Ceasar Okhuti absorbed the hero status after Uganda beat Rwanda in the final of the Cecafa Cup 2015 in Ethiopia to claim a record 14th title – plus $30,000 (over sh95m) prize money.
The Vipers SC attacker’s 14th minute header from a Denis Okot cross beat goakeeper Eric Ndayishimiye in a very physical and entertaining game at the Addis Ababa Stadium on Saturday.
The battle saw the Amavubi Stars impose their aerial and ball-holding strength over an equally solid Ugandan opposition, but they just couldn’t recover as The Cranes endured a nervy second half to hold on until the final whistle and spark celebrations miles away in Kampala.
It means Rwanda have now failed to beat Uganda in four finals of the regional competition, with previous meetings in 2011, 2009 and 2003.
While Uganda’s goakeeper Ismail Watenga won the Golden Glove for his heroics in-between the posts, Rwanda’s coach Jonathan McKinstry was named Coach of the Tournament.
The 29-year-old Irish tactician’s side will travel back to Kigali with a $20,000 cash prize for finishing as runner-up while the hosts Ethiopia, bagged $10,000 for taking third spot after seeing off Sudan 5-4 on penalties earlier.
For The Cranes, the trip back home will be a delightful one, and more so for Coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic who, ironically, was in charge of Rwanda in 2011 when Uganda had last beaten the Amavubi Stars in the final. Back then, it was current Kenyan coach Bobby Williamson in charge of The Cranes.
This is the first time Micho is winning the title at the helm and while he has already thanked his players for their hard work, as well as the Ugandan fans for their backing, Micho will know his boys fought hard to shake off a formidable opponent.
Coach Micho being interviewed in Addis. (Credit: Norman Katende)
The Rwandans, who beat Sudan to reach the final, allowed The Cranes to boss play in the opening minutes, and for long periods, much of the ball was packed in their half.
But they didn’t take that dominance lying down, and when 24-year-old Police FC striker Jacques Tuyisenga was brought down in the 12th minute, Jean-Claude Iranzi stepped up to deliver Rwanda’s first set-piece, which went to waste.
And this is where the cruelty of the game of football comes in. Two minutes later, Uganda took the lead through a fierce Okhuti header (his third goal of the tournament), although the striker clipped his ankle by the post as he landed. Swift medical attention got him back on his feet moments later.
The Cranes nearly got another but the ever-industrious Joseph Ochaya, who was also celebrating his 23rd birthday, headed wide from a well taken corner.
By halfway into the opening half, the Amavubi Stars had settled in the game, and began turning their guns towards the other end of the pitch. Nifty interplay between Tuyisenga and Michel Rusheshangoga on the right flank ended in a floater that was easily collected by ‘keeper Watenga.
Jean-Baptiste Mugiraneza’s lanky presence in the central midfield proved that of significance alongside Yannick Mukunzi, providing the dominance the Rwandans required in the centre of the pitch.
It should have been 1-1 in the 29th minute when Iranzi’s powerful shot ricocheted off defender Murushid Jjuuko and span out of play, marking Rwanda’s best moment of the first half.
And while the Amavubi Stars were intent on utilizing setpieces to find a breakthrough, The Cranes took advantage of the flanks, especially with the likes of Okhuti on the left who proved a thorn in the Amavubi Stars’ defence.
This was as physical an encounter as it could get. (Credit: Norman Katende)
Captain Miya Farouk, with three goals in this tournament, had a quiet afternoon – up until the 37thminute when he muscled his way through two defenders but they did well to force a corner. Moments later, Erisa Ssekisambu slotted a pass into the path of a dashing Okot and the Ugandan defender’s cross was headed off target by Miya.
Evidence of the highly physical nature of the game emerged four minutes before half time when Jjuuko, who plays for Tanzanian side Simba FC, entered Somalian referee Hassan Mohamed’s book for a needless shove on Tuyisenga during an aerial encounter.
Rwanda entered the second half meaning business, dominating possession and throwing men in front in pursuit of an early leveler.
Okhuti, who appeared not to have recovered well from his goal-scoring injury, gave way for fellow left-footer Isaac Muleme eight minutes after restart.
And with the pressure from the marauding Amavubi Stars increasing, Uganda had even more reason to worry when captain Miya got involved in a mid-air head collision that kept him on the surface for some minutes before being wheeled off the pitch for further attention.
Following an altercation with the referee during that tense moment, Bernard Muwanga was also yellow-carded.
The Rwandans piled more pressure upfront, and once substitute Bizimana Djihad fed in Mugiraneza in the box before defender Jjuuko, who has been solid in Uganda’s back line, cleared out of danger.
Iranzi was also a culprit of a challenge on Miya and entered the referee’s book.
In the 79th minute, Uganda almost sealed the win when second half sub Kezironi Kizito, who had come on for Ssekisambu, dashed into the danger area but his interception missed Miya right across the goalmouth.
Ernest Sugira’s introduction late on for Iranzi did not change the course of the game, and neither did Frank Kalanda’s coming on in place of Mutyaba right at the dead of a pulsating final.
Uganda, having lost only once in this edition (the opening game against Kenya), proved a force to reckon with in the region. The Cranes are the only Cecafa side, besides Ethiopia and hosts Rwanda, who will take part in next year’s African Nations Championships (CHAN) in the Rwandan capital Kigali.
Uganda is the highest-ranked Cecafa country in the FIFA World Rankings (63rd) and is also the only Cecafa nation to make it to the group stages of the World Cup 2018 qualifiers.