Teenager Juliet Nalukenge made history by winning the Uganda Women’s Player of the Year at a tender age of 17 in 2019, marking what will perhaps be the beginning of a fairy tale story for the youngest child in a family of seven.
She is also two matches away from guiding them to their first-ever FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in India, scheduled for 17 February – 7 March 2021.
“It would mean a lot for us if we managed to earn qualification. I think we have done well in the qualifiers and I believe we have what it takes to make history for Uganda. The fact that no other previous team has achieved this is a motivation enough for us,” the confident Nalukenge tells CAFOnline.com.
She has scored five goals so far in the qualifiers, hitting three as they thrashed Ethiopia 5-1 in the preliminary round and a brace in the 6-2 aggregate triumph over Tanzania in the first round.
The final hurdle is against Cameroon. Initially scheduled for May, the two-legged clash had to be postponed indefinitely following the outbreak of COVID-19, which brought all sporting activities to a halt.
Despite Cameroon’s pedigree and having qualified for the last two editions of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan (2016) and Uruguay (2018), Nalukenge is upbeat they can soar over Les Lionnes.
The performance in the qualifiers came off a successful maiden CECAFA Under-17 Championship in Jinja where she skippered the team and scored nine goals, finishing off as the golden boot runner up.
A year to remember
It was the end of a successful year for the teen sensation, and one to forever remember.
“Winning the FUFA Women’s Player of the Year was a huge thing for me. There are other girls who had equally successful seasons and to be chosen as the best meant a lot for me especially at my age. And to guide the team to the CECAFA title in Jinja made it even sweeter,” Nalukenge added.
Football has been a passion for the forward from a young age. Partly, it was the influence from her father who was a goalkeeper, playing for the local teams in Kassanda.
Naturally, the youngest daughter would accompany her father to games, cheer him on and hoping that one day, she could also grace the pitch liker her daddy.
“In my family, it is just my father and brother who play football. My father played for local teams when he was young and my brother is still playing. I used to watch him play and I would be so happy. When he noticed that I love football, he started encouraging and giving me support. Whenever I played in school, he will always encourage me to do better,” remarked Nalukenge, currently on the books of Ugandan top flight side, Muslim Ladies FC.
“He comes to watch me in some of my matches and helps me correct my mistakes. My dream is to make him proud one day and play professional football outside Uganda,” she notes.
From Primary School, her passion continued in High School, where she is currently in her final year at Kawempe Muslim Secondary School. She started playing in her second year of Secondary School and has emerged top scorer in the National School Games.
In 2016, she scored 33 goals all through the lower levels to the national games, and in 2017, she emerged as the top scorer and Most Valuable Player in the East African School Games.
Last year, she led Kawempe Muslim Secondary to the title in the East African Games in Arusha (Tanzania) where she scored seven goals.
National teams come calling
Her exploits in the school games earned her the shining light to be seen by national team selectors. She made her national team debut in 2018 when she was called up to the senior Uganda women’s team (Crested Cranes) for the COSAFA Cup.
She was seldom used, mostly coming in as a second half substitute as she was just 15. Even then, she managed to score a goal. That same year, she was part of the Uganda team that played Kenya in the qualifiers for the 2018 Total African Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON).
“At first, when I was called to camp I was a bit scared because there were other big girls, and I was just a young player from school. Gradually, I became used to it and was comfortable. But it was such a huge moment for me to be called up to the senior team,” she narrates.
Early 2019, she was also handed the responsibility to skipper the U-17 team to the COSAFA Women’s Championship as a guest team. They went on to clinch the title in Mauritius, beating South Africa 2-1 in the final, with Nalukenge scooping the Golden Boot, after scoring 18 goals in five matches.
“I am really happy to see how my career has moved up. Not many people would be at my place at 17 years so I don’t take it for granted. I want to keep working hard because this is not the end for me.”
She dreams of seeing her side play the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup next year, help the senior team get into the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations in future and above all, play professional football, just like her country-woman Jean Sseninde who played for the likes of Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers in the United Kingdom.
“If we manage to qualify to the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, it would open so many doors for us and that is why we are working so hard to achieve that. My dream is to play in Europe and I know I can achieve that just like the many African players in major leagues abroad. I want to make my family and fans happy,” she says.
“I would also like to help the senior team qualify for the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations for the first time. I think we have what it takes because over the last three years we have improved a lot. People are now supporting women’s football more and whenever we play, many people turned up in the stadium. That’s a good sign,” she concluded.