How USSSA Boys Football Tourney Has Lost Direction

For many years, the USSSA Boys Football Championship has been a highly anticipated tournament, drawing eager spectators, particularly locals, wherever it’s hosted.

And indeed, that remains the case. The tournament, typically spanning two weeks, took a different turn this year. The Uganda Secondary Schools Sports Association (USSA) opted for a condensed one-week format in Masaka, with Masaka SS as the host school.

The tournament certainly presents its challenges, but nonetheless, how do schools prepare for it, and what benefits do they derive from participating in this premier secondary schools football tournament?

The case of recruitments

Schools often engage in talent recruitment from one another, with private schools notably moving quickly to offer enticing incentives to players. For instance, this year, newcomers to the tournament, Bukedea Comprehensive, assembled a full team, estimated to be worth around USh70m.

Players like Godfrey Ssekibengo, who joined from St. Henry’s College Kitovu, and Elvis Ssekajigo, from Royal Giant High School Mityana, reportedly incurred costs of around USh16m for their services.

This kind of recruitment leaves government schools, which receive at least 12% of the capitation grant, with limited ability to compete for players in the market. Even their talented players are being poached by these big spenders without hesitation.

After playing in the final last year in Fort Portal, St. Henry’s College Kitovu was left with hardly any players as Bukedea Comprehensive and St. Mary’s Boarding School recruited many of their players.

But for St. Henry’s College Kitovu’s head coach, Fred Kasekende, this is nothing new, and he remains unfazed. “I’ve been in school football for years, and I’m accustomed to my players being poached. It demonstrates my ability to develop players to such a level that they attract attention. I take pride in bringing in new talents year after year, and it’s fulfilling to see my players excel in other schools,” said Fred Kasekende.

According to reliable sources, private schools, especially those competing for the national title, reportedly allocate a budget of not less than USh150m for football alone.

This includes players’ allowances and bonuses, considering these are players under the age of 20. Last year, a player left Kibuli SS because the school only offers bursaries without additional incentives.

Amus College School, coached by a former KCCA FC defender, is said to have earned USh40m as a team to qualify for nationals.

These schools typically have over 60 non-paying players, but this is mainly applicable to private schools.

But with this kind of finances for students do they study?

Many of these players are below the age of 20, yet a significant percentage of them neither attend classes nor stay at school regularly.

For instance, consider Ronald Madoi, the captain of St. Mary’s Kitende this year. He has already joined a professional team in Greece but was brought in specifically for this tournament since he is eligible.

The school is believed to have covered the cost of his air ticket, along with providing allowances during the tournament.

Additionally, some of these players are affiliated with top-flight clubs, which means they spend more time with their clubs than at school.

For example, Andrew Kawooya, the captain of St. Mary’s Kitende in 2022, used to play for MYDA in a lower league and reportedly couldn’t spare time for school; it’s believed he may not have even registered for Senior Six.

A teacher from Kibuli SS, who wished to remain anonymous, stated, “If the Uganda Secondary Schools Sports Association (USSA) were to visit these schools after the tournament, it’s highly doubtful they would find 10% of these players in attendance.

Over the past many years, the top private elite schools in football have struggled to gain admission to public universities and institutions. This is not due to age categories, but because many of these players are not active students.”

How does the screening of eligible players being done

For this year’s national level competitions, the Uganda Secondary Schools Sports Association (USSA) implemented the FUFA portal, which effectively captured many of these players, making it difficult to falsify their ages. In cases where necessary, national identity cards are referenced to verify age.

Albums for each school participating in the nationals were displayed, allowing individuals to scrutinize and identify players they wish to protest against, either individually or as a group.

Players’ registration has transitioned to digital platforms, but there are still challenges in rural areas where catching up with the digital era is a struggle.

A sports teacher at Hill view SS Burangira in Palisa expressed the desire for digital screening to be introduced at the district level as well. This, however, requires improvement in human resources and capacity building, particularly among the right individuals.

Some schools have become adept at circumventing the screening process without being caught for fielding ineligible players, despite their participation. This is often achieved through collusion with technical personnel within the USSA digital system. Consequently, it’s rare to find schools in the quarter-finals without at least one questionable player.

But why the tournament had so many petitions yet there was screening towards the tournament?

Chris Mugisa, the USSA CEO, stated that the measures were implemented to ensure fair competition, allowing students to compete against fellow students.

He mentioned that some petitions were submitted by the public, prompting further investigation.

The tournament organizers believe that eliminating ineligible players is an ongoing process that cannot be accomplished all at once. With time, they aim to gradually remove ineligible players, ensuring that only students participate in the tournament..

They previously imposed a ban of at least two years on schools found guilty of fielding ineligible players. However, Mugisa explained that they recognized innocent students were also affected by these penalties.

Therefore, they decided to focus on punishing the actual culprits. Instead of banning the entire school, they now demote the school to play classification games and prohibit the implicated players from participating in the tournament. This approach aims to develop the game in schools while ensuring fairness and accountability.

Environment at the final tournament

Before COVID-19, from 1996 to 2019, Coca-Cola used to provide uniforms for the teams, brand the stadiums, and ensure uniform branding for the students, a practice that is no longer observed today.

Additionally, feeding used to be consistent across all schools, with each school receiving the same treatment and at least four crates of sodas per day, regardless of their status, which is not the case anymore.

For instance, this year at Masaka SS, newcomers Bukedea Comprehensive were provided meals from a hotel, while Kibuli SS traveled with their own cooks to prepare special meals for their players.

Players often share an environment where they know each other well, having crossed paths in various tournaments or schools. For example, this year, schools like Kakungulu Memorial, Bulo Parents, and other Muslim foundation schools, including Kyaddondo SS, had previously participated in the UMEA solidarity games at Masaka SS.

Change in match officials to use of students partly

Recently, USSA has started utilizing students who have undergone capacity-building courses to officiate games involving their peers. These student referees are assessed by the Federation of Uganda Football Associations, and USSA believes this initiative will contribute to the development of young and competent referees in Uganda. Moreover, this approach has significantly contributed to cost-cutting measures.

Change of grouping

Despite the number of schools remaining at 64, the grouping system has changed from 8 groups to 16 groups, with each group comprising 4 teams.

However, teachers have protested this change, arguing that it is financially burdensome for schools to still pay the registration fee of USh2.5m, especially considering the government’s additional contribution of USh1m per school, only to play three matches and risk elimination. Previously, in a group of eight teams, schools would play a minimum of 7 games, providing more opportunities for participation.

This adjustment has condensed the tournament to be played within one week, and USSA has not yet issued a statement regarding this change.

Blessed Sacrament Kimanya blessed with no transfer this year’s edition

After a five-year absence from nationals, Blessed Sacrament Kimanya from Masaka made a powerful comeback with their entertaining style of football.

The team, enriched with players from El Cambio Soccer Academy, an initiative of Danish-born Thomas Thor that began in 2018—the last time Kimanya appeared in nationals and reached the final in Mbarara, only to lose 1-0 to Buddo SS. “El Cambio” is a Spanish word meaning “change” in English.

They have won the hearts of not only their supporters but also those of their opponents. Their Tiktak style of play, coupled with the physical stature of their players, has been admirable.

Remarkably, all the players were novices in this tournament, experiencing it for the first time. However, their strength lies in their cohesion, as they have been together for five to six years, practicing the same style of play under the guidance of the same coaching staff.

These players are exclusively permitted to participate in tournaments where Thomas Thor, the founder, grants permission. Currently, they compete in the Masaka First Division for their age group. They are well-equipped with training facilities at Kumbu in Masaka, providing them with the necessary equipment for their development.

Apart from Masaka SS, the traditional football powerhouse in greater Masaka, and St. Henry’s College Kitovu, the resurging football giants, Blessed Sacrament Kimanya has emerged as the new favorites, capturing the hearts of fans.

Currently, according to one of the coaches at El Cambio, Abbey Kakumirizi, the team’s primary focus isn’t on winning titles, but rather on allowing the boys to play and enjoy football.

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