Uganda's soccer 'immortals' qualify for Africa Cup of Nations

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    uganda soccer can afcon 2017_00000000


      Uganda's soccer stars on brink of becoming 'immortal'


    Uganda's soccer stars on brink of becoming 'immortal' 01:06

    Story highlights

    • Milutin Sredojević leads Uganda to first CAN for 38 years
    • Uganda beat Comoros 1-0 to qualify for Gabon 2017
    • The Serb and his players on brink of becoming 'immortals'
    • Uganda's football history disrupted by brutal dictatorship

    (CNN)What is the best thing about being an international football star?

    Is it the fame and money, the joy of winning matches and trophies, or simply being able to make a nation proud?
      For Uganda national team coach Milutin Sredojević, the answer is an easy one.
      "The biggest power given to us in sport is the power of making people happy," the Serbian coach told CNN's Alex Thomas.
      "I believe you should leave no stone unturned and you should pull all the way to make people even happier, because this is the motivation.
      "To make people happy is a special, special feeling."
      On Sunday, Sredojević led Uganda to the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) for the first time in almost 40 years -- a barren run stretching back to 1978.
      A 1-0 win over Comoros ensured "The Cranes" finished second in Group D -- behind Burkina Faso -- to qualify for the continent's most prestigious football tournament.
      It has been quite an astonishing fall from grace. Uganda finished runner up to Ghana in the 1978 CAN, but its subsequent absences from the 1980 and 1982 editions had nothing to do with a lack of quality on the pitch.
      From 1971-1979 Uganda was gripped by one of the most violent dictatorships in history, led by Idi Amin.
      During a military coup in 1972, Amin ousted leader Milton Obote and seized power, declaring himself president and beginning a reign seen as one of the bloodiest in African history -- earning Amin the nickname "Butcher of Uganda."
      Naturally, this would have an impact on the field of play. Several players who started the final in 1978 served in the war, one -- Fred Isabirye -- tragically lost his life.
      "Because of all the time that has passed (since Uganda last qualified), it is something that puts us in a position of becoming immortals," Sredojević says proudly.
      "Immortals in a way that in daily life that is not a bed of roses for Ugandans, we have succeeded to put a smile on their faces, happiness and pride of being Ugandan.
      "The Uganda Cranes have become a uniting factor that has helped Uganda come together for -- I want to call it -- a team effort, on the field and off the field.
      "Everyone has pushed in the right direction. We have succeeded to qualify and I feel extremely proud."
      Like most the of players he is currently managing, it's fair to say Sredojević has enjoyed a less-than-distinguished career.
      His playing days saw him turn out for clubs in his native Serbia as well as Slovenia and his managing career did the same.
      A change of continents in 2001 saw the 47-year-old arrive at Ugandan club SC Villa, starting a 15-year love affair with Africa.
      "I have to say this (qualifying) is the crown of my personal coaching career on the continent," Sredojević gushes.
      "And after 15 years in Africa, I have coached in six different countries. I have won 12 different leagues and cups in four different countries, I have been three times in the semifinals of the Champions League -- but I need to accept that this is the pure crown of my career."
      Uganda is one of the most youthful countries in the world. In fact, several online publications -- including the CIA -- list it as the second youngest behind Niger, with a mean average age of just 15.6.
      Over 70% of its habitants are under 40 years old, meaning the vast majority of the country are not old enough to have ever witnessed the national team competing in CAN.
      It's a trend reflected in the national team, which has an average age of 22.
      "Many people are born, they're living and they had never heard their national anthem at the Africa Cup of Nations, the most important sports competition on the continent," Sredojević says.
      "So, in a way, I feel extremely proud because this is a product of enthusiasm and improvisation from my side, patriotism of the players and love and prayers for the players from the millions of supporters, no matter of political, religious or tribal belongings."
      But what of Uganda's chances at Gabon 2017 now that qualification has been sewn up?
      "You know, in whichever competition you are entering, if you do not enter with the ambition to win, what are you doing there?" he says matter-of-factly.
      Listening to Sredojević, his belief is infectious.
      While his claim may seem like one of an overenthusiastic coach, he points to Leicester City's recent Premier League success and Greece's unlikely victory at Euro 2004 to support his stance.
      "It is sounding a bit unrealistic but we have seen this (Leicester and Greece) in football, and this is why people love football on this planet," Sredojević says.
      "So we really want to give a good account of ourselves, try our best and look forward to our best -- to see what our real value is.
      "We haven't any pressure whatsoever; after 39 years, to be back in the competition and rubbing the shoulders with the best on the continent is an achievement, but simply we don't want to stop here.
      "We are in a process of developing and in that process we want to reach as far as possible."
      Uganda's first competitive fixture since qualifying for CAN will bring back painful memories.
      In September, The Cranes take on Ghana in Accra -- the same city and opponent that featured in the unsuccessful 1978 final -- as the final qualification process for the 2018 World Cup gets under way.
      Despite the majority of the country not being old enough to witness the defeat, after 38 years Uganda's new generation has a chance at redemption.