PORT- GENTIL, Gabon, Jan 20 – “There is no bigger showroom than the Africa Cup of Nations,” says Uganda coach Milutin Sredojevic, and making it to this year’s tournament in Gabon has thrust him and his team into the limelight.
The articulate and engaging Serbian has been working towards this moment since first arriving on the continent in 2001, and now he has taken Uganda to a first Cup of Nations since 1978.
For Sredojevic, or “Coach Micho” as he likes to be known, leading Uganda back to the big time has brought the kind of recognition and responsibility that he did not wait around to get in his homeland.
“I was very successful as a young coach in my country. However I didn’t get an adequate chance, and a situation arose that I had the chance to come to Uganda in 2001,” he tells AFP at the bar of the team’s hotel in Port-Gentil.
He was still in his early 30s when he set off on his African adventure, one that started at Kampala club Villa SC and has since taken him to Ethiopia, South Africa, Tanzania, Sudan and Rwanda before a return to Uganda and the national team in 2013.
“I came and decided to start from scratch to build myself as a coach, my name, my brand, to give everything I know, all I learnt.
“I have had an amazing experience, I have visited 50 countries out of 54, and after 16 years I count myself as a soldier and servant of African football in a way.”
That time and that experience means he is now fully used to the often unique footballing environment in Africa.
“Micho” says a willingness to get on with it despite the many obstacles put in his way has helped him succeed where others might have failed.
“The first rule I put in front of myself was that I would not ask questions about anything. It is totally different in terms of facilities, logistics, organisation, from the point of all football aspects, off the field, on the field,” he says.
“Therefore you cannot just be the coach. You need to be an elder brother and teacher of life to the players.
“You are playing so many roles. In the end you can count that 10 percent you will be coach.”
“Micho” takes credit for helping develop the goalkeeper Denis Onyango, who has just been named African Player of the Year based in Africa for 2016, having worked with him in his first spell in Uganda.
However, there are no Ugandans starring at a high level in Europe.
“This is the perfect platform for the players to be seen, and it gives a chance to the agents and scouts to recognise them,” he says of the Cup of Nations.
He says the Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama, now with Tottenham Hotspur, is a “shining example” of what players in eastern Africa can offer.
– World Cup dream –
The progress he has made has Uganda ahead of schedule, with the 2019 Cup of Nations in Cameroon having been his initial objective.
The Cranes are still involved in the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup but “Micho” accepts that the recent decision to expand that tournament to 48 teams from 2026 could provide Uganda with the chance to make the breakthrough.
“I don’t know if I will be 100 percent in Africa in 2026, but the legacy I will leave behind will help so that Uganda can be a very serious contender to go to the World Cup,” he adds.
Meanwhile, on a personal level he appears to be in no rush to go back to Europe.
“I have had chances to go to Europe and coach in very respectable leagues. However, the challenge of coaching in Europe and coaching in Africa is totally different,” he says.
“I see myself in Africa, I am very satisfied and happy and I look forward in the years to come to staying still in Africa.”