Mbabali: A talent gone without trace

Lion heart. Innocent Mbabali (centre) defends a penalty corner while on duty for Bologna in Italy. PHOTO/COURTESY 

What you need to know:

It was a shock to most because Mbabali had just been in the country going normally about his coaching activities and still looked as fit as a fiddle.

The hockey fraternity has since Friday struggled to come to terms with the demise of Innocent Mbabali.

Mbabali was until his death, without contest, the most influential Ugandan hockey personality of his generation. And his legacy will live on for years.

However, just after 11pm on Friday night, news started to filter through that the versatile player and coach had met his end after hours of falling into a coma in the Netherlands.

The last days

It was a shock to most because Mbabali had just been in the country going normally about his coaching activities and still looked as fit as a fiddle.

The only surprise was that he did not play for his local club Wananchi during that period and while this should have been a warning sign, it was easy to dismiss because some of this club’s top players have a tendency of sitting out of certain matches as they await for the highly contested games against their title rivals.

The fraternity and his family await the hospital report that should detail his final hours or days but most of the initial conversations point to stomach complications. But his body can only come home at a cost of Shs25m that would help clear the medical bill and pay the Turkish company that can repatriate his remains.

Reports say that Mbabali was on his own in his last days and was taken to Amsterdam University Hospital by unknown helpers around Monday last week with only his passport on him.

He had since 2019 plied his trade in Italy but was keen on starting something new in the Netherlands.

Through the Ugandan Embassy in Netherlands and the Ministry of Internal Affairs back home, the hospital traced his family through former Uganda Hockey Association (UHA) publicity secretary Jackie Namyalo, who was a recommender for his passport.

Meanwhile, UHA and Namyalo have set up a gofundme page ( to fundraise for the repatriation of the body but the latter can also receive money on her mobile number 0789619987. Hockey clubs are also set to contribute.

According to his aunt Justine Nakyeyune Birungi, Mbabali complained of ulcers when he returned to Uganda from Italy in mid-July.

“I cannot say for sure that we knew or did not know what he was suffering from but he complained of ulcers and we treated that at the end of July.

"The doctor, however, told us that he senses a bacterial infection on the liver. He put him on medication but as soon as he completed the dose and felt better, he decided to leave for the Netherlands via Italy on August 14,” Birungi shared.

The ulcers story corroborates with another account from one of Mbabali’s mentors who showed this reporter a message from August last year, where the deceased was complaining of battling ulcers for the entirety of three weeks stay in Uganda then.

Birungi believes “the ulcers could have developed or worsened because of the stress he had over this liver issue. It seems he knew but wanted to keep it to himself.”

Mbabali’s reasons for moving to the Netherlands were not clear to his family but they suspected from his conversations that he had still gone for hockey related activities.

He also could have been trying to start life anew but those who did not know about his condition expected him to return soon to train with the national team for the October 29 to November 5 Olympic Qualifiers in South Africa.

Unfinished business

Despite playing hockey for over 20 years, Mbabali had hardly represented his country but was part of a team of three that won the second edition of the Beach Hockey World Cup in Italy in June and was expected to be a valuable addition to the Hockey Cranes.

In fact, coach Francesco Richichi had shared with this reporter that “despite the hockey season in Italy starting in September, the Ugandan players should wait to return until later in the year so they can train with the national team.”

He would bring a competitive edge, effective skill and versatility that the team lacked at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2022. He hated losing and in his younger days, he was keen to make opponents know that even if it meant substituting brain for brawn.

The legacy

Yet off the pitch, he was welcoming and warm to everyone that wanted to make a contribution to a sport he loved so much. He started his Hope for Skills Hockey Foundation around 2015 and also worked with the Hockey Dreams Foundation to take hockey to the communities.

Before that, he just helped his club groom talent and as Moses Nsereko another coach posted on X, formerly, Twitter, “he changed the face of women’s hockey (in Uganda) when he brought Wananchi’s ladies’ side.” That team, which started with players in primary school in 2014, won the national league from 2015 till 2021.

Even the Deliverance Church of Uganda (DCU) team that won the women’s league last year had a host of players that passed through Mbabali’s hands and he had in July told this reporter that he had been “handed the responsibility to redevelop the DCU team” after its poor title defence. He has also had a hand in developing some of the best players in the men’s league.

Long after Ugandan players had settled for their own home competitions, Mbabali resumed the exportation of Ugandan talent when he moved to United States International University (USIU) to play in the Kenya Hockey League in 2018.

Shortly after, he moved to Italy and has since been followed there by Colline Batusa, Ashiraf Tumwesigye plus Timothy Ntumba and Jordan Mpiima with whom he won the Beach Cup. If reports are true that he had moved to the Netherlands to start another hockey career, that too would have been a pioneer move for Ugandan hockey.

He has also left one biological child and another two that he was taking care of, according to his aunt.

So for many reasons, Mbabali’s death is untimely. In fact, he lived like a man with a lot to accomplish. May his soul rest in eternal peace!

At a glance

Name: Innocent Mbabali

Local club: Wananchi

2019-2023: Hockey Team Bologna, Italy

2018: USIU Kenya

Foundation work: Hope for Sport (his own), Hockey Dreams

Big awards: World Beach Hockey 2023 gold, USPA Hockey Player of 2016, multiple tournament MVPs