In this last of the three-part series about Uganda at the Nations Cup, I revisit The Cranes' memorable run to the 1978 tournament.
Prior to the tournament, Cranes coach David Otti had thrown in the towel following Uganda Cranes miserable performance in Ethiopia in 1976. He was replaced by Peter Okee, whose arrival dramatically changed the scenario, sending Uganda back to its winning ways. The team won back-to-back regional events before qualifying for the 1978 Nations Cup.
Okee, alongside Bidandi Ssali as team manager, inherited a dispirited team that had failed to impress on the continent. But the duo achieved instant success when, in November 1976, Uganda won the Cecafa Cup, beating Zambia 2-0 in the final and they retained the cup a year later.
As a result, Okee and Bidandi endeared themselves to the fans and players alike, and were responsible for the sense of calmness the camp exuded. Bidandi in particular, knew each and every player's residence and also attended to their personal problems.
Ticket to Ghana:
Uganda's next task was to qualify for the 1978 Nations Cup. But in the first round, the team didn't sweat, following the withdrawal of Tanzania from the event. Uganda then drew their fierce rival Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa, both teams settled for a goalless draw on October 30, 1977 to stage an explosive second leg encounter in Kampala on November 13, 1977.
Okee put faith in players who recaptured the regional titles like Paul Ssali, Jimmy Kirunda, Ahmed Doka, Eddie Semwanga, Ashe Mukasa, Timothy Ayiekoh, Polly Ouma, Moses Nsereko, Denis Obua and Abbey Nasur, among others.
Eddie Semwanga scored from the spot to give Uganda an early lead before the Ethiopians equalised in the second half. Henceforth, the Ethiopians were destined to qualify on the away goal rule until skipper and sweeper Jimmy Kirunda headed the winner in stoppage time to send the crowd wild; The Cranes were on their way to Ghana.
In January 1978, KCC FC under Bidandi Ssali won the Cecafa Club Championship in Kampala and Okee had no trouble picking the super 11 from KCC. These included Jamil Kasirye, Hussein Matovu (goal keepers); Sam Musenze (RIP), Ashe Mukasa, Tom Lwanga, Rashid Mudin (RIP), Jimmy Kirunda, Moses Nsereko (RIP), Moses Sentamu, Timothy Ayiekoh and Phillip Omondi (RIP).
They were joined by Paul Ssali, Meddie Lubega, Godfrey Kisitu (RIP) and Fred Isabirye (RIP-Simba FC). Eddie Semwanga (RIP), Abbey Nasur and Mike Diku (RIP-Maroons) while Mike Kiganda (RIP) and Barnabas Mwesiga came from Nsambya plus UCB's Jimmy Muguwa.
However, before the team travelled to Ghana, there was a big upset when experienced Denis Obua was dismissed from the Cranes camp at Imperial hotel by self-styled Kampala disciplinary officer Abdullah Nasur on disciplinary grounds. The team also missed the services of Stanley Mubiru "Tank" who got injured few weeks earlier.
The team under Gerald Sendaula as Fufa boss and Dr Timothy Mutesasira as physician was captained by Kirunda. Uganda Cranes was pooled in Group "B" alongside Tunisia, Morocco and Congo Brazzaville, based in Kumasi. Group "A" had hosts Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia and Upper Volta and they were based in Accra.
Obviously Uganda were the underdogs in their group compared to defending champions Morocco and Tunisia which had qualified for the 1978 World Cup while Congo had won the 1972 event. Uganda Cranes players were mesmerized by the standard of Morocco and Tunisia in the opening game which prompted Cranes left-back Ashe Mukasa to question his team's potential in the event--something which annoyed Okee - he was sidelined.
Okee instead picked Sam Musenze ahead of Mukasa. Uganda opened the first round by whipping Congo 3-1 with goals through Omondi, Kisitu and Semwanga. However, Uganda lost star striker Ouma who got injured in the opening minutes (and that was his last time to play for the Cranes).
The team then lost 1-3 to Tunisia in the second game but made a big comeback in style. They walloped Morocco 3-0 with Omondi, Kisitu and Nsereko featuring on the scoring sheet. Uganda did not only top the group but earned a semi-final berth against group "A" runners-up Nigeria.
The Cranes capitalized on Abbey Nasur and Omondi goals to sink title favourites Nigeria 2-1 in Kumasi and took giant strides against Ghana in the final. But come the big day, the Cranes failed to transfer their Kumasi form to Accra, going down 0-2 to miss the trophy.
The Cranes first XI were: Paul Ssali, Eddie Semwanga, Sam Musenze, Tom Lwanga, Jimmy Kirunda, Mike Kiganda, Abbey Nasur (Barnabas Mwesiga), Moses Nsereko, Godfrey Kisitu, Phillip Omondi and Fred Isabirye (Meddie Lubega). At one point, Kirunda said that the 1978 record set by his team will take long to be broken. "Unless this team qualifies and wins the title, I don't see our record broken in years," Kirunda said.
In an interview a while back, former Cranes manager Bidandi Ssali explained the loss thus: "I was to blame, I forgot Ayiekoh's passport in the hotel room and I think if he had played, he would have made an impact."
For Abbey Nasur who featured in all matches, it was about foul play by the hosts. Nonetheless, 35 years later, the team is yet to qualify for the event.
The author is Director?Marketing & Promotions of The Observer Media Ltd.