Yesterday, the Uganda Cranes faced off against Zambia’s Chipolopolo with the hope of qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations. Zambia is the current champion of the Africa Cup; Uganda hasn’t qualified since 1978.
I knew the Cranes were the underdogs when I forked over 40,000 UGX ($16) for a ticket last week. The two teams squared off last month in Lusaka, where Zambia beat Uganda 1-0. Losing by one was considered a victory for the Cranes, and the underdogs hoped to topple the Chipolpolo at Nelson Mandela stadium in Kampala.
The tickets for the Uganda/Zambia match were more expensive than they have ever been for any other match, so instead of packing 70,000 people into a 40,000-person stadium per usual, there were a few sections that were completely empty. The crowd was still rowdy–flags waving, vuvuzelas blaring–but it wasn’t quite as intense as I expected. We arrived several hours early to secure a decent spot, but the stands were almost empty until an hour before the match. To fill the time, we played cards and an Ugandan game similar to “Sorry.”
Once the game began, the Cranes were on fire. They scored within the first twenty minutes and kept up a solid intensity throughout. Unfortunately, the fans weren’t quite as engaged. Because of the constant roar of vuvuzelas that African soccer matches are famous for, I assumed that people would stand and cheer on their team, but most people sat down for the entire match. I stood up at exciting moments, but people asked me to sit down and stop blocking their view. There were three times when fans stood up and got rowdy–during half time and twice when Zambian players got injured. I was a little surprised, because those are the few occasions when you could hear a pin drop at a sporting event in the U.S. I guess cultural differences can exist anywhere–even in the way people cheer at soccer matches.
With timid support from the crowd, the Cranes failed to score in the second half and the series was tied with Zambia and Uganda both scoring one goal between the two games. I expected there to be overtime like in most soccer matches, but the teams went straight to penalty kicks. Uganda won a huge break when the goalkeeper blocked Zambia’s first PK, but Uganda’s captain hit the crossbar in the third PK, tying it up. Both teams kept scoring until the tenth penalty kick, when Uganda missed. The match was finished. Even though the Cranes won the game and kept pace with Zambia for nine straight penalty kicks, they have once again failed to qualify for the Africa Cup. Heartbroken, we will still have to remember the glory days of 1978, when Uganda almost won the Africa Cup. Maybe we’ll get ’em next time.