Tuesday April 10 2012

Phillip Omondi is arguably the finest ever Ugandan footballer

Omondi (middle) weaving magic at the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations.

Omondi (middle) weaving magic at the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations. FILE PHOTO  

By ANDREW MWANGUHYA

When plaudits start rolling off lips of those who saw and played with him, one cannot help but ponder what could have been if the late Phillip Omondi was alive and playing today.

“He could definitely be playing in Europe,” argues Fredrick Musisi Kiyingi, who played with him on Omondi’s last stint at KCC, “Definitely.”

To veteran and respected sports journalist Hassan Badru Zziwa, mentioning “greatest ever” to mean Omondi comes as natural as breathing. “No one in Uganda could match Omondi’s achievements both at club level and the national team,” he says.

“He was so crafty he could virtually do anything with the ball. At times he would make you think he had the ball tied to his boot laces.

“And when it came to head and chest control, he was unrivalled and his passing was world class. “I have never watched a player as gifted and talented as Phillip Omondi in my life,” emphasizes Zziwa, “Never.”

The late Majid Musisi, Paul Hasule and current personal assistant to Fufa president Jimmy Kirunda et al all rank up there amongst Uganda’s greats.

But, born to Kenyan parents in 1957 in Tororo before his family relocated to Naguru when he was a young boy, Omondi remains arguably the best talent Uganda has ever seen, perhaps will ever see.

His early football tale is as magical as his feet and intelligence on the ball were. Seven years after Uganda’s independence from the British in 1962, 13-year-old Omondi was hanging around the Lugogo Hostel.

As fate, or call it destiny, would have it, the Cranes were camping there preparing for Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup.

A young Omondi’s juggling skills left Cranes coach Burkhard Pape and team manager Andrew Musoke in utter awe. Somehow, he was taken on as a ball boy with the Cranes at the 1969 Challenge Cup.

The sociable man then joined Naguru Youth after the touurnament, then Fiat FC before KCC coach Bidandi Ssali spotted him and a one young and talented defender Tom Lwanga in 1973. The two would later become best friends and played together in the 1978 Nations Cup in Accra, Ghana where Uganda ended runners-up behind the hosts.

And no one could front Omondi’s genius better than Lwanga, who partnered Kirunda in defence as the technician or wizard – Omondi – tormented defenders the other end. “In his position as a midfielder, Omondi was the greatest,” says Lwanga, currently the sports officer at KCCA.

“He did things I have never seen in my life.”

To Express coach and ex-Ugandan international Sam Ssimbwa, plus Cranes assistant coach Jackson Mayanja, who all were privileged to go through Omondi’s hands on his coaching stint at KCC, no one can even knot Omondi’s laces.

“You only compare Omondi when talking about Diego Maradona and Pele (Brazilian),” says Ssimbwa, “In Uganda, even Africa, no one comes close. Omondi was just unlucky not to be born today. He could play in any team in Europe.”

Mayanja, one of the best number 10s Uganda has ever produced, hardly disagrees: “In his position, he is the best I have ever seen” SC Villa coach Mike Mutebi couldn’t have been precise: “Omondi is the greatest,” he says, “Absolutely, possibly the greatest ever in Africa. “Now I can compare him with technicians like Iniesta of Barcelona.

Him and Polly Ouma formed the best ever strike partnership.” Omondi had already introduced himself in style in the Nations Cup group stages in Ghana, scoring the opener in the 3-1 thrashing of Congo Brazzaville after just 45 seconds.

Best goal ever He had added the consolation goal against Tunisia in the 3-1 loss (although several references credit this goal to Sam Musenze) before becoming a cult-hero at the tournament.

In the last group game, Uganda needed nothing but victory over defending champions Morocco to progress and Omondi was on hand, scoring the third in the 3-0 win over the North Africans.

The semi-final stage was set for Omondi to show his group exploits were anything close to a fluke and no opposition could have bettered the almighty Nigeria boasting fearfactor names like towering goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala.

With the scores level at 1-1 midway the second half, Omondi singlehandedly obliterated the Nigerians to score the winner, beating every Nigerian in his way before forcing Okala to dive futilely three times before scoring. That goal remains Lwanga’s best ever. “It’s my best ever no doubt,” shares Lwanga, “Omondi received a pass from Godfrey Kisitu, beat three tall Nigerian defenders and was left with a very big and tall Okala in goal.

“We are all watching at the time, including the beaten Nigerians. Omondi pretends he was going to shoot, Olaka falls for it and dives full strength.

“Omondi again fakes and Okala dives again having earlier got back to his feet, still Omondi does not shoot.

“Then on the third time, Omondi dummies Okala again, Okala goes the wrong direction and Omondi slots in an empty net ---all this in a flash of a moment.” Despite Uganda losing the final 2-0 to Ghana, Omondi returned home with a top-scorer’s medal, four to his name.

“Nobody can match his skills; I have never seen a player like him, he could transform a match in a flash,” the late David Otti, who recruited him to the Northern Uganda team after being rejected by Buganda in 1973 regional competitions, was once quoted.

On a visit to Uganda in 2007, Ghanaian football legend Abedi Pele described Omondi as one of his idols and believes he is one of the most talented footballers the continent has ever produced.

Having impressed in the regional championships, Omondi was called to the Cranes straight from the Second Division (KCC) and netted a brace on his debut against Somalia. Between 1979 and 1982 he was in United Arab Emirates playing professional football before rejoining the Cranes in 1983.

Omondi, who played at a high level for over 15 years, went on to score a hat-trick in 1986 as Uganda beat Kenya 3-1 in the Independence Cup. A year later, Omondi scored twice in a Nations Cup qualifier against Somalia before netting in both legs against Cameroon in the next round. Unfortunately, Uganda failed to qualify forcing him to quit the national team.

Unfortunately, Uganda’s greatest, whose other best buddy was alcohol, was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1999 before passing on the same year.

He left behind three children. And a legacy as great as is difficult to surpass.

amwanguhya@ug.nationmedia.com

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