The adventure is over but what an adventure it has been. Three weeks after touching down on Mauritanian soil, Uganda U-20 Hippos are finally obliged to return home, the tournament debutants fatally defeated in the finals of this year’s U-20 Africa Cup of Nations.
Points were taken off Mozambique and hosts Mauritania in the group stages before a high profile scalp in Tunisia in the quarter finals.
Coach Morley Byekwaso and his young team have exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations and stolen hearts from across the continent along the way.
A nation that was appearing at the biennial tournament for the first time has punched above its weight to an astonishing extent, leaving bigger and supposedly better teams scratching their heads and wondering how exactly they had been unable to overcome a team which bookmakers never fancied.
A final tie against powerhouse Ghana was a step too far, however.
The Hippos actually started well on Sunday night, testing a far-from-solid Ghana back-line with long diagonal passes in the opening minutes. They pushed bodies forward in support of forwards Derrick Kakooza and Richard Basangwa.
Hotshot Kakooza, the eventual tournament top scorer nearly put his side in the lead when he chased a high ball only for his lob to fly over the bar.
Hippos tried their luck with a couple of shots from the edge of the box and held a relatively high defensive line when their opponents had the ball. The Ugandan lads may have undoubtedly been this competition’s principal underdogs, but they have never lacked ambition.
The Black Satellites soon took control, though, and while Daniel Afriyie Barnie’s opener in the 22rd minute came marginally against the run of play, there could be no doubting that Coach Karim Abdul Zitos’ team had been the better team by the time the referee blew his whistle to bring the first half to a close.
A 1-0 lead at the break effectively put Ghana in the driving seat with Uganda fully aware that their unlikely dream was on the cusp of ending.
Morley Byekwaso’s charges have continually demonstrated magnificent doggedness and resilience at the 12-team tournament however, and those qualities were on display once again at the Stade Olympique in Nouakchott. They could not quite raise from their slumber this time round.
But although their chances of lifting the title were virtually ended with Afriyie second in the opening exchanges of the second half, Uganda continued to fight back to end an extraordinary tournament on a high.
This would have been thinkable just a few months ago, when football fans in Uganda watched their team emerge champions of the CECAFA U-20 Championships last year.
The manner in which Morley Byekwaso’s charges dispatched their CECAFA counterparts was a sign of positive things to come.
Even more remarkable is the fact that they have not simply made up the numbers in their first ever finals, instead taking second spot in Group A and knocking out one of the continent’s heavyweights in the quarter finals.
Their time in the tournament lasted until the final day of and surely Hippos have left an indelible mark on it, their spirit, grit, organisation and adherence to a well-defined game plan providing a blueprint which other smaller nations should now attempt to follow.
Whilst Uganda Hippos didn’t miss out on honors. Want-away forward Derrick Kakooza was the tournament top scorer with five goals while Coach Morley Byekwaso was named best coach of the tournament.
Left back Aziz Kayondo was named in the tournament best XI while Uganda didn’t not only take home the runners-up medals but also Fair Play team of the tournament.
Ghana may have won their fourth Championship on Sunday night, but Uganda did not loose.