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Reliving the 1978 Nations Cup fever

On January 17, Uganda opens its 2017 Africa Cup of Nations campaign with a tough encounter against Ghana, one of the tournament favourites. Ironically, it was in Ghana

39 years ago that The Cranes achieved the country’s greatest football feat when they overcame a similarly-difficult group that included defending champions Morocco, World Cup-bound Tunisia and Congo Brazaville.

However, unlike today when Ugandans are gearing up to follow The Cranes’ matches on television, it was a totally different story back then. To the best of my recollection, Radio Uganda was the premier source of information. Even then, not every homestead had a radio set, let alone one which could capture the medium wave signals.

The 1978 Nations Cup found me in the village, Mityana, where our family usually converged to follow minute-by-minute updates of proceedings in Ghana. In the buildup to the opening game against Congo on March 6, 1978, renowned football commentator Mike Sebalu (no relation to the politician) announced The Cranes had no jerseys.

Sebalu was renowned for not mincing words and the development sent many of us into panic mode. It emerged that former Cranes skipper Ibrahim Dafala, the designated person to deliver the kits, arrived late in Kumasi.

The consignment had been flown from Kampala the previous day. See, chaotic preparations have a long history in Uganda!

Sebalu later told listeners that Ghanaian side Asante Kotoko offered to lend the Ugandan contingent jerseys for the match in which many feared for the worst.

Interviewed live on air before the match, some Cranes players expressed deep concern and sounded a bit panicky, having watched the group’s opening game between Morocco and Tunisia, which ended in a one-all draw. As if playing the devil’s advocate, Sebalu constantly reminded us how The Cranes had never won a Nations Cup game in their four previous appearances. He also noted that this was coach Peter Okee’s first major tournament.

The Cranes XI for the 1978 Nations Cup final. L-R: Jimmy Kirunda, Paul Ssali, Tom Lwanga, Moses Nsereko, Eddie Semwanga, Abbey Nasur, Sam Musenze, Godfrey Kisitu, Phillip Omondi, Mike Kiganda and Fred Isabirye

While discussing team tactics, Sebalu also kept lamenting how the absence of wingers Stanley ‘Tank’ Mubiru and Denis Obua would hurt Uganda’s chances.

The pair had been dropped from the final squad due to injury and on disciplinary grounds respectively. Nonetheless, the anticipation at home was high, especially with the presence of skipper Jimmy Kirunda, Moses Nsereko and Phillip Omondi, who had spearheaded KCC FC’s Cecafa Club triumph weeks earlier.

Come the team announcement, the biggest shock was Okee’s decision to demote long-term first- choice left back Ashe Mukasa in favour of Sam Musenze. When the game started, we were still warming up to the euphoria when Omondi opened the scoring after a neat exchange with Polly Ouma.

I still nostalgically remember the wild celebrations. That set the tone for the rest of the match as Uganda, according to Sebalu, pushed for more goals. We didn’t have to wait long before Eddie Semwanga doubled Uganda’s lead at around the half hour-mark.

With The Cranes in total ascendency, an excited Sebalu spiced up the commentary by calling players by their nicknames. Sebalu was a master of humour and seamlessly went about his job with immense authority.

For example, Sebalu would comically describe a fine buildup play with nicknames such as the ball moving from Computer to Master Planner to the Wizard [Mike Kiganda to Nsereko to Omondi]. That sent everyone in frenzy.

Then again, each time a Congolese attack was thwarted, Sebalu’s commentary would be punctuated with names such as Berlin Wall [Kirunda] coming to the rescue, the Commando [goali Paul Ssali] is in control and Mr Confident [Semwanga] is as cool as ice. It was such an exhilarating commentary that left us marveled.

Uganda’s free-flowing passing didn’t go down well with the Congolese and one of the many dangerous tackles left Ouma writhing in pain on the ground before he was stretchered off to be replaced by Godfrey Kisitu.

Then the ecstasy was briefly extinguished when Congo pulled one back late on. But before anxiety could creep in, Kisitu nodded in a third almost immediately to seal the famous win.

I may need a whole day to describe the fanfare that followed the final whistle. To this day, this game holds a special place in my mind mainly because of its adrenaline-inducing effect.

Granted, The Cranes would go on to lose their next game to Tunisia before shocking Morocco 3-0 to book a place in the semis, where an Omondi-inspired performance saw Uganda overcome Nigeria 2-1. However, the final against Ghana turned out to be a hurdle too high as The Cranes settled for runners- up spot.

Thirty-nine years on, it seems like yesterday. That’s why I’m itching to find out The Cranes’ approach to the tournament. Will they go all out to make an instant impression or just settle for damage control? We have eight days to find out.

And just like in 1978 when few people gave them a chance against the continent’s top eight teams, there appears similar skepticism today and it has been compounded by the poor financial buildup.

That said, how can anyone write off a national team that has just been voted the best on the continent over the past 12 months? Or Dennis Onyango, whose feats in 2016 make him the greatest goalie in the history of Ugandan football?

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The author is the operations director of The Observer Media Ltd

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