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Surprise call up of unknown Daniel Isiagi to Cranes squad

During the Monday, March 22 training session in Kitende, Daniel Opolot Isiagi was one of the players in The Cranes team that went through the orientation subjected to all newcomers.

The ritual to being inducted into the team for every new member, including coaches and support staff, entails the old team members forming a circle and clap for the new member, as he dances before them.

Beyond one cap registered against Lesotho during a Cosafa Cup tournament in South Africa, where The Cranes made an appearance as an invited team back in 2019, Isiagi, has not been a factor in the national team squad. That has made the decision by Cranes interim coach Abdallah Mubiru, to include Isiagi in his first supposedly summoned senior Cranes squad to face Burkina Faso and Malawi in the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, a huge surprise.

Incidentally, Isiagi plies his trade in South Africa. But he is in the second-tier league with Jomo Cosmos football club, where he has played five games, although he is yet to score a single goal, a fact that made his call up a mysterious one.

Mujib Kasule, who once coached Isiagi at Proline FC said: “I was surprised to see Isiagi summoned because unless you are part of the establishment, as a striker, it is goals that speak for you. Isiagi has not been among the goals at Jomo Cosmos, but maybe it is something about the development of his game, that the coaches noticed, which formed the basis of his summoning.”

It was that curious question that Mubiru faced, when he announced his squad earlier this month. He said that they had been monitoring Isiagi’s progress at Cosmos, and therefore they saw it fit to have him in the team. However, to many observers, Mubiru was simply taking a bullet for someone. Isiagi was a name, coach Johnathan McKinstry had already penciled in before he was told to step aside for the forthcoming games.

After Cranes’ domestic players largely under-performed at the Chan tournament, McKinstry’s faith in them had apparently dwindled. And therefore, McKinstry would rather work with a big player like Isiagi at 6ft 3inches, who plays in a more professional setting than is probably the case in the Uganda Premier League.

As much as Mubiru claimed that McKinstry had no say in picking the current Cranes squad, sources said that the team had been picked by the northern Irish coach before Mubiru was asked to take interim charge.

Eyeballs will be on Mubiru on whether he will indeed select Isiagi to face Burkina Faso and Malawi, even without the numbers to merit him.

Kasule said: “Depending on what the coaches will want, Isiagi is not a bad player as some people try to make him out to be. With his size, Isiagi has a good first touch and can score goals with the right service. And then one must know how best to use him.”

Having coached him between 2016 and 2018, Kasule acknowledges that Isiagi is not the tireless runner. But he noted that he has the talent and technique to thrive. In fact, Kasule compared Isiagi to the former Manchester United striker, Dimitar Berbatov; not the kind to hustle defenders with a physical approach but the type, who, once the ball is at their feet, can score or play in a delightful pass, which unlocks the defense.

During Isiagi’s time at Proline, he scored nine league goals (a brace against KCCA FC) in 20 odd games but also cranked up numerous assists according to Kasule during the 2017/18 season. And the fact that he now plays in South Africa, should be proof he has what it takes. Perhaps, he just has to be given a chance, and Kasule believes in his powers to succeed.

 “What has affected Isiagi is the fact, that he has not had a settled playing career. He has moved clubs so frequently, which has denied him a chance to settle, focus and learn.- He said,

The Proline director added, that much of Isiagi’s unsettled career is the fault of his father, MP and seasoned football administrator, Patrick Isiagi. Kasule noted, that while the senior Isiagi is his good friend, he has told him numerous times to allow the boy to develop gradually, other than rushing him all the time from one club to another, where he finds different coaches with different philosophies.

One time, Kasule recalls, he had an altercation at Lugogo with the senior Isiagi, who walked towards him to express his disquiet for keeping his son on the bench. Kasule told him off, insisting that as a coach, he had the prerogative to pick the best team.

“I felt bad because senior was not letting the player be and allowing him to grow organically. That has also inhibited the boy from realizing his full potential early, all the time thinking that Daddy is a fall-back position,” Kasule said.

Considering that senior Isiagi is a rich man, that has impacted on his son’s will to really pursue football as a career. Not many footballers in Uganda currently, not even those that are probably miles ahead of his son in terms of talent, have trained at some of the clubs like Palermo, Chievo or Parma, as Isiagi has.

But without much football in his legs brought about by the start and stop, because of the constant movements from one club to another, it has turned out to be a disservice to Isiagi’s game, a reason he remains an outlier in The Cranes squad.

Isiagi was a student at Kibuli SSS, and under the tutelage of coach Mubiru, made the school team squad to a couple of Copa Coca-Cola championships between 2013 and 2015. But he was not a mainstay even in that team largely because grit and graft in his game were in short supply.

In addition, Isiagi has had the tendency to do disappearing acts from daily team training, something few coaches can take if they are to protect their jobs. For example, after a few listless performances in the first round of the 2015/16 season for KCCA, Isiagi did not show up for the second round until the final day of the season, when KCCA were being crowned Uganda Premier League champions.

Incidentally, Isiagi wanted a winners medal. Unfortunately, he did not receive one, because he was considered a deserter. But maybe this was a big lesson to him going forward, as he joined Proline thereafter that embarrasment of receiving no winners medal, something misfiring striker Pate Wanok is a proud owner of from that season.

Kasule said: “At a club like Proline, I felt that Isiagi would thrive considering that we did not have a lot of pressure or the same kind of demands that come with being at a top club like KCCA, whose ambitions at the time, were to be among the best on the continent.”

Kasule said, that because Isiagi had not gone through a life of lack, he had little passion for football, his talent notwithstanding. Isiagi had been at Sports Club Victoria University between 2014 and 2015, before joining KCCA in the 2015/16 season clearly through the influence of his father, a lifelong supporter and administrator at the Kasasiro Boys.

In the 2018/19 season, Egyptian second division side Al-Nasr, where he scored five goals in 15 games, before returning to URA FC last season. Isiagi scored five goals in 9 games, including a winner against SC Villa in Ndejje. Isiagi’s former team-mate at Proline Yusuf Mukisa told The Northern link Ug that while he does not doubt his ability, he knows him as an introvert.

Isiagi will oftentimes keep to himself, and he is not the friendly type. He will, however, speak up if something annoys him. Mukisa said: “Isiagi will not hesitate to confront the coach, asking him why he is not playing.” So, we wait and see what role Mubiru will assign him, as Cranes take on Burkina Faso and Malawi in the Afcon qualifiers.

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