With each passing year, Sula Kato’s battle with alcohol addiction is threatening to overshadow his skills on the football field.
Yet during his playing days, the now 56-year-old was one of the most gifted and loved. Sadly, the perils of retirement drove him into alcoholism to the extent of blighting his coaching career. A few weeks ago, Kato reached the most extreme state of adversity when he was booked at Butabika hospital’s alcohol and drug unit for rehabilitation.
So, as the corner specialist continues to recuperate, I found it timely to relive his glittering career and offer perspective into where Kato stands in Ugandan football annals. I profiled Kato back in 2010 and there is little to add apart from reproducing an abridged version of the article. So, sit back and read at this exemplary football career.
HIS FORMATIVE YEARS
Sula Kato, 55, was a likeable football character, soft-spoken and a natural ball player. In an era when most players used their imposing frames to counter their deficit in skill, Kato’s play was effortless and despite not being the fastest of wingers, his craftiness and deadly left foot stood him in good stead.
Kato is one of the most decorated football players in Ugandan football having won eight league titles, three Uganda Cups and three Cecafa Cup winners’ medals. The tall but slender midfielder-cum-left winger is one half of twins born to Ssalongo Zakaria Lubega and late Nalongo Mariam Nantumbwe of Kirumba-Katwe, a Masaka municipality suburb.
He was inspired to join football in the 70s by his elder brothers Meddie Lubega (RIP) and Moses Ndaula, who used to play for Kampala top clubs as well as featuring for the national team.
Ironically, Kato started out as a goalkeeper and after excelling at Kimanya primary school in Masaka, he crossed to nearby Hill Road primary school, this time as a centre forward. In 1977, he joined Kako primary school on a football bursary.
However, when he joined Masaka SS in 1978, he was sidelined due to his small size but after putting up an outstanding show during an inter-class competition in 1980, Father Ryan picked interest and took him to St. Henry’s College Kitovu where he became a star midfielder.
He began his club career in 1982, aged 18, at Jinja-based First Division side Millers FC. However, Father Ryan persuaded him to join Masaka Union and after a notable performance in a league match against giants SC Villa in August 1983 – in which the latter lost 1-4, he moved to Villa Park. He was signed mainly to fill the gap left by his brother Ndawula, who had crossed to Express.
However, the youngster failed to break into the first team since coach David Otti preferred experienced Godfrey Kisitu, Sam Mubiru and Twaha Kivumbi.
However, he slowly began to regain the form he had shown at Masaka and featured in some games as a late substitute. At the end of the season, Kato won his first title as SC Villa dethroned KCC to win the league.
In 1985, SC Villa suffered a series of injuries to star players and new coach Timothy Ayiekoh turned to youngsters like Kato and Twaha Kivumbi for results. Like Kivumbi, Kato would later become a big match player.
MAGIC LEFT FOOT
In 1986, SC Villa recruited Polly Ouma as head coach. His 4-4-2 formation helped create space for Kato on the left flank, where he orchestrated several deadly moves and crosses.
In dead ball situations, Ouma changed the club’s approach and instead of direct power shots, he preferred players curving balls, a section in which Kato flourished. He went on to play a crucial part in SC Villa’s double-winning season of 1986.
In a memorable semi-final of the Uganda Cup, dubbed the ‘battle of brothers,’ Kato scored a wonder goal that eliminated bitter rivals Express FC. It came after 41 minutes when Villa’s Sam Mubiru beat Ndaula (Kato’s brother) to find a well-positioned Kato on the edge of the box, who smacked a half-volley to beat Steven Segujja in goal.
What made it all that special was that such a goal of great technique was a rarity in Ugandan football. In 1987, SC Villa won the Cecafa Club Championships with Kato scoring the solitary winner in the final. SC Villa and El-Merriekh had reached the final unbeaten; the Sudanese side’s main asset was its celebrated goalkeeper Hamid Bremma.
The goalie frustrated SC Villa strikers with nice saves, but in the 27th minute, Paul Hasule floated a free kick with accuracy to find Kato who took a low drive to secure Villa its first regional title. Kato remained instrumental as SC Villa won the 1987, 1988 and 1990 league titles, not to mention the Uganda Cups of 1988 and 1989.
In Villa’s 1991 Africa Club Championship campaign, they defeated Pamba 4-1 in Kampala but in the return leg in Mwanza, the Tanzanians grabbed two early goals and created panic in the Villa team. As they pressurised for the clincher, Kato scored the vital goal that earned Villa a quarterfinal.
That’s where they met Egyptian giants Al-Ahly and lost the first leg 0-2 in Cairo. However, Villa leveled the aggregate in Kampala thanks to two Kato assists via corner kicks.
He went a step better when he scored the decisive penalty in the shootout to secure Villa’s passage to the semis. Between them and the final stood Nigeria’s Iwuanyanwu.
SC Villa took a 3-2 win to Nigeria but trailed 0-1 in the early stages of the second half and were destined to bow out. Once again, a superb Kato corner kick was headed in by Musisi to level the score and ensure Villa’s historic passage to the final, which they lost 3-7 aggregate to Tunisia’s Club Africain.
In 1992, when SC Villa reached the final of the Caf Cup, Kato created six goals through his in-swinging corners. He continued to hold the club’s mantle of creativity and won the 1992 and 1994 league titles.
SPLENDID CRANES CAREER
In 1987, Kato was summoned for the national duty but failed to hold a regular place due to the presence of Godfrey Kateregga and Sunday Mokiri on the left flank, Paul Nkata, John Mapeera and Twaha Kivumbi in the midfield.
He made his debut in the 1988 Cecafa Cup in Malawi. By 1989, he had dislodged the competition for the left wing. In the friendly against Zimbabwe, not only did he create the first two goals for Musisi, but also scored the third goal, his first for The Cranes.
That same year, he travelled to Kuwait with Uganda Cranes for the Peace Games. His late corner in the final against Iraq resulted into a fantastic equaliser by Hasule to push the game into a shootout. However, Kato missed the decisive kick as Iraq won the trophy.
Weeks later, he was in Kenya with The Cranes for the Cecafa Cup and played a vital role as Uganda recaptured the regional title after 12 years when they beat Malawi.
It was Kato’s breathtaking equaliser which sent the final into shootouts after a 3-3 stalemate but he missed the first kick. He went on to help Cranes retain the Cecafa title in Zanzibar the following year and retired from the Cranes in 1994.
In late 1993, SC Villa appointed Kato as skipper replacing long-serving Hasule who had retired. However, on the eve of the league decider against Express at Masaka, Kato failed to turn up for training with his teammates.
He was suspended and thereafter quit the club to join newly created Villa International – a brainchild of former Villa boss Patrick Kawooya.
He left Villa International in 1996 and joined Tanzania’s Pamba and later Young African. In 2000, he briefly played in Vietnam before returning in 2001 to join Simba. He played a few games before quitting football for good to embark on a coaching career.
The author is The Observer operations director.