Airtel Hatch MTN’s Egg as Cranes Qualify for AFCON 2017

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Uganda Cranes' Airtel cheerleaders entertain the audience before the Comoros match at Namboole.

Nicholas Kalungi.

The 2017 Africa cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifiers ended in dramatic yet exciting ways. Not only did Burkina Faso score a much needed winner against Botswana in the 99th minute but Togo thumped minors Djibouti 5:0 and went through.

But the most honest, unprecedented and authentic celebrations happened in Uganda. A 36th minute wonder strike from Farouk Miya won the game against Comoros and booked our place at AFCON 2017 to be held in Gabon between January and February 2017. As a country, we are celebrating the end of a 38 year jinx that had hovered around our team, the Uganda Cranes.
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At the back of these celebrations were emotions, feelings and battles. Majority of Ugandans were honestly happy. You, however can’t rule out that some ‘Ugandans’ were unhappy with the qualification. Yes, that is how the world is!

This qualification came at a time when Airtel Uganda is the official and main sponsor of Uganda Cranes. The other sponsors are Nile Breweries, Bidco Uganda Limited (BUL), and National Insurance Corporation (NIC). It is just in order to thank these companies for a job well done.

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That said, it is also in order to celebrate with those other sponsors that may not be with the Cranes today but laid a great foundation for the team to succeed. To be specific, even when Airtel Uganda is the official and current sponsor of Uganda Cranes (its four years contract expires in October 2017 with a renewal option), you can never ever under look the contribution of MTN Uganda to the Cranes.

Uganda Cranes team poses for photos with fans at a dinner organised by MTN in 2013.
Uganda Cranes team poses for photos with fans at a dinner organised by MTN in 2013.

That day when MTN Uganda and Uganda Cranes took separate paths is still fresh in my eyes. Though unexpected at that time, it happened! That day, MTN had placed its well nurtured egg into the hands of Airtel, an egg that was later to hatch into a qualification that Ugandans had looked forward to for close to four decades! It is against such a background that we can’t help but look back nostalgically!

In a brief press statement dated 28th October, 2013 and titled ‘MTN Uganda’s Cranes Sponsorship Ends’, the then MTN Uganda Chief Marketing Officer, Ernst Fonternel said that the company had failed to agree on a sponsorship renewal deal with FUFA as they presented a non-negotiable deal. He said that the terms of the deal were however outside MTN’s sponsorship budget.

Some of Uganda Cranes players at an MTN function in 2013.
Some of Uganda Cranes players at an MTN function in 2013.

“At MTN we genuinely believe in the team and our nation and we are extremely proud of the accomplishments we have achieved together over the last 10 years. No doubt that the recent ‘We Believe’ campaign from MTN has inspired the nation and the Cranes for them to have gone on to quality for CHAN 2014”, said Ernst Fonternel.

“MTN is proud of the role it has played in the growth and popularity of Football in Uganda. With a yellow family of 8.4 million we remain the biggest supporters of Sports in Uganda and wish them best of luck for the future”, concluded Fonternel.

On the street, word was moving that FUFA had agreed a new contract with another sponsor, who just like MTN, was a telecom. So was the ‘non-negotiable deal’ deal presented to MTN by coincidence or design?

This rumor became reality on 31st October 2013 when Bharti Airtel (Airtel Uganda), announced that it had entered into a partnership with FUFA to be the official sponsor of Uganda’s national football team, the Uganda Cranes. The sponsorship agreement which was signed on 23rd October 2013 would see Airtel working hand in hand with FUFA to promote Ugandan football for the next four years. At that very moment, Airtel had inherited probably one of the most well nurtured eggs; one that would later give birth to history.

While confirming this, the then Airtel Managing Director, V.G Somasekhar said:  “We do want to be able to support what our consumers are passionate about and we know they are proud of their team and football is a part of what they love to watch or take part in every day.  We are humbled to have been given this opportunity.”

“We are excited to welcome Airtel to the football family,” said FUFA president, Mr. Moses Magogo. “Football fans are passionate, loyal and community-oriented – qualities that Airtel and its passionate team members share and embody every day.”

And there we were; MTN Uganda had lost one of Uganda’s most loved and cherished properties to Airtel Uganda.

There was reasonably good public outcry against this development. Many fans never believed that Airtel would manage to push and support the Uganda Cranes the same way MTN Uganda had done. At that time the grieving fans were right as MTN had proven beyond reasonable doubt; its love and support for the Cranes. Throughout the Cranes Football calendar, MTN would paint the streets and media yellow. Everyone wanted to be part of this, everyone wanted to associate with Uganda Cranes. MTN’s investment in Regional Football was equally impressive.

These fears were not helped by Airtel Uganda’s unprepared start of its life with the Uganda Cranes. The first games after Airtel took over purely lacked the big sponsor zeal, fans excitement, pre-match build up/ hype and outstanding on match rush and hospitality. More voices again questioned Airtel’s abilities to sponsor Cranes and later alone lead the team to the ‘Promised Land’.

However, after some months, things started to normalize. Airtel upped their game while the Fans’ relationship with the ‘MTN Cranes’ started to tear.  The rest is history.

So two years and about 11 months after Airtel took over Uganda Cranes’ Sponsorship, the team has qualified for the AFCON. A local artiste by the names of Stabua Natooro has a mass market hit song that sums up this situation. It is titled ‘Oli wa Mukisa’. I mean, Airtel is lucky! They happened to be in the right place at the right time when history was made. Was this entirely about them being lucky or have they, along the way, become equal to the sponsorship? We shall see that later.

Our grandparents were very clever and came up with two Luganda sayings that sum up all that has happened until now.

One; ‘Ajajamba Omulwade, Siyamusikira’ which when directly translated into English means that taking care of a patient doesn’t automatically grant one inheritance rights when the said patient dies.

The second is; ‘Ganyana, Ganywebwa Muwangazi’. This in English means that the milk of a female calf can only be enjoyed by those who live longer. It relates more with the indigenous breeds of cattle whose calves take between 2 to 5 years to grow.

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MTN Uganda built the Uganda Cranes for 10 years, but Airtel Uganda delivered us to AFCON.  MTN Uganda invested in Uganda Cranes for 10 years but stopped somewhere. Airtel has invested in the Cranes for 3 years now and there we are, booking our tickets to Gabon.

Fans have always loved and trusted in Coach Micho. This was in 2013.
Fans have always loved and trusted in Coach Micho. This was in 2013.

Credit must obviously be given where it is due. Ahead of the Comoros encounter, Airtel must have felt it in their instincts that Uganda Cranes qualification was imminent, rose to the occasion and met it with an equal measure of hype! A massive Airtel campaign, Mujje Tulumbe (come and we attack) that gave out a variety of prizes to fans, including cars and tickets for the Comoros encounter at Namboole surely ‘bred’ the required excitement ahead of the AFCON qualifier.

You can say that Airtel were just lucky or that MTN should have held onto the Uganda Cranes sponsorship a little longer but one thing is very clear; Uganda Cranes qualified for AFCON 2017 after a 38 years absence, at a time when Airtel were their sponsors and in so doing, Airtel had hatched an Egg laid by MTN! Both timing and good luck were on their side and their risk has paid off!
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