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Ugandan fan Roger Kasule speaks on why it's Arsenal

Welcome to another leg of the ’1nildown2oneup’ Global Gooner Passion series. It has been wonderful hearing stories of evolving passion for our great club, thousands of miles from North London and today is no exception. Many of you will know @rodgerk1 and like me will have enjoyed many a twitter convo with him. However most may not have asked him or realised he is from Uganda. In the real non social media world, @rodgerk1 is really Rodger Kasule and I am delighted to accept his offer to contribute his and Uganda’s foootball tale

I’m such a big critic of my own work to the extent that I started up a blog about life years back but gave up after one year and a half of writing. A few months back a friend convinced me to take to the keyboard again and I began to contribute pieces for two blog sites about my beloved Arsenal. The problem is that I’m such a perfectionist when it comes to arts and performances. If something (an art) is not done to perfection, then it better be left untouched until somebody able to put that Midas touch on it can handle it. Sadly, I don’t see myself as one capable turning a piece into gold. I set standards so high for myself and frequently I’ve written articles for blogs that have ended up either in the recycled bin or in my “to be continued” folder.

It is because of this self doubt and self criticism that I asked Dave to just send me questions about supporting Arsenal in my tiny East African country called Uganda, as I had seen him do for others in this ‘Global Gooner series.’ I would have been more than willing to just answer back and maybe have him make a post from the interview responses, to produce something wonderful as he did with Anna @MadRuskiGunner. Fail! Dave wasn’t buying that for a minute. As it happens, he had seen one of my pieces before and for some reason (God knows what) he felt that there was a writer in me. Dave compelled me to do a full blog on the Arsenal fan base in Uganda. So here I am, on a Sunday midmorning before heading out to enjoy the sun, trying to find some sensible words to put together that will pass as a blog piece.

Uganda:I’m very aware of the possibility of over 50% of fans and ardent readers of “1nildown2oneup” not knowing or even having heard of my tiny country towards the eastern coast of the African continent known as Uganda. Because save for the occasional jaw dropping headlines that have been covered on and off about the country, nothing much really happens here. I’ve been made cognizant of this on the couple of occasions I have travelled out of the country, or interacted with followers on twitter. With this in mind, I will first give a brief description of the country and its history, before moving onto sharing with readers about the passion for football (or soccer as it’s commonly referred to as here.) Most particularly, how Arsenal edges all the other clubs, when it comes to EPL following by the indigenous people.

Bordered by Democratic republic of Congo to the west, Tanzania and Rwanda to the South, Southern Sudan to the North and Kenya in East; Uganda is a landlocked country. It was a British protectorate (not colony) from the late 1800s having welcomed the first explorer sent by the Royal Geographical society in 1878, who was later followed by the missionaries and eventually, the colonial government. Uganda occupies an area Total of 236,040 km2 (91,136 sq mi) with 15.39% covered by different water bodies including the largest tropical lake in world (Lake Victoria) that also acts as the source of the longest river in the world (River Nile). The country gained its independence from the British government on 10th October 1962. And since then has been embroiled in different political instabilities until 1986 when a relatively stable government took control of the power and has remained at the helm to date.

Football in Uganda

History has it that football as a game was introduced by the then colonial government in 1953 where the first participants wore no shoes but rather played the game in bare feet as showed in the video below, when the Uganda Touring 11 travelled to England to play against the Wycombe wanderers in 1956. The country then had no national league or even any organized group that would pass for a national team. My guess is that the then colonial government might’ve selected a choice 11 of their servants and took them on an England tour that involved a friendly match against Wycombe wanderers. Of course, I could be wrong.

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But a year after that humiliating defeat, the country saw the founding of the first and now oldest football club. In 1957, Express football club, which later became popularly referred to as the “Red Eagles”, was founded by the then owners of the most popular daily in the country known as the “Uganda Express Newspaper.” The club got such a huge following that they could afford to treat themselves to almost everything needed to galvanize themselves as the strongest league side for many years to follow and hence became the first ever football team in the country to play with football shoes! (The Manchester City of Uganda in the late 1950s, no less.) The popularity of this football club became too strong such that their large following was misunderstood politically in 1977. As a result, the club was banned by the Governor and National Council of Sports chairman at the time.

The ban imposed on Express FC gave way to the rise of its youth side Nakivubo Boys. Almost all the officials turned to these young boys to console themselves and as a result were able to engineer the team to becoming a footballing power house. Nakivubo boys changed its name to Nakivubo Villa which they later again changed to Sports Club Villa, which was to later become Express’ arch rival when the ban was lifted off them in 1978. Amongst many other things, the rivalry benefitted the national team, who managed to gain enough crop of talent that saw them reach the highest achievement on the continental scene when they made it to the final of the African Nations’ Cup finals, only to lose 2-1 to Ghana. Since then, the country has never managed to qualify for another continental final. A long wait indeed, but the passion for the game still rides high amongst the faithful.

The English Premier League in Uganda

The rivalry between Express FC and SC Villa was all the lovers of the game in this country knew from the late 70s to the late 90s. All other derby games were but just dwarfs compared to this monster. I remember as a kid brought up in the city, whenever Express FC was going to play SC Villa, the whole city would be buzzing the entire Saturday match day. That was what everyone would talk about until 7pm that evening when the game had ended and the fans had returned to their respective pubs to settle the scores.

SC Villa v Express derby action

However, something tragic happened in the early 2000s, at the peak of the “fanfare.” Hooligans took advantage of the situation and on this one fateful day, when the two clubs were playing, a riot broke out between the fans. The police had to intervene by shooting tear-gas into the crowds which lead to loss of lives and sustenance of injuries by many. The reputation of the game and the national league was put on trial and action had to be taken. This led to the suspension of the league by the Ministry of Sports for a period which left a void in many fan’s hearts.

Meanwhile, the airing of the Barclays Premier league from England had started in 1998 on STV, this having been a free channel on which many people had watched the World Cup 1998. Hungry for more television football, footie fans still wandered through the channels to suckle their yearning souls, and amongst these was yours truly. As a kid growing up, all I had known for sport was football. I remember at age 7, I somehow managed to watch USA 94, now at 11years (in 1998) I decided to move from just watching the continental (AFCON, EURO) and World Cup games. I was starting to get a “good” understanding of the game, although I guess it was more of lust though to be honest, as I couldn’t really make much of the tactics, technicalities and all. However, I knew I loved the game so much and wanted to watch as much of it as I played. Many games did I watch, and many teams did I enjoy watching, but the defining moment was when I watched that FA cup semi-final between Manchester United and Arsenal, when the game was being aired live. I watched both teams and decided to pick one to support. I enjoyed the team with white pants and a red top with white sleeves most. I loved THE ARSENAL most. Yes I remember we lost the game in the dying minutes, when some hairy chested pretty boy cut in from down our right flank, hit one past Safe hands David Seaman into the roof of the net. But it was too late for young Rodger. I shared in the pain of the team and they quickly became my undying love. Slowly, I began to furnish myself with Arsenal information, great matches, history and whatever I could lay my hands on. Of course, there was so much to absorb that I couldn’t get it all and I’m still learning much. Yet like Andrey Arshavin, I was able to come out and say, “I am gunner”!

From the world cup 98’, the Premier League following slowly but surely began to grow in Uganda. Clusters of fans started making choices of EPL clubs, but the biggest fan bases were Arsenal and Manchester United with a few sprinkles of a Chelsea fan here, and a Chelsea fan there. Then came the 2002 world cup!

Passionate Ugandan fans and Gooners

Arsenal on the ascent

As Dave has often described with passion and eloquence I can’t do justice to, we played our best ever football in recent years en-route to the 2001/2002 League and Cup double. On the back of this came the 2002 World cup. Ugandans. since the liberation war (1986). had been big followers of international cup competitions especially the World Cup, EUROS and AFCON. Ugandans were so excited to once again be able to delve into football’s biggest show piece in Korea & Japan 2002. Television and Audio shops had booming business, as hundreds of thousands of fans took to shops to get a hold of whatever could bring the games as close to them as possible. At the crowning of the event, an even deeper void was plowed into the hearts of many, they all longed for more, something to keep feeding this craving for top class football to watch. Therefore, with the popularity of the EPL having caught up country wide, there was only one option for almost all; choose an English club to which to pledge allegiance. The skirmishes in the local football governing body didn’t help fend off the migration toward English football and Arsenal happened to be the luckiest recipient of new admirers. The style with which the club played attracted many, with striker Thierry Henry at his peak, the elegance with which he played, made him come off almost as a diva to many. Few could resist the attraction he had become and the charm of Arsenal and Wenger’s football.

To date, Arsenal still enjoys the lion’s share in foreign club’s fan bases in this tiny East African nation. Throngs of thousands have opened up pub memberships just to watch ‘The Arsenal’ week in week out. Much as not many are as well informed about the trivialities and nitty-gritties of the on goings at the club, been preyed upon by ill-informed radio talking heads, the passion is still evident on match days. NO club fills up pubs all over the country like Arsenal does. All pub owners country over love it when Arsenal are playing as they know they will push more beers and cover charge collections will be more than when other clubs are playing.

Footie Bar in Kampala

Despite the unfortunate trophy draught, the much ridicule and spitefulness that has cropped up as a result, Ugandan Gunners stay strong. All the news feeders and sensationalist websites, biased and ill-informed talking heads have not turned the Arsenal fan base here in the main. A great number still have a hope, believing that one day when the lads in red and white lift a major trophy, it will not just be a silver cup, it will be a restoration and repayment of faith that millions around the globe have held onto dearly. The Arsenal still lives and STRONG in ‘The Pearl of East Africa.’

Thanks so much for the history into the development of football in your country and for the insight into the growth of fans enjoyment of the Premier League and of Arsenal in particular. A special thank you for sharing your own journey in to Goonerdom and enriching all our knowledge of just how far the love of Arsenal reaches. I am sure you will gain many new friends on twitter as a result which you richly deserve. (@RodgerK1)

Until next time, which will be me again, thanks for reading.

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