Sunday April 1 2012

UGANDA@50: Cranes star Kirunda defended, overlapped, scored like Kaiser

 Kirunda (stand right) prepares to lead Uganda Cranes in an international match.

Kirunda (stand right) prepares to lead Uganda Cranes in an international match. He was an accomplished goalscoring defender. Bottom right is how Kirunda appears today. file photo 

By Andrew Mwanguhya


Beginning to compare German great Franz Anton Beckenbauer with our own living legend Jimmy Kirunda would tantamount to defamation in Munich.

For a man who lifted the Fifa World Cup on one occasion, was losing finalist on the other, and finished third once, comparison with a certain Ugandan, who has never qualified for the global showpiece, would really arm the Germans with even more reason to guillotine you.

Enter continental accolades and still there is no escaping the German jury. The 66-year-old Beckenbauer has lifted the European Championship once and was runner-up once.

Four years younger than Beckenbauer, Kirunda has never won any but has a runner-up medal from the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations to show. Step onto the coaching ring and still the Germans would have more reason to lock you up for life.

While Kirunda’s managerial CV reads coaching stints at league sides Bell, Buikwe and Cooperative, Beckenbauer returns a Fifa World Cup medal as coach, plus a runner-up accolade and Uefa Cup memento.

But that there is an attempt to compare Kirunda clearly tells you the son to Henry Kirunda and Constance Nawalu was quite a class act of his own…in his country.
Beckenbauer was nicknamed Der Kaiser (“The Emperor”) because of his elegant style, his leadership, and his dominance on the football pitch, the same qualities that had Kirunda christened Uganda’s Kaiser.

The German and the Ugandan Kaiser were 16 and 12 years old respectively when Uganda got her independence from the British in 1962 and both went on to dominate their countries and clubs to devastating effect.

Kirunda was lucky to watch the Independence Cup match between the team he was 16 years later to face in the final of the 1978 Nations Cup final in Accra, Ghana and Uganda Cranes. “I was lucky my father took me to watch the match at Nakivubo. Ghana were a strong team and they beat us 4-1. I only remember John Agard, our goalkeeper, then.”

Having grown up in a football crazy localty of Mulago, Kirunda was spotted by a one Steven Kakooza, who wooed him to Mulago FC. He continued playing football during his schooling at Naggalama by featuring for Kampala District Bus Service (KDS), then at Old Kampala before moving to second tier Lint Marketing Board (LMB).

Kirunda then moved to topflight Express FC when the national league was introduced four years after Uganda’s independence. The stylish defender earned his first cap with national senior team in a friendly between Uganda and Burundi in July 1969.

It is from that game that Bidandi Ssali, then coach of Second Division side KCC, was wowed by the 19-year-old and snatched him from Express to build a side that would rule Ugandan football for a decade plus.

“I moved to KCC because they gave me more incentives including employment,” Kirunda, leaning back in his leather seat in his Fufa president personal assistant’s office in Mengo, told us. Kirunda became fully employed by KCC as an accounts clerk before being elevated to sports officer in 1973 for the next 10 years.

Captaincy and the Kaiser
On the pitch, Kirunda’s dominance was so immense it was felt in his own half, the midfield, and the opposition’s penalty area. His charisma saw him play a vital role as KCC got promoted to the topflight division in 1974.

Kirunda’s national team bond saw him win Cecafa titles in 1969, 1970, 1973, 1976 & 1977 (1969 as Gosage Cup and 1970 as Challenge Cup). But one moment Kirunda’s fondly remembers and one that must have shaped and affirmed his Beckenbauer likening was in the qualifiers for Egypt 1974.

Weeks to the tournament in Egypt, Cranes German coach Westerhoff Otto had an outburst with national captain Polly Ouma over the player’s indiscipline.
Exasperated, Otto stripped Ouma of the armband and handed it to Kirunda, who went on to captain the side for a decade.

“Otto told me I played like Beckenbauer,” said Kirunda, “That I defended like Beckenbauer, surged forward like him and scored several goals like him – a defender. So he trusted me when he gave me the armband.”

Kirunda boasted of pace and power which were complemented by a vicious shot and great heading ability plus has the knack of scoring goals. No wonder one of his famed hard shots hit the crossbar in 1974 and ended in the stands, killing a staunch Express fan only known as Kiggundu - brother to Gen Katumba Wamala.

The KCC defender’s goal scoring feats reached the epitome in 1978 when he set a record by top-scoring with 32 goals in the league. Andrew Mukasa broke the record 21 years later.

Ironically, Kirunda scored all those goals without ever taking a penalty his entire career. He would always remove his boots when it came to spot kicks and walk away – but overlapping, counter attacks, corners, free kicks and heading were his specialties.

“Whenever we were losing, I would tell Moses Nsereko to fall back to defence alongside Tom Lwanga and I would play the last 10 minutes as a striker.

“I was especially good in overlaps, just like Beckenbauer. Even my teammates and fans all were calling me Beckenbauer at the time and I always saw myself in him while playing and it inspired me. And somehow I would always come in with that late goal.”

Talking late goals, Kirunda, who after the ’78 Nations Cup signed for UAE’s Abu Dhabi Sports Club and later SC Villa, then back to KCC, had his fondest on in November 1977 against Ethiopia in a Nations Cup playoff.

With the 90 minutes done and the Ethiopians going through on away goals rule, Kirunda headed in Eddy Ssemwanga’s free kick to earned Uganda a slot to the 1978 Afcon.

Kirunda went ahead to captain the side to the final where they lost to hosts Ghana. Uganda have never qualified again since.