young, Vipers and Nasir (S. Sudan) combined with Gasper Adriko, Agau, Wahab Gadafi, towering defender Toha, Shaban and Tabu, among others, to make West Nile’s dream of top flight football come true.
Onduparaka were following in the footsteps of Arua Central, Arua Young Stars and Ediofe Hills that played in the Super League before getting relegated.
Focus was on the local-bred talent so that instead of having to buy top players one day, West Nile would find the next stars in their own area, develop them and then have them triumphing while wearing their prestigious Onduparaka shirt.
Almost 10 years later, Onduparaka are nowhere near that dream. In fact, they have spent a lot of money on the development of these youth players, yet the biggest talents keep leaving.
“Many of the players in the region got frustrated because they never got a chance,” said Nyakuni.
There are two primary reasons for the exodus: the absence of a pathway into Onduparaka’s first team and the lack of game time. Wahab could not wait any longer for first-team opportunities when Livingstone Mbabazi kept snubbing him in 2018 before he sought a loan move to Big League side Doves All Stars with Agau. He is now at Wakiso Giants.
The soothe Onduparaka had provided swung in some fears. A revolt pushed Mbabazi and several other coaches accused of overlooking the local stars.
“Every case is different, but most of the youngsters who have left West Nile succeeded at their new clubs,” Dudu said.
The owners are stuck between a hard place and a rock. Their passionate fans want to see their homies on the field yet they also need big names for the image of the club and for the results they crave. The direction of their youth team has left many disillusioned.
Yet the West Nile exodus continues unabated due to remuneration and all indications suggest that the exit list will keep getting longer. From Okhuti, to the tumultuous transfer of Muhammad Shaban, West Nile now has sensational striker Gabriel Matata, who quit for Masaza football as the talk of town.
With perfect shooting abilities, a good passer, and deft dribbler, Matata had 14 goals in nine Regional League appearances and had attracted the likes of KCCA, BUL, Bright Stars, and AZAM of Tanzania.
The same script will seemingly be repeated. No professional contracts, no first-team appearance, no fees, no goodbyes.
Despite Arua being their hometown, with West Nile clubs their dream, many have decided to leave almost as soon as they could. All promising West Nile products have moved for next to nothing.
Cromwell Rwothomio, formerly with Paidha Black Angels said in an interview: “We used not to have any team until Onduparaka was formed. Our skills are inborn. Look at Brian Umony and Filbert Obenchan. This is pure talent that requires only polishing,” he said before bidding farewell.
Enclave of great men
Bordered to the North by South Sudan, to the West by DR Congo, to the East by Acholi sub-region and to the South by Buliisa District, the quality of life in the region is deplorable.
Administratively, the region has seven district local governments (Nebbi, Arua, Koboko, Nyadri, Yumbe, Moyo and Adjumani, Zombo, and Nebbi in a multi-ethnic setting that accommodates the Lugbara, Alur, Madi, and Kakwa.
According to the Agency for Accelerated Regional Development (AFARD), poverty is a great concern. For so long, safe water, electricity, telephones and television, and tarmac road have been luxuries. Such undignified life find means in subsistence farming.
Poverty or no poverty, life must go on. And sports is often looked at as an escape route.
Arua and the surrounding area is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hotbeds of football talent in the country. A big percentage of the players in the StarTimes Uganda Premier League, claim their roots from West Nile.
There are a couple of reasons to explain the extraordinary footballing success of the area. It’s populated by around 2.9 million people. The culture of street football and their numerous football pitches means that the game is played everywhere, all the time, in a very competitive environment. Finally, so many grassroots teams mean that from a very young age, most of the children choose football.
It is not football alone that defines Arua’s sporting talent. Rugby’s Victor Wadia, golfer Hussein Alemiga and athletes Shida Leni as well as Ali Ngaimoko have been kissed by the sun while toiling on the streets of Arua.
For Onduparaka and any other prospective sports investor, it is a dream. On their doorstep, they have an almost unlimited well of talent in every age group. But the abundance of ability is also a problem. The issue is that all those prospects are highly coveted. Scouts are at every school. Other top clubs are in constant contact with the players, agents, and families.
“Many teams know that the starlets from West Nile want to leave as soon as possible because of the hardships in the area and they tempt them to leave before they are ready,” Nimrod Kintu, a youth coach says.
Binary Group owner Fahd Adamson Mansoor, who represents one of West Nile’s hot prospects, Mustafa Kizza, corroborates Kintu’s claims.
“When players leave when they are not ready for the big stage, they need to start in lower leagues I would describe as stepping stones, after a season or two they can be ready for the big stage. But so many expectations are heaped on the shoulders of players already burdened by a harsh childhood.”
He adds that helping the players make the right choice is key before any moves can be sanctioned.
Work to do
Mike Letti, one of the great players to emerge from West Nile and star for KCC FC and the Uganda Cranes is now a commissioner with Caf.
He says the gains in West Nile are endangered; “We must improve our levels of technical awareness and incorporate modern management to retain our best talent, if not, even the efforts of Onduparaka could go to waste.”
With Barifa Stadium (re-named Inzikuru Stadium) abandoned, Eng Joel Jaffer Aita is ensuring that Arua Hill Stadium fits the stringent Fufa licencing requirements to benefit a couple of teams in the area.
A couple of teams are buzzing with talent, Pakistani-owned Diamond Stars, Mvara Boys, Arua Soccer Academy, Calvary, Koboko Rising Stars, and FHL will soon make a statement. Yet Muni-based Oasis Annex Soccer Academy, who were runners-up in the inaugural Odilo tournament last year, are keeping the conveyor belt well fed.
As the surely as sunset begets the darkness of night, the next superstar is developing his muscles somewhere in Arua. The million-dollar question is how he is going to wade through the murky waters.