It may be a full two months until we see a full 11-man side of Rapids players take the field. But one member of the Colorado Rapids, Micheal Azira, will be on the field in January, playing in the African Cup of Nations for his native country of Uganda.
Azira had been invited earlier to the Cranes training camp and played two matches back in November, where he clearly impressed coach Milutin Sredojević, earning a call back to play this past Tuesday against Tunisia.
In that match held in Tunis, Azira earned his first-ever start for his national team, but the Ugandans lost, 2-0. Azira played all 90 minutes, but also earned a yellow card in the 59th minute of the match. I asked Entebbe-based sports writer David Isabirye about his performance, since the game was only broadcast in Africa. Forgive Mr. Isabirye’s imprecise English.
Sounds like our Micheal: clean and covering space, good short passing vision.
The African Cup of Nations tournament has been contested since 1957, and has, with some exceptions, been contested every two years. Uganda has not appeared in the tournament since 1978, but were runners-up in that year’s tournament. Back then, only eight teams played in the tournament, while this year’s edition will be contested by sixteen teams.
The 2017 AFCON takes place in the West African nation of Gabon. The Ugandan team were drawn into Group D, along with Ghana, Mali, and Egypt.
The Cranes have to be considered underdogs to advance out of the group. The vast majority of the squad named on Wednesday play for lesser-known teams in countries like Vietnam, Lebanon, South Africa, and Kenya. Cranes Striker Farouk Miya may be the only player other than Azira to play for a team that the average football fan would be familiar with, as the 21 year-old is part of Standard Liege in the Belgian League. Miya, however, has only one appearance for his club, and that was as a substitute.
Meanwhile the Egyptian team fields three players that play regularly in the English Premier League, and can also boast talented AS Roma winger Mohamed Salah. Nine players for the national team of Mali ply their trade in the French first or second division, and “Les Aigles” will also field Crystal Palace striker Bakary Sako.
The Black Stars of Ghana have to be seen as Group D favorites. With players like Baba Rahman (Schalke), Christian Atsu (Newcastle), and Jordan Ayew (Aston Villa), their level of talent is clearly quite high. Ghana have won the African Cup four times, and have qualified for the last three World Cups. MLS’ own Columbus Crew sport two Ghanaian national teamers on their backline in Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah. Both were called up take part in AFCON 2017 for the Black Stars.
Azira and the Cranes will be in action again on January 8 as they play a friendly against Slovakia, and again on January 11 against Ivory Coast. Both games will be held in Abu Dhabi, Dubai.
Uganda begins group play in AFCON 2017 against Ghana on Tuesday, January 17. AFCON (some? many? all?) games will be broadcast on beIN sport in the US. BeIN can also be streamed for $10 a month via fubo.tv, right here. For good twitter updates of the Ugandan team, follow the Cranes official handle @OfficialFUFA and Uganda sports website @kawowosports . And of course, check back with us at Burgundy Wave for updates about Azira and the Cranes as they compete in this years African Cup of Nations.