UFL a Fragile Gem in Need of Extra Care [opinion]

There was a time when football used to be despised at university. That was the immediate post-colonial era when there was only one university, Makerere.

Students, the majority of whom came from affluent families, were still stuck in the pre-colonial hangover of playing cricket and hockey, which were popular among whites and Asians. That’s not to say football was on the periphery if anything, it was still the most popular sport in the country though it used to be associated with school dropouts.

However, football interest at the university shot up with the emergence of John Baptist Semanobe, John Bunyenyezi, Charles Ebalu, Barnabas Mwesiga, Francis Kyeyune, Charles Otim and Raphael Bwire, among others, who used to play for The Cranes.

In fact, Alex Oundo was the national team skipper in the late sixties while still studying at Makerere University. These individuals greatly brought dignity to football and were exemplary on and off the pitch.

By the eighties, Makerere and other tertiary institutions like Kyambogo and Mubs were hubs for household football figures such as William Nkemba, David Dronyi, Frank Kyazze, Dr Achilles Katamba, Ashe Kawooya, John Latigo, Sam Mugambe, Sam Mubiru and Paul Hasule, among others.

Today, it is no longer a big deal for a prominent footballer to be a university student. This could perhaps explain why it was easy to start the University Football League (UFL) back in 2012. Ordinarily, the UFL was supposed to be the model for other football competitions in the country, many of whom, particularly the top-flight league, have been dogged by controversies arising from gamesmanship, poor officiating and, in particular, hooliganism.

You didn’t expect university students to contest referees’ decisions, abandon a game over a contentious decision or even attack rival fans. But two years down the road, the UFL popularity has also been its undoing. Right from inception, UFL matches have been fierce, particularly those involving Makerere University, UCU and Mubs. Such is the magnitude of the UFL that match-days are treated as holidays for hosts.

Indeed, several players have emerged from UFL, including Bright Stars FC goalie Mathias Kigonya, who was spotted from Kampala University and Soana’s Timothy Musinguzi, who is a product of Kampala University.

SC Victoria University (SCVU), the winners of the 2014 Cecafa Nile Basin tournament, have been the biggest beneficiaries from UFL, snapping up promising youngsters like Peter Otai (Kampala University), Siraje Musindo (Mbarara University of Science and Technology), Yasser Mugerwa (Nkumba) and Dan Nsubuga (Nkumba).

But beyond the action on the pitch, tension is always palpable and I am meant to understand referees, players and visiting fans are always mindful of the exits should the situation get out of control. As a member of the UFL disciplinary committee, I have been called upon several times to resolve petitions mostly concerning ineligible players, undisciplined officials and abandoned games.

Indeed, I have witnessed first-hand a ‘university’ player who couldn’t identify any of his teammates or even the course he was studying. On another occasion, a top-flight veteran claimed to be an 18-year-old university ‘fresher.’

Team officials take the biggest blame for these controversies and I have noted that most teams don’t know how to interpret the competition rules, let alone the repercussions of their actions. However, it is crowd trouble that poses the biggest threat to UFL.

Twice this season, the matches between Makerere and UCU as well as the Mubs versus KIU game were abandoned, prompting police to fire teargas to disperse the crowds. Whereas the two games could easily pass off as isolated incidents given that the whole season had 48 games, skirmishes have been regular though some games didn’t abort.

So, security should be paramount and it is incumbent on the respective universities to provide safety for everyone.

For example, I don’t think it takes a fortune to erect a perimeter fence around the pitch. Interestingly, all universities have special police units yet it baffles me that the Makerere-UCU encounter was manned by 15 policemen. Sincerely, how can anyone expect them to control hundreds of fans?

Then again, given the full houses to which games are played, why not create security teams amongst the fans?

In the wake of Saturday’s conclusion of the 2014 season, in which Mubs emerged champions for the first time after defeating Kyambogo University, organisers need to fill the gaping holes in the competition if they are to attract bigger sponsorship packages from Nile Breweries and Pepsi.

And who knows, many more sponsors could be on the way after the near full house at Mandela national stadium, Namboole.

The author is operations director of The Observer Media Ltd.

Source : The Observer

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