Robert Kiberu is no doubt one of the most influential figures in Ugandan football.
Nurtured through the school ranks, he rose to captain The Cranes and, as coach, achieved tremendous success throughout the East African region.
To many ardent followers of Ugandan football, Kiberu is mostly described as the ‘one who got away.’
That is loosely based on his unprecedented success as a coach in Kenya, where he is hailed as a god to this day.
March 4 marks exactly 24 years since his death and I found it just fitting to recap the career of one of Uganda’s greatest. Kiberu’s personality was an intoxicating mix of intelligence, arrogance and strict discipline.
A defender during his playing days in the 60s, Kiberu was one of the few diminutive players to excel in an era where physical ability was the order of the day.
As a coach, he achieved all there is to win in the East African region and greatly influenced the transition from power-play to sleek passing.
Born in 1936 to late Samuel and Winfred Mulinde of Luwafu-Salama, a Kampala suburb, Kiberu first exhibited glimpses of brilliance while studying at Aggrey Memorial School.
But it wasn’t until he joined Old Aggrarian FC in the late fifties that the national team scouts took note of his special talent.
In no time, his exceptional skills attracted Express FC, which signed him in 1960. He featured in the Buganda region team before he earned a place in the national team in 1961. However, the presence of towering David Otti and Francis `Jogoo’ Atema limited his appearance for The Cranes.
In 1963, Kiberu was drafted in the first team and due to his outstanding game-reading, was handed the national team’s arm-band. He captained Uganda to the 1963 Gossage Cup title in which they walloped Zanzibar 8-0 in the decider at Nakivubo.
That very year, he captained Express to the league title. His incisive passing was admired and he found himself as some sort of a cult hero among Express fans. He enjoyed a close friendship with club founder Joseph ‘Jolly Joe’ Kiwanuka.
Kiberu the coach
Before he left for England for a preliminary coaching certificate, he was appointed the national team assistant coach. Along with head coach Allan Rogers, Uganda won the 1966 Gossage Cup.
Upon his return, he was handed the national team as head coach and led the team to the 1968 Africa Cup of Nations in Ethiopia.
However, it was always going to be a daunting task to be accepted by peers with whom he had been playing just a few years before. Though Uganda won the East Africa Challenge Cup title, Kiberu’s tactics came under scrutiny when Cameroon eliminated Uganda from the 1970 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
For one, veteran Cranes custodian Joseph Masajjage questioned Kiberu’s approach and quit the camp. With dissent growing within the team, Fufa boss Henry Balamaze Lwanga replaced Kiberu with German tactician Burkhard Pape.
Fufa instead tasked Kiberu to set up a national youth team to work as a feeder side to The Cranes. Kiberu shrugged off the demotion to build a strong side and is credited for unearthing the likes of George Mukasa, William Mindrea, Ashe Mukasa, Abbey Nasur, Wilson Nsobya, Moses Nsereko, Gerald Kabeireho, Timothy Ayiekoh, Phillip Omondi, Mike Kiganda and Stanley ‘Tank’ Mubiru.
In 1973, Kiberu’s charges won the regional event in Kenya and the majority got elevated to the senior team. Indeed, it was Kiberu’s fledglings that guided Uganda to the 1974 Nations Cup, a feat they repeated in 1976 and 1978.
In November 1973, Kiberu left for Leipzig in East Germany to pursue a diploma in coaching and when he returned the following year, Express handed him the reins. Interestingly, he also used to lend a coaching hand to lowly Lint FC.
Kiberu was an instant success at Express and won back-to-back league titles in 1974 and 1975. He strongly believed in the passing game and popularised the now famous ‘square pass.’ In 1976, KCC FC denied Express a hat-trick of league titles when the Red Eagles lost the final game of the season 1-2 to army side Simba.
This made the 1977 first round match between Express and Simba a grudge game. In the match, Kiberu avenged the earlier defeat as Express beat Simba 2-0. However, that match is best remembered for the ugly scenes afterwards that culminated in the banning of Express FC.
In the aftermath of the match, Kiberu was among the several Express players and officials detained. He was released a few days later but the state banned Express.
Fearing for his life, Kiberu crossed to Kenya and signed for Kanatico, where he spent just a season before he joined sleeping giants Abaluhya in 1979. At that time, Abaluhya was a mid-table side but they finished third in Kiberu’s first season.
Kiberu’s magical touch came to test when champions Kenya Breweries refused to represent the country in the Cecafa Club Championship. Second-placed Gor Mahia also turned down the offer, citing lack of proper preparations. Kiberu influenced his bosses to seize the opportunity.
It was a move they never regretted and the tournament unveiled his tactical genius throughout the region.
Abaluhya turned tables against the region’s best and won the title after edging KCC FC 1-0 in the final. This was the team’s first regional title in 13 years and the Kenyans quickly tagged him ‘Super coach.’
Thereafter, Kiberu led Abaluhya (which would later be renamed AFC Leopards) to three straight league titles in 1980, 1981 and 1982. Astonishingly, Abaluhya cemented their dominance by winning a hat-trick of regional titles in 1982, 1983 and 84).
In the 1983 Cecafa edition, Kiberu displayed superiority at looking ahead. Having already qualified for the semis, Kiberu deliberately lost the last group game to SC Villa in order to finish second and play surprise package KMKM of Zanzibar.
After the match, Kiberu mockingly described SC Villa as ‘a good house without furniture.’ Abaluhya walloped KMKM 3-0 while SC Villa lost 1-2 to Malawi’s Admarc Tigers.
Kiberu’s trouble with his bosses came in 1985 in Sudan during the regional event where AFC Leopards lost the regional title to bitter rivals Gor Mahia and he shown the exit. He signed for Rivatex FC, the Kenya side located in Eldoret in 1986 but after just one season, he returned to Kampala.
Back to Express
Kiberu returned to Uganda when Express was struggling in the league as well as administratively. After a couple of meetings with Express bosses led by Vincent Bbale Mugera, he signed for his former club for the 1987 season.
His return greatly stabilised Express and they finished runners-up to big-spending SC Villa for three consecutive years. Sooner, The Cranes job fell vacant in April 1988 and Fufa handed him the hot seat.
Things didn’t work out because he spent the first year building a new side but when John Semanobe took over the Fufa leadership, he replaced Kiberu with Polly Ouma.
Kiberu concentrated at Express and built a new squad of youngsters such as George Ssimwogerere, Kennedy Lubogo, Patrick Ariko, Umar Senoga, Joachim Matovu, Richard Kirumira and Chris Kasasa, among others. He extended his experience to Mamba clan, which he guided to the 1989 Bika by’Abaganda shield.
On March 3, 1990, Kiberu travelled with Express to Tororo to play UCI in a match that ended 1-1. However, it rained during the entire game and he remained glued on the technical bench.’
When he returned home, he complained of fever and was rushed to Nsambya hospital the following day before his condition deteriorated.
He passed away the following morning in what doctors attributed to a cardiac rupture. Kiberu’s death came barely nine months after the death of Express Chairman Patrick Kiwanuka and Team Manager Edward Mugerwa.
The author is Operations Director of The Observer Media Ltd.