Update, April 19, 2018: FiftyFive.One received the following statement from Ahmed Hussein — Federation of Uganda Football Associations’ communications director — in response to the authenticity of FC Minneapolis’ claim of ever having arranged a friendly with the Uganda men’s national team, said by FC Minneapolis to have been scheduled for March 18, 2018:
“No. That is not a FIFA-designated date. We only play country against country and that window we scheduled Malawi and São Tomé [and Príncipe].”
Damian AC’s article as published on April 10 appears below.
On February 20, the Minnesota-based soccer blog E Pluribus Loonum published an incredible story: a local team, FC Minneapolis, was postponing their planned friendly with the Uganda men’s national team in Kampala because of “changes to immigration law”.
Then, on March 19, WCCO’s David McCoy picked up the story and put it on television, giving the story a level of institutional credibility.
Neither of the stories told how an obscure local club had arranged a friendly with a senior national team — a senior national team on course, at the time, to qualify for the World Cup.
Tracking down the story was a wild ride that included the CEO of the Uganda Football Federation, a failed kickboxing promoter from Kampala, stiffed former league-mates, unpaid debts, tall tales, and a hazy mist of half-truths and hard-to-proves that make it impossible to say definitively what really happened.
It all started in 2014.
The soccer community in Minnesota is small and, if not quite tight-knit, there are fewer than six degrees of separation from anyone who is anyone. Because of that, and because this is Minnesota, it’s memorable when something new happens.
The launch of FC Minneapolis in 2014 was memorable.
The club appeared out of nowhere on social media and proclaimed themselves “the gateway to professional soccer in [the] USA,” making noises about a multi-year plan to build a professional club, a youth system, and a stadium.
“Our objective is simple,” reads the club’s manifesto, “becoming one of the most popular and successful sports teams in the world, playing one of the most popular spectator sports on Earth.”
“Through our existence, we continue the work of winning trophies, enabling us to develop one of the Midwest’s leading soccer brands and a global community of followers.”
While the graphics work was not at the same standard as a professional club, to anyone who has spent any time following lower division soccer it didn’t stand out as completely unbelievable.
Underwhelming visuals aside, the claims by FC Minneapolis were a thrilling statement of intent at an exhilarating time for soccer in the Twin Cities, not least because of the rise of Minnesota United FC. The groundswell of interest seemed to be a tide that could lift even as audacious a boat as “the City Lions”.
Then FC Minneapolis joined the Minnesota Recreational Soccer League (MRSL).
The MRSL is an adult men’s recreational soccer league in the Twin Cities. There are multiple divisions in two brackets, Sunday and Monday. The divisions are connected by promotion and relegation and the two brackets have a playoff in August to determine the champion between the Sunday and Monday teams.
The league is a less competitive alternative to the Minnesota Amateur Soccer League, while still keeping a higher level than purely-recreational leagues like the Minneapolis Park & Rec Board league or Cities Sports Connection leagues.
In other words, while the league is great at what it does, it is hardly the type of competition one would expect a club with ambitions to be a “pathway to professional soccer” to participate in.
Still, it was the league that FC Minneapolis chose. The MRSL, despite its pro/rel format, allows itself leeway to place teams in the division that best match a team’s skill level. And, FC Minneapolis was able to talk the league into placing it in Sunday Division 1.
There, the City Lions promptly went 0-14, amassing a minus-47 goal differential, and were relegated.
Ian Sendi is a soft-spoken man whose voice, rarely raised above a loud whisper, carries a surprising intensity. He is a passionate man. He is the founder of FC Minneapolis.
Born in Uganda, in the Lungujja Rubaga division of Kampala, Sendi’s mother died young, leaving him to grow up with his father.
It was tough on the young man, though he stayed strong through it, telling the Uganda-based website Kawowo, “life was never easy without mum, but nevertheless we persevered as a family.”
He grew up playing soccer, and passed through a succession of clubs as a boy, before finding his way to the United States by way of Bemidji State University.
He stayed just a semester at Bemidji State before moving to the Twin Cities.
Once in town, as reported by the Uganda-based website Red Pepper, Sendi “signed a five-year contract with USA professional club Fc Minneapolis [sic].”The news release quoted an Ian Smith as coach of FC Minneapolis.
In the article, “Smith” made artful use of rumor denial, pointedly stating that French professional Anthony Maissiat was not joining FC Minneapolis. He also definitively put down as unfounded any suggestion that Sendi would get the No. 14 shirt instead of the No. 7 shirt.
Nonetheless, it is with triumph that Red Pepper describes the conclusion of the apparently protracted process that brought Sendi to the club that he founded.
“The Ugandan international’s move from Curtes Rouge [sic] was finalized on Tuesday following a stringent transfer process that has lingered since the summer.”
Like FC Minneapolis’ inaugural side, Cartes Rouge is an MRSL team. It plays in Monday Division 2.
There was no second MRSL season for FC Minneapolis.
The club withdrew from the league with its player registration fees, due to the league, unpaid.
An MRSL spokesperson confirmed that, as of the time of writing and more than four years since the fees were due, the debt remained unpaid.
The club played the fall season in the Minneapolis Park & Rec Board’s Thursday night six-a-side league at Fort Snelling, compiling a 3-2-1 record that was good enough for fourth place on goal difference. As this was park-league soccer at its most rigorous, the third placed team finished the season having played one more game than FC Minneapolis, so the City Lions’ true league position is arguable.
Still, the club had its first win under its belt and was signed up for the American Premier League (APL), a new league started by Sendi, that promised U.S. Open Cup qualification, professional administration, and future national expansion from its Minnesota base.
Early proclamations and blog posts promised a league that would surround FC Minneapolis with four new teams: Blaine City FC, Brooklyn Park SC, Hopkins United, and St. Louis Park FC.
None of those other teams ever played a game, in the APL or in any other league, and they quietly disappeared off of the APL website and social media as other teams were announced.
Tim Singleton, owner of the now-defunct FC Fargo but living in the Twin Cities at the time, agreed, “I was new to the area [then] and saw a Twitter page for a team called Hopkins United, which was right near my work. I wanted to go to a game. The account looked the same as all the other teams in the APL, then it folded before the season started. Looked like a team only on paper.”
The league did commence play in 2015. It featured four teams in the hopefully-named Minnesota Conference: FC Minneapolis, Minnesota Cranes FC, Midnimo FC, and The Brothers FC. Each team played each other twice over the course of the summer.
The independence of those teams was questionable.
Tim Sas, owner of Duluth FC, who attended the APL league meeting prior to the 2016 season when Duluth joined that league, said “I do not have any tangible proof that Sendi was running all four clubs in 2015, but that’s what I believe and others felt the same. Tim Singleton and Youssef Darbaki (owner, Minnesota TwinStars) and I talked at length about this and they also felt this way.”
Independent or not, there were real soccer teams that played real games.
At the end of the summer, FC Minneapolis had won its first championship.
His statistics would seem to back that up.
The FC Minneapolis website reports that its player/coach notched 34 goals and 33 assists in a mere 41 appearances, all of them from a wide midfield position — production rarely seen even from the likes of Lionel Messi.
And it’s not just on the field that Sendi shines.
A news feature on the FC Minneapolis website from February of last year, after noting that “Sendi was expected in Leeds of the United Kingdom where he was supposed to train for about 2 months”, went on to explain that instead he “requested to go to Africa so as to spend some time with children, teens and women of the last mile.”
“Sendi also would have gone to Gabon to watch his country play live in AFCON after several years [sic],” the article continued, “but he explicitly chose to spend his short vacation with those children and people of African society would have considered last… no wonder even just 3 hours to his flight Sendi was somewhere in Africa still teaching, motivating and encouraging the young people he loves.”
This scattering of articles, which appear both on Sendi-operated websites and Uganda-based news sites — whose pieces often seem to be lightly edited press releases — paint a picture of a dynamic and talented soccer player who is actively working to make the world a better place.
But there are little inconsistencies in this story that emerge the closer one looks.
The FC Minneapolis website reports that Sendi represented the Uganda U-21 team in the 2012 Olympic qualifying.
The Confederation of African Football decided to create a U-23 tournament to determine the qualifiers for the 2012 London Olympics. Uganda, like other CAF countries, sent its U-23 team, not its U-21 team. The Cranes lost to Congo on penalties in the first qualifying round, a two-legged knockout round.
That is not the only contradiction. In an article in Kawowo, David Isabirye, who interviewed Sendi via messenger, reports that Sendi represented the Uganda U-20 national team. He mentions nothing about Olympic qualifying or a higher level call-up.
The Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) did not respond to a request to confirm that Sendi had represented his country at any level.
The website also indicates that Sendi played for the Dayton Dutch Lions in 2012, when the club played in USL Pro against the likes of Orlando City, Rochester Rhinos, and Charleston Battery. At that time, USL Pro was the third tier of professional soccer in the United States.
While he may have attended a tryout, the Dayton Dutch Lions do not have Ian Sendi on their roster in 2012 nor has he appeared in any contemporaneous match reports or team media.
Whatever the truth of Sendi’s playing past, the fact is that, for FC Minneapolis, he is the main man. So much so, in fact, that he says it directly. His bio on the club’s website calls him “very much a modern footballer, radiating star status.”
It seems true, then, that the club itself is a vehicle for his own image and that, as the bio continues, that “FC Minneapolis offers him the perfect platform to achieve all of this goals and there is a reason to expect it can become the perfect combination.”
FC Minneapolis returned to the American Premier League for the 2016 season, but by that point it was an all-new APL.
Sendi had begun looking for teams to join the league and, as part of that search, he met Sas from Duluth FC and was able, eventually and after much cajoling, to get him to attend an APL league meeting.
As Sas explained, “the meeting was very disorganized but more importantly it came to light that the APL was the sole ownership of Ian Sendi. I am completely opposed to privately owned leagues, so I left the meeting with no intent to have any further communication.”
However, Sendi needed new teams in the league. Earnest, persuasive, and persistent, he was eventually able to get Sas to give him the list of conditions, including that Sendi relinquish full ownership of the league, upon which Duluth FC would join, and Sas would help build, the league.
“He replied within a couple of days accepting all my conditions,” Sas said.
It soon became clear why Sendi was so willing to accept those conditions, one of which was to relinquish his ownership of the league. He had few other options.
Tim Sas, who had found himself in a leadership role in the league, suspected strongly the other teams in the league were not independent clubs competing against each other within a league, they were, in fact, an ad hoc collection of players brought together by Ian Sendi.
“Soon after I began work, I realized that with the exception of FC Minneapolis the other APL teams really were completely disorganized. I did not know at the time that they were in fact, just the construct of Ian Sendi.”
Sas did not settle for a shadow league. He was able to convince FC Fargo, La Crosse Aris, Minnesota TwinStars and Granite City FC to join Duluth FC and FC Minneapolis for the 2016 American Premier League season.
FC Fargo owner Tim Singleton confirmed that the change in leadership was key.
“After the first year, where teams had no real substance, I didn’t even consider it,” Singleton said. “Once the TwinStars, Aris, and Duluth gave it credibility I felt like it would reduce our travel cost and provide great competition, which it did both… the only negative was having to deal with FC Minneapolis.”
While Granite City was, in the end, unable to field a team that could finish the season — it played a few games and forfeited the rest — the remaining teams were legitimate and competing against each other.
That proved a challenge for FC Minneapolis.
In 2016, the City Lions’ best result was a draw against the reserve team of NPSL doormat La Crosse Aris.
They finished the eight-game season with one point and a minus-20 goal differential.
It was their MRSL season all over again, winless and bottom of the table, and leaving a league with unpaid debt and a plan to start a new league of their very own.
Only in this case, leaving the league wasn’t their choice. According to Tim Sas, “the termination [of FC Minneapolis from the APL] was due to two infractions: (1) failure to pay outstanding debt, and (2) secretly working to start a competing league without communicating his intent to the APL [Board of Directors], of which [Sendi] was a member.”
Singleton confirmed that unpaid debts were the issue, saying, “That is the main reason they were removed from the league. They agreed to three payments of $1,400, but the checks bounced after the first payment. They still owe the league $2,800.”
As of this writing, FC Minneapolis still has not paid back its outstanding debt from its time in the APL.
On June 25, 2017 the blog E Pluribus Loonum broke the news of an upcoming international friendly. FC Minneapolis, an amateur team that had not participated in a sanctioned league since 2016, would be traveling to play the Uganda men’s national team, ranked 71st in the world at the time, on track to qualify for the World Cup, and featuring Colorado Rapids midfielder Michael Azira.
It is hard to think of a more incredible scheduling coup, a more powerful example of the power of chutzpah, than the match set to be played on March 18, 2018 at Mandela National Stadium in Bweyogerere, Uganda.
It was incredible because FC Minneapolis, at the time, was not even a member of a sanctioned league.
They had tried.
In the late summer of 2016, after FC Minneapolis played in the APL, a new league was founded in Minnesota with national aspirations and a familiar visual and writing style. The American Champions League even had a slate of teams scheduled to join, none of which had been heard of before.
Ian Sendi was behind it.
He was attempting to run the same play he had when he left the MRSL, only, this time, the Minnesota Soccer Association (MSA), the sanctioning body for amateur soccer in the state, stepped in.
Due to its unpaid debts, FC Minneapolis was not in good standing with the MSA, and, therefore, with the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA), the sanctioning body for amateur soccer in the United States. Because of that, the MSA refused to sanction the American Champions League and suspended FC Minneapolis from competing in an MSA-sanctioned league until the club had paid its outstanding debt to the MRSL and APL.
The MSA declined to respond to requests to comment on the situation.
In response, FC Minneapolis re-branded as “non-league professional” soccer and kept on playing.
Professional is a meaningful claim in American soccer, and professional contracts are monitored by USSF because, among other reasons, any player that plays on a professional contract loses their eligibility to play NCAA soccer. Many clubs use the “semi-professional” moniker, but they use it as marketing hype rather than a truthful statement about how they operate relative to NCAA regulations and payments to players.
FC Minneapolis has no players on professional contracts registered with USSF, now or in the past.
The pomp and circumstance made it all seem real. A former FC Minneapolis player described his experience.
“We signed what looked like a legit contract, it looked like a professional contract, and there was a signing day and some pictures,” said the former player. “We went off thinking that we were professionals. I think that most players still believe that they are professionals.”
That player, who requested not to be named because he is still friends with many players on the team, found out months after he signed that the contract was not filed with USSF, and thus wasn’t a true professional contract.
“It was one of a lot of promises that were broken.”
Lack of sanctioning from the MSA was not fatal to FC Minneapolis, as it did not stop USASA-affiliated teams from playing FC Minneapolis. Additionally, if a USASA-affiliated team requested USASA-affiliated referees, they would be assigned and, if not, it is still possible to get referees though their quality is more variable.
So FC Minneapolis was able to continue.
It even scheduled games against some reputable teams, including St. Louis Lions of the Premier Development League and fared no better than they had against less sterling competition, losing 8-1.
The result was bad for a “professional” team, and so were the travel arrangements.
An FC Minneapolis player who played in the game describes a grueling trip from Minneapolis to St. Louis. “We got two vans, 12 players per van. We were made to wear suits for the eight hours drive. It was very hot.”
He continued, “We got there late, maybe 25 minutes before kickoff, and it was hurry up and get dressed, five-minute warm-up, all rushed, really rushed.”
Later that summer, FC Minneapolis hit the road again, traveling to face FC Wichita of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). They lost again, this time 5-2.
FC Minneapolis also played against Minnesota-based sides, and organized its own tournament, the Lions Cup. In these games, it was able to rack up wins against teams like Granite City FC (miraculously back from the dead), Brooklyn Knights (the eventual winners of the Lions Cup, despite that early loss), and SC Saints, a strange team led by a former FC Minneapolis player who came to the game late in life, but is not ruling out the possibility of a call-up to the Mexican national team.
The vision for FC Minneapolis was to subsist on friendlies and international tours. “We were going to continue running our club as an independent minor professional soccer club,” Sendi said, “undertaking tours and playing high profile games at home. The Uganda game would have given us enough momentum to start with.”
Sendi leveraged relationships with heavy hitters inside the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA), including, according to him, former senior national team head coach Milutin “Micho” Sredojević, in order to pitch the friendly idea to FUFA Chief Executive Officer Edgar Watson Suubi.
“I played with the Uganda U-21 team before immigrating to America. During that time I made a good reputation for myself that when time came to propose an international friendly, I used my relationship with the national team head coach and the CEO of FUFA to have the game confirmed,” Sendi said.
Sendi provided a screenshot of his text conversation with a person who appears to be Sredojević telling Sendi that there was support for the idea of a friendly and directing him to send an official letter to FUFA.
Sendi sent the Federation a letter and provided a response, on FUFA letterhead, that indicates a willingness, in principle, for FUFA to host the friendly on Sunday, March 18.
A document provided by FC Minneapolis that shows “in principle” agreement to the proposed friendly match.
Despite repeated requests via telephone and email, including an email introduction from Ian Sendi, Edgar Watson Suubi has not responded to inquries from FiftyFive.One. Neither has Sredojević. Telephone calls to the federation were met with confusion. Nobody in the FUFA office was familiar with the game, its postponement, or even knew who could give an official comment.
Asked whether he had received a formal letter or contract confirming the match, Sendi said, “According to FUFA, the game would happen under two conditions, getting a registered promoter to organize the game and having US Soccer Federation authorize the game. We full-filled [sic] both those requirements.”
No documentation exists that confirms this request from FUFA or outlines the requirements.
If this was odd, perhaps moreso was the proposed date of the match.
FIFA governs when professional players must be released from their club teams to participate in international matches and sets blocks of dates aside during the year for national teams to play their games — be they friendly matches or official competitions. The relevant international window for the proposed friendly was March 19-March 27, 2018. The “in principle” agreement was for a game on March 18.
While it is unusual that a national team would play outside a FIFA window, it is not impossible.
Inside or outside the window, matches between teams from different countries require the permission of their national federations, their regional federations, and FIFA to take place.
Sendi provided a letter from the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) that indicated that USSF was not opposed to FC Minneapolis participating in this international friendly.
Neil Buethe, press liaison for USSF, confirmed that the letter was authentic and that FC Minneapolis had reached out to the Federation for approval.
“The letter is accurate. That is a standard letter we send to unaffiliated teams that want to participate in games internationally, particularly college teams,” said Buethe.
When asked further about documentation, Sendi was adamant that the two letters from FUFA and USSF were enough. He said, “the necessary letters we got… [they] state the date and venue of the game which means they were already confirmed by the Federation before the legal teams drafted those documents.”
Sendi had no concerns that there was no formal letter or document that outlined the conditions, accepted them as fulfilled, confirmed the match, or otherwise formalized the agreement beyond a single “in principle” acceptance letter. Sendi responded again that he had all the documentation that he needed.
“I sent you a letter from FUFA, U.S. Soccer, and they both confirm the date and venue of the game,” he wrote to this reporter.
The letter from FUFA agreed “in principle” and the letter from USSF agreed to the game that Sendi himself said was scheduled. While those were certainly the correct first steps in making the match happen, they were not enough to call the deal done and dusted.
That was because there was another wrinkle. In fact, FC Minneapolis had aspirations to join an affiliated league in early 2018. When it did so, it would have needed more than the letter from USSF above.
“There is a separate, formal approval that CONCACAF and FIFA ultimately supply,” USSF’s Buethe continued. “This match never got to that level. So it wasn’t like this was 100-percent approved and ready to go, it was more that they were going through the process.”
The Uganda Football Federation (FUFA) had, according to Sendi, given FC Minneapolis two conditions to meet before it would officially confirm the match.
The club had begun the process to get USSF approval, but it still needed a “registered promoter.”
To that end, it found KT Promotions, a Uganda-based company that Sendi claimed was “responsible for hosting the FC Barcelona Legends recently in Uganda.” FC Minneapolis signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with KT Promotions and its owner Kavuma Musa.
It also signed an MOU with Lash Media and its owner Alice Namatovu, with the intention that Lash Media would partner with KT Promotions as “official sponsorship coordinators.”
KT Promotions bills itself as “Uganda’s leading music and events promoters” and expresses its mission as “getting all Ugandan music to another level.” Its most recent event was a concert at the Serena Hotel featuring Rema Namakula, a high-profile singer in Uganda. KT Promotions is a legitimate events promoter for shows featuring top Ugandan recording artists.
Despite Mr. Musa claiming friendship with Pep Guardiola, no soccer-related events have been promoted on the KT Promotions Facebook page. Its website is a dead link.
So why did FC Minneapolis select KT Promotions for this game?
The answer given was slightly different each time the question was asked.
In one telling, KT Promotions was selected at the suggestion of Lash Media’s Alice Namatovu, with Sendi saying “Alice sent us a proposal via e-mail requesting us to consider KT Promotions as our game promoters and Lash Media as our sponsorship coordinators.”
Another time, KT Promotions was said to have been selected by the club. Aron Gastafus, currently the club’s secretary, said “We managed to get a big events company in Africa [to] sign a contract with our club,” referring to the joint deal between KT Promotions and Lash Media.
A final explanation suggested that KT Promotions was selected at the behest of FUFA. “I personally don’t know about KT Promotions or Lash Media that much,” Sendi said. “I only got to find out about them when FUFA scheduled the game.”
Sendi continued, “I am sure FUFA may give you more details about how to contact KT Promotions because it was the official event organizer of the Uganda Cranes for some time.”
According to a FUFA employee who answered the phone at the Federation’s main office, KT Promotions has no relationship with the Federation.
On January 22, before it announced the postponement of its friendly against the Uganda national team, FC Minneapolis abandoned its tour-based vision and announced that it was joining the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL).
The UPSL is a relatively-new competitor to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) as a nationwide, premier amateur league, and includes among its members some well-regarded and firmly established men’s teams including Milwaukee Bavarians, RWB Adria, LA Wolves, and Quinto Elemento. It also includes other clubs like Granite City FC.
The City Lions’ move to the UPSL was not without controversy.
FC Minneapolis still has not paid back its debts to the MRSL or APL, which means that it is not in good standing with the MSA and, thus, with USASA, which is the sanctioning body for the UPSL.
“When a club fails to fulfill its obligations (financial and otherwise) the respective league is required to inform the local state association and USASA,” said Tim Sas, the current owner of Duluth FC and the former leader of the APL. “I did so last year when the APL terminated [FC Minneapolis]. When a club applies for admission to a League they have to be in financial good standing with the respective state association and USASA.”
According to Sas, “[the] UPSL accepted FCM before they received confirmation of good standing. When FCM were announced as a member of UPSL, (MSA President) Matt Hawkins informed USASA and UPSL that FCM is not in good standing.”
Yan Skwara, commissioner of the UPSL, said “USASA has been communicated with directly and will serve as a intermediary with this business matter involving FC Minneapolis and the APL. I am confident a solution is on the horizon with all parties.”
Matt Hawkins did not respond to a request for comment.
When asked about FC Minneapolis’ outstanding debts, Sendi declined to comment, stating only a hope that FiftyFive.One “be honest, balanced and only report the truth.”
Traveling for an international soccer match is an expensive thing. Assuming a full squad of 18 players plus at minimum four technical staff for a match of this profile, and ignoring all other expenses aside from “air tickets and accommodation”, that’s a large bill.
A month out, the cheapest way to get to Entebbe International Airport — Uganda’s largest, on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital — from Minneapolis-St. Paul would cost just about $1,100 per ticket.
In other words, FC Minneapolis, a club more than $3,000 in debt, would have needed to spend over $30,000 in airfare alone.
Enter Alice Namatovu and her company, Lash Media — the sponsorship coordinators.
Described as a “well-known nightclub publicist and failed kickboxing promoter” by the Ugandan news site Red Pepper, Namatovu appears in Ugandan press reports about a dispute in 2015 between a competing kickboxing promoter and Lash Media, with Lash Media accused of scheduling a fight on a date the Ugandan kickboxing governing body had reserved for the other promoter’s fight.
It appeared ugly, with Hussein Babu, head of the rival promoter, complaining, “We booked this date with UPBC in July, how come Lash is claiming the same date… [and] who is Alice (Namatovu), head of Lash Media, who cannot even meet us physically?”
Despite the public kerfuffle, the (actual kickboxing) fight appears to have eventually taken place, though perhaps Namatovu wished it hadn’t. After the fight, she was blamed by the losing kickboxer whom she had promoted, a man named Ronald Mugula, who said “that woman is cursed.”
After the October 2015 fight, no further accounts of Lash Media-promoted kickboxing events appear in the digital press.
In fact, no further accounts of Lash Media were readily available anywhere on the internet.
Ms. Namatovu did not respond to repeated requests for comment or reply to any communications asking about FC Minneapolis, including an email from Ian Sendi.
The company has no website.
And yet, Ian Sendi and FC Minneapolis drew up a memorandum of understanding to have Lash Media handle the sponsorship which, according to their budget and rounding a fluctuating exchange rate, was a deal worth approximately $50,000.
A month before the match, there were no contracts.
An entire trip costing tens of thousands of dollars was hanging on two memorandums of understanding and an “agreement in principle.”
Pressed on this, Sendi responded, simply, that “in Uganda business is done differently than in the United States.
“Most of these letters you are asking from me were not necessary as the different individuals responsible in the planning of this game would meet with stakeholders, agree on stuff and then call us to give feedback.
“I cannot provide you with any further documents than what I have produced.”
On February 13, FC Minneapolis sent a letter to the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (FUFA) formally requesting to postpone indefinitely a March 18, 2018 match between itself and the Ugandan national team because of “unexpected changes to the United States Immigration Law by the current government which may pose a grave threat to some of our players.”
While there is no documentation of any FUFA response, it proved to be a great story, even making it onto Minneapolis-St. Paul CBS affiliate WCCO.
But was the game ever going to happen?
It is of course impossible to say for sure, but given the lack of preparation from all parties, it was shaping up to be an operational nightmare.
Despite the game being just a month out, Ian Sendi admitted that no flights were booked. Prices, which were already over $1,000 per traveler, were unlikely to go down. Hotel rooms were not booked, either.
Typically, clubs will use a travel agent experienced in booking sports teams for travel and often the travel agency is contracted by the national federation or the club’s league. It is the best way to make sure that 20-plus people are able to get onto the same flight, especially on short notice.
FC Minneapolis did not have a travel agent lined up.
While convenient given the lack of travel arrangements, citing “changes to United States Immigration Law” as a reason for foreign-born players not to travel out of the country is not unreasonable. Immigration rules have been a hot political topic.
The WCCO story on FC Minneapolis quoted “the travel ban” as the reason for the cancellation of the game.
The “travel ban” is a colloquial expression for two executive orders from the Trump Administration that have impacted travel to the United States from select countries.
On January 27, 2017 Trump issued Executive Order 13769. The executive order attempted to ban nationals from seven Muslim-majority companies from entering the United States for 90 days, including people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
Critically for FC Minneapolis, it also sought to restrict travel to the United States for foreign nationals from certain countries, including those with valid visas and including legal permanent residents.
Though this executive order was issued before the announcement of the friendly, based on the roster posted on the team’s website there could have been a number of players potentially affected.
On March 6, 2017, amidst legal challenges to policy changes, the Trump administration withdrew the first executive order and issued a second.
While this second executive order was more limited (for example it exempted legal permanent residents and anyone who already had a valid visa), it still impacted a large number of people in and planning to visit the United States, and was problematic enough to run into further legal challenges.
On June 25, 2017, in the midst of the very public and well-reported news over the second travel ban, FC Minneapolis announced that it would travel to Uganda to face the Uganda national team in a friendly.
It was only in February 2018, after the second travel ban had been dealt grievous legal injuries, that FC Minneapolis announced that it was postponing the match.
While the WCCO interview focused on the travel ban, which impacts people in the United States legally, the travel ban was not the only immigration issue cited by the team.
DACA, which refers to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an immigration policy, instituted by executive order, and not legislation, that is a kind of administrative relief from deportation. The purpose of DACA is “to protect eligible immigrant youth who came to the United States when they were children from deportation. DACA gives young undocumented immigrants: (1) protection from deportation, and (2) a work permit. The program expires after two years, subject to renewal.”
This program has been the cause of much political and legal wrangling, and remains both under review by the Ninth Circuit Court and an item of political negotiation in Congress.
In discussions after the WCCO interview, specifically around the lack of travel ban enforcement, Sendi talked about DACA as the major issue for his players, explaining, “We have very few players who are not categorically referred to as immigrants. With DACA expiring on March 5th, almost half the team was affected but we had predicted that from the time the government announced their future plans on the Law.”
Minnesota attorney Kara Lynum, who specializes in immigration law, had a view from the front row as the Twin Cities community was impacted by these changes.
Lynum noted, “Undocumented people and people of certain immigration status cannot leave the country [and be able to return].” She added that there was justifiable confusion among laypeople. “By far the most common and most understandable concern was that everyone was banned. The word was that any travel at all [for any non-citizen] would be problematic. At best maybe you are held up at the airport for a long time and at worst maybe you aren’t allowed in.”
Whether the travel ban, DACA, or both, the human issue was the same: common and understandable uncertainty around players’ ability to safely travel. The reality of that issue is not in dispute.
The reason given for canceling the friendly may have been a legitimate one, but was anything else?
Ian Sendi is adamant that he followed the right steps and received all of the documentation that he needed for the friendly: the “in principle” agreement from FUFA, the initial response from USSF, the MOUs from KT Promotions and Lash Media. He says that everything was lined up and ready for the match and only politics stood in the way of it happening.
When challenged, Sendi was ready with an explanation for everything.
On why no formal confirmation of the match or document outlining plans and expectations, Sendi replied, “According to the conversation I had [on WhatsApp] with the Uganda national team head coach then, he assured me that the letter I sent you was sufficient and there was no need for the Federation to send other letters confirming the game.”
On why there was no CONCACAF or FIFA approval of the game Sendi contradicted the response FiftyFive.One received from USSF, saying “[USSF] told us that the [sic] CONCACAF does not deal with clubs directly but with Federations. U.S. Soccer… sent a letter to CONCACAF on our behalf and we were told U.S. Soccer would follow it up.”
On why only MOUs and not a formal contract that outlined the particulars of the agreement, he said, “Please note that in Uganda business is done differently than in the United States. Most of these letters… were not necessary.”
In Sendi’s account, he was ready to spend over $30,000 to fly a team to Africa and accommodate them during their stay, sure that the game was going to be played and all other arrangements were made, on the back of non-binding letters and some WhatsApp conversations.
Could this level of trust simply be naïveté?
If so, one would expect that plans would be in place on the FC Minneapolis side. Yet, with a month to go before this international friendly, no flights were booked. No hotels were reserved. No visas, which are required at least for U.S. citizens traveling to Uganda, were obtained.
It would also be fair to expect action from KT Promotions and Lash Media.
However, there is no trace of promotional events. There was no talk, and certainly no documentation, of promotional media purchased for the game. No tickets were ever put on sale. No press events were scheduled. There was only the memorandum of understanding with KT Promotions.
A month before the game, no match sponsors were secured. No match sponsors were promoting the game, or have left any digital trace that they were going to be involved with this match. There was only the memorandum of understanding with Lash Media.
Asked about this dearth of information about the game, Sendi was adamant that it was there. “The game was announced on the Federation social media. Many local radios announce it and many local newspapers wrote about it. All this information may be found online.”
Yet, search after search, through Google, social media and Ugandan newspaper sites, nothing turned up other than what was placed by FC Minneapolis.
The match does not appear to have ever been seriously planned or promoted.
Was it ever? Is this just how things are done in Uganda, informally, based on tenuous relationships and hope that everything will work out?
The resignation of the Uganda national team head coach Sredojevic during this time may be instructive. Report after report references his contract, related legal proceedings and, critically, documentation. Clearly FUFA, at least, is familiar with and reliant on contracts and documentation to outline and clarify its commitments and expectations.
What was the object of this phantom friendly? No money changed hands so, while extravagant incompetence can’t be ruled out, a con that did not involve an upfront transfer of money is almost too bungling to be believed.
Maybe the con was on us. It was on the players who wanted to be professional. It was on the journalists who wanted a narrative. It was on the people who wanted to believe that the plucky underdog team from Minnesota would have their dream cruelly undone by unfeeling politics.
The preponderance of evidence supports this.
The claim itself, that FC Minneapolis, a team that didn’t play in a sanctioned league in 2017, booked and had to cancel a major international friendly, is suspicious enough.
The claim rests on an “in principle” letter but has no additional documentation that anything went further. The claim uses a letter from USSF as cornerstone of proof, but U.S. Soccer itself says that the letter represents only the first step in a process that was never completed. Mere memorandums of understanding are all that defines the financial arrangements. No travel, flights, hotels, or transportation in Kampala were booked. Outside of FC Minneapolis channels and coverage of the match’s cancellation, it doesn’t exist.
Further, FC Minneapolis has a record of extravagant claims about itself, like “gateway to professional soccer” and “non-league professional,” that are more hopeful than they are actual. Ian Sendi has put in an extreme amount of effort toward self-congratulatory features , hagiographic write-ups, and vanity websites.
Not least of all, there is the actual history of unpaid bills, the small matter of not being in good standing with USASA, and the inescapable fact that the club’s loudly proclaimed big ambitions have never been fulfilled.
But regardless of where the exact truth lies somewhere in the foggy area between duplicity and delusion, the ever-interesting saga of soccer in Minnesota has added another befuddling chapter.
Kyle Eliason contributed to this report.
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