The Observer (Kampala)

13 June 2012

Uganda: How Express Defied Odds to Win League

Photo: Vanguard
Super Eagles Soccer Coach Stephen Keshi

When striker Edgar Luzige left Express in the January transfer window for Bunamwaya, five months after joining the Red Eagles from Victors FC, his projection was that Bunamwaya were a better bet to win the league title.

And, they had offered him a bigger sign-on fee of Shs 5m which Express couldn't afford. Elsewhere, striker Erisa Sekisambu left SC Villa for Express hoping to get the playing time he hadn't got at Villa Park. Serbiab coach, Srdjan Zivojnov, had not given Sekisambu the license; he had signed marquee players like Noah Semakula.

As things stand, Luzige has ended the season empty-handed while Sekisambu has a league winners' medal in his second season in the Super League. In many ways, the duo's fortunes mirror Express' journey to the league triumph, the sixth since they were formed in 1959.

Lack of financial muscle

Back in the day, Express were a unit that spent lavishly especially under chairman Godfrey Kirumira from 1998 to 2005. Players like Hassan Mubiru signed from Villa for a record high sign-on fee of Shs 10m at the end of the 2000 season. This season, Express spent less than Shs 5m on new players. This is in contrast to URA's Shs 60m, Villa's Shs 100m and Bunamwaya's Shs 48.5m.

Matching URA and Bunamwaya

Before facing these teams, Express stood no chance of matching them with its string of second class players. But the Red Eagles went ahead to draw with URA 2-2 (1-1) and Bunamwaya 1-1 (1-1).

You can never win with kids...

So do most football fans here say. Well, Express just did. Bonny Baingana, Yayo Lutimba and Jamal Salim are some of Express' starters who played in the Super League for the first time. Even the bench that had coach Sam Ssimbwa's son, Willy Nakibinge, was just a bunch of inexperienced players like Charles Makanga, James Obua and Tom Yiga among others.

Key players' departure

Few teams survive a player exodus that involves four of their top players. When Luzige left at the end of the first round (he had scored five goals), Express' fine run was technically over. Or so the pundits told us. Attacking midfielders Godfrey Sentongo, Ibrahim Jjingo and defender Yusuf Jjuuko, mainstays in the Express starting line-up for much of the first round, also left.

Yet in pre-season, Express had lost Noah Semakula, Moses Ndawula, Abdul Mayanja, Francis Jjemba, Umar Kayondo and Julius Isabirye. Add Chrizestom Ntambi, Daniel Serunkuma and Geoffrey Kizito and Express remained a shell of a team.

The Bonny Baingana factor

Worse, Express missed the services of their best player Baingana for much of the second round. Either he was away in Rwanda trying to secure a place in the national team or he was out injured. He missed half of the second round, taking a huge toll on his form.

Players' strike

Simbwa faced Simba football club with only seven players following a players' strike; a big mark of betrayal from his players. Express forfeited three points, yet its main rivals, Bunamwaya and URA secured full points on that eventful weekend. Everyone thought Express would buckle under such circumstances but they remained resolute.

Fire is taken out

When USL dismissed Fire Masters football club from the Super League, all teams that had played against it lost points. All the title contenders weren't happy with the decision but it hurt Express the least. The team lost only three points compared to Bunamwaya's four and URA's six.

Embattled Kavuma Kabenge

Express' USL representative Kavuma Kabenge has had a tumultuous season. He fought on all fronts with Mujib Kasule, Lawrence Mulindwa and the whole Fufa legion. The Express fans also wanted him out of his club and he spent more time in the courts of law than representing his club.

It is a testament of resolve that his team has turned out victors.

Ssimbwa in a fans brawl

Even the Express coach wasn't spared of the off the field machinations. Ssimbwa had a number of run-ins with the fans. A particular incident was after the 0-0 draw with Water FC at Wankulukuku stadium when a section of irate fans hurled insults at him in the presence of his young son Nakibinge, a player at the club. The son cried.

The fans had wanted Ssimbwa to resign saying he was a poor coach. How a coach remains inspired to lead a team to a major honour after such disrespect is beyond imagination.

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