If your reverie is to one day meet a footballer that is neat both on the outer self and upstairs, you might want a date with former KCC and Uganda Cranes defender Tom Lwanga to enthuse about the good old footballing days.
He is so particular that if you used the same untidy road to the same destination, his rather conservative BMW saloon car will still be cleaner than yours.
Trust Lwanga to be at KCCA Stadium, Lugogo just in time for our 3pm chat, clad in a blue and white stripped polo shirt, a pair of tidy blue jeans and a clean brace of blue canvas shoes.
“Growing up we were taught that time is everything,” he tells me as we stroll to the stands of his beloved KCC, “And it comes with discipline.” When he starts talking KCC, Uganda Cranes and football, it is hard to stop him.
From their days in the 70s when Uganda were a fixture at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), through the 80s when his club never troubled making the quarterfinals in the Caf Champions League to today when Cranes cannot buy an appearance on the continent and our clubs can only make preliminaries, let alone the first round.
Here we discuss KCC (now KCCA FC after rebranding from the Authority) as the Yellow brigade prepare to take on Sudanese champions El Merrick in the Caf Champions League this month, the same time Sports Club Victoria University (SCVU) will be facing DRC’s Don Bosco in the Confederations Cup.
Lwanga, who was at the heart of defence alongside Jimmy Kirunda as Uganda’s 1978 fairytale saw Cranes lose the final 2-0 to hosts Ghana in the Nations Cup, was also part of the KCC team that made the quarterfinals of the Caf Champions League the same year, and four years later.
The 56-year-old also helped KCC to the last eight of the Caf Confederations Cup – then called the Caf Cup Winners Cup - in 1985, before leading the club to the same cup’s semifinals as a coach in 1997.
But that is about the last time they really had a good outing in the CL, with their next appearance in the competition ending in the first round a year later, although they did make the round of 16 in the Confederations Cup under the tutelage of coach George Nsimbe in 2009.
However, our clubs have flattered to deceive on the continent since the ‘90s, preliminaries and first rounds the more regular races. Did KCC, and SC Villa that made the Caf Cup quarters (1984), finals (1994), Champions League finals (1991), quarters (1983 & 1993); Express that made the semifinals of the CL in 1995 and Simba – CL finalists in 1972 (both are a shadow of their former selves) prepare any different from today?
Or did Uganda have a magic wand they held onto when they qualified five times for Nations Cup between independence and 1978?
“Not really,” explains Lwanga, “Because…, even when people talk of ’78 when we went all the way to the finals, we didn’t really prepare any differently. But because of the toughness of the league then, the competition to get into the national team, that gave us the edge.
“Secondly, those days, during our training you would think that it was a real match. Because there were so many people watching, when we were training it would be very, very serious. “The talk in town would be ‘Ekiri E Lugogo’” meaning ‘you have to be at Lugogo to see for yourself. But what has changed, really? Today you may not fill a stadium for a club game even if you paid people to enter.
The Amin factor
“First of all I would say now we have two Ugandas,” says Lwanga, “The first Uganda then - that is the time of Amin (Idi, the former President), is quite different from the Uganda today. Although make no mistake, Amin loved sports so much.
“Those days there was no politicking in football. The only politics was football. And of course, politics not in the sense of opposing government, or pro government, but politics in the sense that football became a party.
“At KCC, the club was our party… the die-hard Yellow. Then you go to Express, the Reds… they used to call themselves the Red Devils (as England’s Manchester United), then of course there was the Coffees, then of course the Villas came in.”
Lwanga added: “Then we had Nsambya. Nsambya was mainly based on religion – Catholicism, and we had these company teams – Tobacco, Lint… you know… so that was the politics then.
“Like I said, most people had nothing to do other than to watch football because of the problems we had,” continues Lwanga, alluding to the turbulent times of Amin’s rule in late 70s, “You could not engage in politics… you would be killed.
“I will tell you, when we had a game then people really watched football. Some people even had customized seats in Nakivubo. If you were a stranger and came and sat in someone’s seat they would say ‘who are you?’, because people knew each other.
“It was a meeting place, maybe to talk a little bit of the politics of the government but still football as the main event.” “Now as players - you go ask any player; if you go and play in a stadium that is fully packed, you will try and give your best. That is why you see when they are punishing clubs; they will say ‘you will play in an empty stadium.
National team the ultimate
“So the crowds inspire most of the players to give their best. And because of that, the competition was so tight because everybody wanted to be known, everybody wanted to be the best, everyone wanted to be in the national team.”
There was not much football on TV at the time, which TV was also not that accessible, nor was there much to write about turning professional, according to Lwanga. That left the players with one ultimate goal. “We did not think of professional football then,” shares the one-club man, “It was the national team as the last goal. Being a player, being even considered to be in the national squad was a great achievement. “(In our time) if you put on the national colours, you would have achieved all your dreams. But you had to fight to keep there.
“And of course even among fellow players, you would see when we were playing. I have so many examples… maybe KCC playing against Maroons, and you foul one of the players, we would call them ‘junior players’ (those not in national team), people would ridicule you saying ‘you, of all people?
“Even the junior player would question you, ‘but you, you are a national team player, why foul me?’ You see the respect that came with being a national team player.”
“Even when you were walking on the streets of Kampala, people would come out to see you… then even being a member of KCC or Express alone that was also a great achievement.
“To qualify first of all to play for KCC, all my years I remember, man (‘man’ with an accent), it was a struggle. Yes (emphasizes).
“Some even would want to carry your bag and move with you so as to be seen with a KCC player. You would see what it meant to be a KCC player, Express, or Lint, or Coffee…and then, the national team - the ultimate. So the competition was so tight that the standards of football were so high.”
Clubs, Cranes cheap today?
Well, the standards are the opposite today, with SC Villa and Express are divided, Fufa’s legality contested and the topflight league – whose soul has been torn right in between by inflated egos - a joke of the region.
No wonder making the national team is no longer hard work. “Just about anyone can walk into the national team today,” assures Lwanga, “And into KCC. Yes. It’s true. It’s true. Sometimes when I come here to watch our games and I see certain players, I ask myself, ‘is that also a KCC material?’
“But even then, I don’t blame the administrators of KCC for having brought such players because that is what is there. That is what they could afford, not in terms of money but because when they look around, that is what is there.”
The man, whose defensive assuredness and calmness can be given a slight semblance by only Irahim Sekagya today, puts today’s ‘poor’ attitude or lack of trying a little harder from our footballers down to lack of immediate role models.
“The Hassan Mubiru’s, Hakim Magumbas, Stephen Bogeres Majid Musisis, Jackson Mayanjas; they had seen or heard about us, so they had role models to emulate.
“But as they were fading, those who were watching them were not taking them serious. It also matters how far you have reached, what experience have you got?
Lwanga says money was not the determinant during their time, claiming that “to join KCC alone was enough satisfaction already. Even in the national team, to be called in the national team was more than even money. I don’t remember how much I was given or whether how much I was given in KCC.
“But we were given money. Mr Bidandi Ssali (manager), what he did, although some of us were still in school, he managed to get us on internship at KCC, so we were getting salaries.
“But believe me, personally I don’t remember thinking about that salary. We were getting allowances from KCC and the national team from travelling all over the continent. Because I remember at one time, in a month I stayed home like for two nights only.
“Like when we travelled with the national team, all members of KCC we would put aside about $20 or so (each player) from our allowances and we would bring back a few gifts like shirts for our colleagues who stayed home. That is the togetherness.”
TIB BITS ON HIS SUPERB CAREER
On Bidandi - “For us he is like a father. He put us in the Naguru Flats. So I would go to his house, he would come to mine. Omondi’s (Philip) children would come to my house, mine to his. We were a family.
The Barbara daughters – “I got my first when I was still young in school… you know stardom and girls… I named my daughter Barbara, Kityo (William Bedford, RIP) – one of the very clever and skillful players, also named his first Barbara, Our life captain Musenze (Sam) the late, also named his Barbara. That was KCC.
Memorable continental tales - “When we beat Leopards in Nairobi, that team had never been beaten by any foreign team in Nairobi. I was a coach then (1997). We drew 1-1 here, Jackson Mayanja scored the goal. Then Godfrey Mugisha scored in Nairobi as we beat them 1-0.
- “As a player, it was in Nigeria when we played Enugu Rangers in the Champions League. That one I remember I had not played before such a huge crowd before (100,000 capacity).
- They beat us I think 2-1 but it was quite a moment. Emmanuel Okala, the tallest goalkeeper and Stephen Keshi were also in that game. The other game as a player in the national team was in Egypt. We drew 1-1. The crowd was as big as that in Nigeria.
On 1978 Afcon – We were underdogs and even the media never took us serious. We were in the same hotel with Tunisia and Morocco but they looked at us like we never existed. But after we beat Congo Brazzaville in the opening match, they were all over us but our coach Peter Okee dismissed them. Before they knew we had beaten Nigeria and were in the finals.
Fufa in their time - “It was the General Secretary NCS that announced the summoned national team. For me I’m not sure I even knew who the chairman of Fufa. They were there but I wasn’t interested.
- “Actually, for all the time I was with Cranes I had never seen the chairman (president) of Fufa in our camp or trying to influence anything. You would never hear of any wrangles like you have today.”