17 February 2013

Uganda: Flashback - When the Red Eagles Conquered Cameroon


In a fortnight's time, URA FC will be hoping to overcome Cameroon side Coton Sport when the two sides meet in the return leg of their Caf Champions League preliminary tie.

Indeed, the Taxmen need not to look any further for motivation than the historic feat of Express FC back in 1976 against a similar foe. That year, the Red Eagles went into their African Club Championship first round clash with Caiman Douala of Cameroon as massive underdogs.

See, despite winning back-to-back league titles in 1974 and 1975, Express miserably flopped in the 1975 African Club Championship second round at the hands of Egypt's Al-Mehalla.

Added to the fact that Cameroonian sides like Oryx Douala and Canon Yaoundé had each won the tournament before, it's easy to see why few gave Express chance to proceed to the next round.

The big day:

The first leg tie in Kampala was an explosive encounter. The thousands that filled Nakivubo stadium to capacity not only wanted to get a glimpse of Cameroon stars, many - particularly from rival clubs - didn't want to miss the slaughtering of Express. Express heavily relied on experienced custodian Joseph Masajjage (RIP) and a watertight back-four of Ashe Mukasa, skipper Wilson Nsobya (RIP), Henry Matte (RIP) and Fred Sekasi (RIP).

The team also included versatile midfielders Badru Kakembo, Mike Kiganda (RIP), Timothy Ayiekoh and a deadly striking line of Stanley 'Tanker' Mubiru (RIP), John Ntensibe, Edward Semanda (RIP), Richard Kembo (RIP), Edward Sekisaka and Ismail Kirungi.

Handled by experienced tactician Robert Kiberu (RIP) and his assistant Charles Jaggwe (RIP), Express had an organised administration led by Tucker Mubiru Lwanga, team manager Abdul Kasujja (RIP), treasurer Patrick Kawooya (RIP) and advisor Kezekia Segwanga Musisi.

Come match day, Ismail Kirungi's strike midway through the game settled the first leg but still left many wondering how many the Red Eagles would swallow in Douala.

"When we won the game in Kampala, we knew we had the ability to eliminate Caiman despite the sceptism among fans," recalls Bablo Ali, who was the club's secretary at the time.

"Before the trip to Cameroon, we mobilised funds from supporters and I remember people like Kawooya, Kasujja, Hajji Abbasi Kangave, Magid Bbosa and Jimmy Mulindwa made huge contributions. Air tickets cost around Shs 3,000, which was a huge amount," he says.

Ironically, despite the massive support for sports from the government, Express never received anything from the state. Frank Galabuzi, one of the club's vocal fans, recollects that at that time, "Idi Amin's government - and in particular Nasur Abdalla [as governor of central province] - blacklisted Express as a security threat run by political enemies."

Express invade Cameroon:

Express travelled with a strong contingent of players, officials and fans. The squad included goalkeepers Masajjage and Fred Lukwago, Nsobya, Sekasi, Mukasa, Matte, Sam 'Kapeera' Tamale, Kiganda, Kakembo, Ayiekoh, Mubiru, Kirungi, Kembo, Ntensibe, Sekisaka, Semanda and Abbey Mutanda.

Officials included Kiberu, Jaggwe, Kasujja, Abdul Mawejje (assistant team manager), Kawooya, Bablo Ali, C. L. Kibuuka (Referee) and Jackson Kiraka (NCS), among others. With West African sides dominating club football at the time, Caiman converted an early penalty kick to the stage for the script many pundits had predicted. However, as the game wore on, Express determination grew stronger and they forced the match into spot-kicks.

The Red Eagles got an early scare when Kakembo blazed it over the bar but somehow Masajjage made amends by saving two penalties for Express to prevail 4-3. When news trickled in back home, it was almost unbelievable because the match was not relayed on Radio Uganda like Cranes games.

Instead, Express fans, many of whom used to converge at a particular spot in the old taxi park in Kampala, only relied on a one Kizza, who had access to international calls by virtue of being an employee of Uganda Posts and Telecommunications.

Days later, Express fans thronged Entebbe airport to welcome the team amid cheers in one of the biggest crowds in the history of local football. The next round pitted Express against another West African powerhouse Enugu Rangers of Nigeria but that will be for another time.

The author is Director Marketing & Promotions of The Observer Media Ltd.

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