'First love' Uganda left Sredojevic with lifelong wound

Sredojevic coached Uganda from 2013 to 2017, leading them to their highest FIFA ranking (62nd) and a first Africa Cup of Nations qualification in 38 years, in 2016. Fared Kotb/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Orlando Pirates coach Milutin Sredojevic has acknowledged that leaving his role as head coach of his "first love" Uganda in July 2017 -- in the midst of the World Cup qualifying campaign -- will always be the biggest regret of his life.

The Serbian has enjoyed a long relationship with the East African nation, having first arrived there in his early 30s in 2002, but despite enjoying success over two spells in the country - both in club and international management - he struggles to shake the regret of 'what might have been' following his resignation from the Cranes post in July 2017.

Sredojevic took Uganda to 62nd in the Fifa world rankings in 2016, their highest ever position, and also ended the East Africans' 39-year wait for Africa Cup of Nations qualification when they reached the 2017 edition in Gabon.

However, he stepped down from his post amidst unpaid wages, despite Uganda's strong start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, and believes he just fell short of realising the ultimate fruit of his labour.

"[As long as] I live, this will be the biggest wound in my life," 'Micho' told ESPN, "because we stood firmly in our group and had a chance to go to the World Cup in Russia 2018.

"It's the dream of any coach to go to the World Cup, and to go to there with Uganda would have been a dream come true after the hard working days and sleepless nights spent, given and invested.

"That wound stood inside me."

At the time of his exit, Uganda were second in World Cup qualifying Group E, having held Ghana away before dispatching Congo-Brazzaville 1-0 in Kamapala, and were preparing for a double-header with leaders Egypt.

The Cranes ultimately defeated the Pharaohs at home in August to take pole position in the group, but took just two points from their final three matches as the momentum slipped away from them.

"My relations with [the Uganda Football Association] have remained perfect," Sredojevic added. "There was disappointment at the start, but they have cleared every [debt] they had towards me.

"Still today, they know themselves, and have said: 'If Micho had stayed with us, we would have gone to the World Cup.'"

Sredojevic also believes World Cup participation would have transformed Uganda's footballing prospects: "If I'd not gone, we could [have been] firm contenders to go to Russia, and the financial injection of 10 million dollars for each qualifier would have totally changed the picture of Ugandan football.

"Uganda would have become in the top five or 10 national teams in Africa, and it could have opened a new road to become a powerhouse of African football."

However, the current Pirates coach takes some comfort from the fact that the mishandling of his salary, and his subsequent exit, prompted the Ugandan authorities to take a more serious look at the role of football within the country and the investment it receives.

He opined: "[My exit] was a huge disappointment with football fans, but that disappointment led to protest and rage against the government of Uganda.

"My departure was like a blessing in disguise, because the Ugandan government then turned the page and started to support and finance the national team.

"I had been there in the hardest times, when we had no finances, sponsorship was very small, and we were stretching ourselves without backup. Now that I've gone, there's been a springboard and the Uganda government have supported the Cranes and FUFA, and the new coach Sebastien Desabre is fully paid by the government.

"I'm an extremely happy person that my work, together with the rest of the stakeholders of Ugandan football, has resulted in the Ugandan government supporting and recognising the Cranes as a brand that represent [the country] in the best way."

Six months after Sredojevic left his post, the East Africans appointed the Frenchman as his permanent replacement, and he has so far succeeded in maintaining his predecessor's progress, notably overseeing Uganda's impeccable qualifying campaign for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

Micho has urged his successor to capitalise on the foundations he built, and to ensure that the East Africans end their wait for World Cup qualification.

"Nobody knows the future, but the important thing was that, after 39 years, Uganda qualified for the Afcon, but it wasn't only about qualifying, but setting firm foundations to qualify and keep qualifying after that.

"The 2022 World Cup, where nine and a half national teams from Africa qualify, [represents a] huge chance for Uganda to continue their steady development and to become a powerhouse.

"It isn't about one person, [but] I will always count myself as an extremely proud person that I was part of the team, and technically led the project that will have its culmination in years to come.

"I wish Uganda all the best to reach where they are capable of reaching, but the important thing is that I [was among] the people who planted the seeds that are supposed to bear fruit in [the future]."

For Sredojevic, that process of realising Uganda's footballing potential didn't just begin with his appointment as Uganda coach in May 2013, but much further back in 2002, when he was appointed by the country's most successful club side - SC Villa.

It was here that he first began laying the foundations for his own future success with the national side.

"When I came to Africa, I first came to Uganda, and it was like a first love," Sredojevic recalls wistfully. "You never forget your first love.

"Between 2002-04, I was with Sports Club Villa, and during that period, we [established] a youth programme that has produced so many players.

"When I came back to Uganda in 2013, the pillars of Ugandan football -- Denis Onyango, Godfrey Walusimbi, Emmanuel Okwi -- were all products of the platform that I set up in 2003-04.

"I had something that had matured."

He went on to utilise those matured sown seeds in the four years that followed, from a near qualification for Brazil in 2014 (thwarted by Sadio Mane at the last minute), to three consecutive African Nations Championships (CHAN), and 37 friendlies.

But: "The roof of my achievement was in 2016, when we qualified for the Afcon. It meant that everything had gone according to plan; we had planted the seeds, and the fruits had come, everything after me is just continuation.

"I have unbelievable memories. I have put in strong foundations, and I'm extremely proud of each day of the 1500 days spent [as Uganda head coach].

"Each single day was a huge investment that has brought to Uganda huge profits. The Cranes, as the pillar of Ugandan football, is a strong, recognised team in Africa that has qualified convincingly for the 2019 Afcon.

"I'm proud, because when you can [look] back, and see that the seeds of your work have borne fruit, it's an extreme pride [to be] the person who put the stamp on Ugandan football."