Uganda’s sporting bodies have lessons to learn

David Obua in action at a football game in Namboole Stadium.
David Obua in action at a football game in Namboole Stadium.

If teams want to count on players showing up, then players should be able to count on a paycheck

Uganda’s sporting institutions have something to learn from NGOs.

A quick look around the hills of Kampala reveals hundreds of aid organisations, each bringing its own agenda to the table. They exist to fight poor sanitation, ineffective education, malaria and a host of other evils. Their weapon of choice in these noble battles?  The workshop. Yes, the workshop will solve the most pernicious of the country’s myriad problems. How else can you explain why there are so many of them?

Every workshop starts in exactly the same manner: the participants respond by peppering facilitators with questions about travel expenses, per diems and sitting fees. Sure, it’s important work that will obviously “build capacities” and “share good practices” to improve livelihoods” for the country—but where is our money for being here?

Such questions are usually anticipated and immediately dealt with so the event can continue without any distractions, though they can still breed irritation from stuffier expats who resent their ostensibly altruistic work being tied to monetary benefit. A common attitude is, “Sure, I’m getting paid to be here, but everyone else should be doing it for the greater good, not money.”

International sport, too, is supposed to be about something larger than oneself. Whereas one may play for a football or rugby club to pay the bills, the public expects athletes to play for the national team to pay honour to the country. Nevertheless, the question of money came up earlier this month at an inopportune time. Uganda needed a win against Kenya—whether it be ugly, lucky or narrow—to qualify for its first Africa Cup of Nations berth in 34 years. The day before the match, the national team was to meet with President Museveni for what was meant to be an inspirational talk.

Star midfielder David Obua inquired whether the president would take questions from the players. Specifically, he wanted to know why players did not know how much they would be earning in bonuses and why there are no retirement benefits for players. When he was told that Museveni would not be taking questions, Obua determined that his tender leg—still recovering from a thigh injury aggravated while playing for Edinburgh side Hearts—would be better treated by resting in his hotel than by listening to a speech from the president. For questioning the opacity of the players’ financial relationship with the team, Obua found himself off the squad the next morning. Basically, Obua didn’t get to play because of a dispute over his sitting fee.

What exactly happened between Obua, Museveni and Cranes manager Bobby Williamson is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it was an issue at all. It reveals poor management by the bodies that govern Ugandan sport, most notably the Federation of Ugandan Football Associations (FUFA). Such scenes are less common with European sides (with notable exceptions like France when they played in the World Cup in South Africa), not because the players are any nobler or less self-interested, but because well-run national federations make sure it doesn’t get to that point. The rewards are transparent to the players, conflicts are handled internally instead of being aired in public and politicians separate the pitch from their platform. Therefore, reasonable players can have few complaints. African football federations, on the other hand, seem to have frequent run-ins with players over money and opaque institutions.

It’s been that way ever since African teams stepped onto the world stage. In 1974 Zaire became the first African team to qualify for the Football World Cup. After the Leopards’ opening 2-0 loss to Scotland, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who had showered the team with gifts of cars and houses before the tournament, intimated that the players’ bonuses would not be paid. Zaire went on to lose its next match against Yugoslavia 9-0. With the Brazil match looming, Mobutu’s agents reportedly told the team in rather unsubtle terms that anything more than a three goal margin to a Seleção would be unacceptable.

Down 3-0 late in the second half and waiting for Brazil to take a free kick outside the box, right-back Mwepa Ilunga heard the referee’s whistle. Instead of allowing the Brazilians to first touch the ball as the rules dictate, he broke free of the wall and kicked the ball halfway back to the Congo. In interviews much later, Ilunga claimed he knew the rules. He was, he said, trying to protest the poor treatment from his government by getting sent off. Instead, he only received a yellow card. The players’ bonuses, as promised, never appeared and the stars faded into obscurity as paupers and has-beens.

Just as with Zaire 37 years ago, the lack of financial transparency negatively impacts Ugandan sport. Why should players like Obua trust FUFA to fairly distribute money if they can’t get clear answers about what they are entitled to?

FUFA is not the only opaquely-run sporting institution in Uganda — it’s just the most prominent one. Footballers’ tiniest exploits in this country spill onto the pages of every daily newspaper. If they cannot be assured that their financial matters will be dealt with in an equally transparent matter, what then for Uganda’s runners, swimmers and cricketers? What institutions are “managing” their interests?

Uganda’s failures on the international stage are about money. Good athletes cannot afford to invest in sport if their country does not invest in them. It’s not greed—it’s economics. And it does not augur well for future success in international competition, as there are plenty of countries that do invest in their athletes. Sport is defined by fractions of seconds instead of minutes, by inches rather than yards. Thus, a week spent training instead of working can make the difference between winning and watching.

We expect our national athletes to play for love of their country. All they ask in return is for some clarity about their paycheck. Yes, a victory would raise the spirits of a nation struggling with rampant inflation and out-of-control food prices — but where is our money for being here?

By Jeff Benson