Micheal Azira, along with his Uganda teammates, will be watching this Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final from afar, knowing that the team which edged them 1-0 with a late winner, Egypt, will be contesting the championship game with Cameroon. Azira took time to reflect on his first major international tournament, in conversation with Richard Fleming.
Richard Fleming: Welcome back to the US, Micheal. Give us a sense of your itinerary and schedule the past few weeks, with the travel, the training regime and all of the games. It’s been pretty hectic for you, I imagine.
MA: Yes, it’s been heavy, but you know, that’s what it takes just to prepare for the Africa Cup of Nations, ya know. We’ve been traveling a lot. We went to Tunisia, we went to Dubai, and then stayed a few weeks in Uganda, and then we went to Gabon for the tournament. It’s been hectic, and it’s been tiresome but it’s been a good experience.
RF: As an experience though, Micheal, and I know ultimately disappointment at going out at the group stage, but as an experience, where would you put it so far as professional experiences you’ve enjoyed?
MA: It’s been a good experience. You know, you get to play with different players from different leagues, and there’s a lot to learn, as players you see and different players the way they play and learn as much as you can, but it’s been a good experience to have (time with) different kinds of players from different parts of the world and from different leagues.
RF: Although Uganda went out at the group, against three tough opponents (Egypt, Ghana and Mali), you weren’t necessarily overwhelmed and overawed. What does Uganda take from this experience?
MA: It showed that future is bright for the country, because all these teams that we played, as you said, they’ve made it all the way to the semifinals - Ghana and Egypt - and though we lost to them but I feel that we gave them a good challenge. Ghana beat us one-zero with a PK. Egypt beat us in the last minute, one-zero. I feel that Uganda has a bright future, in terms of the country and in terms of the team as well, and I feel that there’s a great challenge and a great opportunity for them to learn and perform better, and these teams we have to be ready for them as well, because we have to play them again in World Cup qualifiers, like around June or something, so we have to be prepared for them and for what they are going to do next.
RF: What about for you, personally? I know that you played the first 45 minutes of the first game (against Ghana, pictured right). I know that it was a little tricky to get in after that. Is there, maybe, an element of frustration that you didn’t get more minutes on the big stage?
MA: Yeah, it was frustrating, because the coach played me in the wrong spot. I ended up playing on the left midfield, then right midfield, which we didn’t practice that. I was frustrated the way he played me, but the fact that I tried to do as much as I can to help the team, and I only played 45 minutes but I think I did my job that I was required to do.
RF: What was it like to be away from the family for so long? People think ‘wow, professional soccer player, playing in these big tournaments’, but as a family man I imagine there’s that as a flip side. How tough was it to be away from the family for so long?
MA: Oh, that’s hard, ya know. You’re used to seeing your kid every day, and your wife, (so) it makes it really hard on you. Then all the frustrations from the tournament, and things like that, and you feel like you just want to be with your family, just to get away, so it’s been hard but I’m glad they’ve been healthy and they’ve been fine, but I’m glad to be home to be with them, and I’m excited for the season to begin as well.
RF: Have you had time to think of what the last 12 months has been like for Micheal Azira? From not getting too many minutes with Seattle, to being a mainstay with the Rapids, making your senior international debut in November, and then to the Cup of Nations. It’s been quite a 12 months for you. Have you had time to reflect and realize what a fantastic year it has been?
MA: Yeah, it’s been a fantastic year for me and my family. We’ve reached places there that we didn’t expect to reach, and I’m really excited for the coming year, but this stuff has been awesome, for me as a player I’ve grown and learned a lot, and I’ve been able to provide for my team and to work as hard as I could to help my team out to reach all the way to the playoffs, and that was a good turnaround for me, and my team. It was an exciting year. It was hectic, but that’s what we live for, we live to play and make good experiences, so (I was) excited this past year and I look forward to make better memories this coming year.
RF: You’ve not played as many minutes as you have in the last year, and the travel and the rigors, and you’ve had less of an offseason than the rest of the Rapids players will have had, so how’s the body feeling?
MA: It’s a bit tired but, ya know, I’ll recover soon and get back in the mix.
RF: When you’re at major tournaments, I know that you’re in kind of a bubble, but have you been keeping tabs on what’s been going on with the Rapids during the offseason?
MA: Yeah, I’ve been keeping in touch with the coaches and the players, and I’ve spoken to Pablo on things that he wants us to work on as a team, and I’m excited and I look forward to meeting all the new guys and I think we’ve got some good players this year, so it’s going to be another exciting year and I look forward to meeting everyone and ready to put in a shift.