As a child in Kampala, Dennis Kirunda Mahadha dreamed of playing professional football in the leading European leagues. The son of the legendary national team captain, Jimmy Kirunda, pursuing a career as a footballer meant he had massive boots to fill. Undaunted, he arrived at West Ham United’s Chadwell Heath training ground in 2003 for trials with the English Premier League team. On the cusp of achieving his lifelong dream, Mahadha played his heart out as he sought to convince the club to offer him a contract. Sadly, the verdict after the trial was unfavorable.
“They wrote back to me saying that I hadn’t qualified; not because I wasn’t good, but because of their structure here. If you are above 16 [he was 19 at the time], your chances of playing professional are slim. So I was disappointed and I thought about leaving football completely,” he says.
Mahadha took a break from the game to reconsider his career. During this period of introspection, the light bulb moment occurred.
“I found out that many African brothers have gone through what I went through. Disappointed, they decided to go on the streets frustrated as they thought their life was over. So I came up with this idea of the African Nations Cup UK, for them to come and participate, and come back into football. I thought that this idea of football can unite the whole African community in [Britain] and when the community is united, lots of good can come out of it.”
With the help of a few trusted friends, Mahadha began planning for the tournament. The inaugural event, which featured eight countries, was held at the Hackney Marshes sport grounds in east London in 2009. Although small in terms of the number of countries and players, Mahadha was surprised by the excitement and interest from the African community. This motivated them to press on with the event which is held annually.
“In 2010, we identified the real people in charge of community football, so that’s when it went big. We registered 16 countries; we played our matches at Beckton and had our finals at the Terence McMillan Stadium,” says Mahadha.
Each year, the profile of the event gets bigger. This year, the tournament was declared open by the Rwandan high commissioner to Britain, Williams Nkurunziza. Partnerships have also been established with various county football associations, charities and corporate organizations, such as the Essex County Football Association, the Terrence Higgins Trust and Kick It Out, the anti-racism organization established by the English Football Association (FA). It was based on this that Mahadha received an interesting email on a routine work day last September.
The growth of Mahadha’s tournament and his contribution to grassroots football grabbed the attention of the country’s football authorities. They sent him an email to tell him he had been selected to attend an event at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the FA’s 150th anniversary.
“I thought it was junk. I looked properly at the email to see where it came from; it had the logo of the FA’s 150th anniversary and the signature of the Chairman, Greg Dyke, and I thought this is real. I was so pleased.”
The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, who is also the president of the FA, hosted the event which recognized 150 individuals for their contribution to the development of grassroots football. Mahadha received a commemorative medal and certificate signed by the prince. He relives the moment with a mixture of happiness and humor.
“I went and bought a nice suit from Marks & Spencer and we went to Buckingham palace. Security was tight and the event was fantastic.”
Significantly, the Prince’s words to him remain etched in his memory.
“He told me ‘this idea, this concept is so good. Just keep it up; keep up the good work for the community.’”
Recognition has also come by way of a formal ranking on the FA’s community development list.
“When we began, we were just affiliated with the county FAs, just to get the license to run a football tournament. We had to be organized, we had to have the right timing for the tournament after the football season; and we had to have a clear vision. Your objectives must be very, very clear. We had all these, so through that we managed to partner with different FAs, then ultimately the big FA at Wembley. That’s why, this year, our draws were done at Wembley Stadium. We are now rated number 67 on the FA leaderboard. I think Arsenal is third, Barnet is second for community development, so we are on that list.”
From its humble beginnings when around 500 players registered for the tournament, the African Nations Cup UK now attracts more than 6,000 players of African descent as participants. This remarkable growth means the tournament could be a platform for discovering new talent. Convinced that it could become renowned for this, the organizers have introduced an under-15 category to run at the same time as the senior tournament.
“We have the unspotted talent at the tournament. Last year, three boys were taken to [English Premier League side] Norwich for trials. They were from Ghana. Also, there was a Zimbabwean guy who is now in Turkey, but he was spotted at the African Nations Cup UK. Based on this, we started thinking of giving the youth a chance and we had to introduce the junior category as well. The best player from the winning side gets a chance to take part at a competition at AFC Wimbledon. So now we give the best young players a chance to do trials at some good clubs,” says Mahadha.
The organizers hope the impact of the tournament will also be felt in Africa.
“We believe that African Cup of Nations UK will be a feeder to the African Cup of Nations. We get good players from here, they go into their national teams where they come from or where their parents come from, and they play for them to represent Africa,” says Daniel Lutaaya, the co-founder and head of marketing for the tournament.
Despite these remarkable achievements, Mahadha believes there is still some way to go to achieving his vision. He wants to have all African countries represented at the event.
“My dream is to see that not only 20 countries take part in this, but all 54 African countries take part. If we have 54 countries, then we’ve united the whole community. It’s not yet over until we reach the last person in the community.”