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Mbalangu and NEC's date with history

NEC coach Hussein Mbalangu

NEC coach Hussein Mbalangu

Both Kitara FC and NEC FC will be meeting for the third time this season when they clash in the final of the Stanbic Uganda Cup this Saturday, May 25 at the Wankulukuku stadium.

The previous meetings happened in the Uganda Premier League, where each won their home game 1-0. But now, this weekend’s fixture is the most important for the sides, who have played in the top flight as two of three newly promoted teams. It is a watershed moment for Kitara and NEC, as this provides an opportunity to play in the Caf Confederation Cup in the 2024/25 season.

However, for NEC coach, Hussein Mbalangu, who argues that they and Kitara have created a new wave in Ugandan football, following their displays, which brought them to within touching distance of the league title, too, the Uganda Cup final is a case of destiny.

Like Mbalangu’s football career was, back in the early 2000s, he was not highly rated upon his arrival on the scene. Yet, like NEC, fought his way up the ladder until he got his due recognition.

Mbalangu recalls, “When I first arrived at SC Villa back in 2000, I had to compete with the likes of Andrew Mukasa, Hassan Mubiru and the late Majid Musisi. It was not easy getting playing time.”

Equally, there was little faith in his NEC side, when they secured promotion from the Fufa Big League at the end of the 2022/23 season. For many, NEC was among the favourites to be relegated. Yet, under Mbalangu, who is such a demanding coach, NEC are on the cusp of glory.

“It would mean a lot to us like I am sure it would mean to Kitara if we won our first Uganda Cup. The public perception towards us would change because people would now realize how serious we are,” Mbalangu said.

Perhaps clear signs of that were seen last Saturday, May 18, when NEC pushed SC Villa all the way on the final day of the UPL. For a number of people, the assumption had been that since NEC did not have much, but their pride to fight for, would roll over and allow Villa an easy win.

But it was far from it. As Mbalangu explained: “As a young team, we need to build a winners mentality, and to always be competitive. That is the only way we can become a winning side in the long term.”

It was that fighting spirit, but also the ability to emerge from difficulty, that endeared Villa to Mbalangu over 20 years ago. And it showed in the 2000 cup final. Being brought on as a substitute, after Mubiru and Mukasa had failed to break down Military FC, Mbalangu scored the winner late in the game for a 1-0 victory.

Such is what he expects from his team this weekend even though he will be missing the tournament top-scorer, Joseph Dhata (six goals).

jovi@observer.ug

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