22 August 2008

Uganda: Hearts' New Signing Obua's Arrival Rekindles Family Tie

Although new Hearts signing David Obua will become the first Ugandan to play in the Scottish Premier League, he won't be the first from his own family to star in Edinburgh.

Obua hails from a sporting dynasty, and his father, Denis, was a celebrated left-winger for the Ugandan national team. However, it is his uncle, John Akii-Bua, who made his name on the world stage when winning gold in the 400m hurdles at the Munich Olympics in 1972. This was having only switched to the discipline two years earlier at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

Obua's uncle had been persuaded to make the change from shorter distances by renowned British athletics coach Malcolm Arnold. He finished fourth in Edinburgh and over the next 24 months undertook an intense training regime as he prepared for an event known as the Man-Killer. It worked.

At Munich he became the first African to win gold in an event under 800 metres, and did so in a world record time from the inside lane. His story is also remarkable for other reasons, many of them rooted in the brutal regime of Idi Amin, who had seized power in his homeland a year before the Munich Olympics.

Three of Akii-Bua's own brothers were murdered by Amin's troops. Akii-Bua himself was forced to flee for Kenya in 1979. Although he returned to Uganda in 1983, it was not for long. He died 11 years ago at the age of just 51.

A documentary entitled The John Akii-Bua Story: An African Legend was shown as recently as two weekends ago on BBC2. Revelations included the fact Akii-Bua was one of 43 children. He also apparently drank a bottle of champagne on the night before his Munich triumph, in order to help him sleep.

Obua has a lot to live up to as he contemplates life in Edinburgh, though on the other side of a city where his uncle's journey to Olympic gold began. "It's nice to finally be here," the 24-year-old said yesterday.

Circumstances have deposited Akii-Bua's nephew in Edinburgh, with the most significant of these being Hearts' recruitment of former Uganda coach Csaba Laszlo in July. Among his first targets was to tie up the signing of Obua, who once scored a hat-trick for him in an African Nations match against Niger. Work permit problems meant this could not be concluded until earlier this month. His current lack of fitness means there will be another delay before the Hearts fans see him in first-team action.

Obua's tall, wiry frame makes it possible to see the link with one of the greatest African athletes of all time. His own story perhaps lacks some of the power of his uncle's, but is also not straightforward.

Obua spent five years on a football scholarship in North Carolina. His progress was blighted by what were described as "disciplinary problems". This trait, at a one-to-one level, is impossible to detect, although the softly-spoken Ugandan clearly possesses a steely determination to better himself. He has signed a four-year contract with Hearts, and hopes to continue learning his trade in Scotland. He is prepared to play anywhere on the left, but prefers the role behind a principal striker.

Obua's level-headedness is highlighted by a decision to turn down the offer of a contract with West Ham, where he went on trial earlier this summer. He also had the chance to sign for Serie A club Chievo.

"I'm not in a hurry," he said. "I have to progress, slowly but surely. I thought if I went to West Ham or Chievo it would have taken me a long time to adapt. I'm here with a coach I know, and it will help me grow as a player before I go to something bigger."

This is something which his uncle might have said as he ran up hills in a weighted vest, part of an extreme training programme devised by his mentor, Arnold. Obua hopes his own guru will guide him to success.

"I had an idea when Csaba became manager here I might end up here," he said. "I have played for him for more than two years now and he has got the best out of me. When I play for him, I play with my heart."

Hearts have announced that former sporting director Alex Koslovski has left the club. He has been at Tynecastle as "sport director" since 2006, and often helped translate during press conferences.

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