In 2002, the national Inter-College games took place at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi. A certain Hassan Isingoma Tembo from National Teachers’ College, Mbarara (current Bishop Stuart University), emerged topscorer in the football tournament, with 10 goals.
Isingoma’s heroics caught the attention of two Kampala-based journalists, who were covering the tournament.
“I have never seen good footballers coming from Western Uganda. You and your co-striker (David Kambere) should be called up to the national youth team. I am going to forward your names to Fufa for consideration,” Isingoma quotes one of the journalists as having said.
The timing was right. In a fortnight’s time, the national U-19 team was going to be summoned for a Cecafa Youth tournament in Zanzibar. Isingoma hatched a plan.
On returning to Mbarara, Isingoma embarked on a rigorous personal training program, hoping for a call from Fufa and says he used to run 25km every day, on top of climbing the famous Kakoba hills.
At that time, Isingoma, now a teacher at Kibuli SS, was playing for Mbuggu FC, owned by the then Fufa Zone Six Chairman, Hajji Abbas Ssendyowa (RIP). During the training sessions, Isingoma says he would always be careful not to go into physical challenges, to avoid being injured.
One day, Isingoma told Ssendyowa about his secret. As zonal chairperson, Ssendyowa was mandated to forward one player from his zone that covered Mbarara, Bushenyi, Ntungamo, Kabale, Rukungiri Kasese and Ibanda. But Ssendyowa would only break Isingoma’s heart by revealing to him that the only player he had forwarded to Fufa was Igga Yusuf.
“Igga was slightly younger than me. He was a very talented striker, very sharp and swift, a very good finisher. And I was 20 years old, a year above the targeted age group, but that wasn’t going to stop me from chasing a dream” adds Isingoma.
Before the Nkozi games, Isingoma had made a name for himself in Mbarara, but as a defender. So when he told Ssendyowa that he was an all-round player and therefore wanted to be recommended to Fufa as a striker, the latter felt deceived.
Dream on, dream…
After failing to get Ssendyowa’s approval, Isingoma boarded a bus to Kampala. He camped at Naguru Police Barracks, where his father worked as an Inspector. He also kept his secret to himself, for fear of being discouraged by the old man.
The following morning, Isingoma got on with serious ball work at the former Police FC training grounds (current Future Group car bond). In the second week of July 2003, the preliminary squad for national U-19 was to be named. Nerves and anxiety were kicking in.
“On the night of naming the team, thankfully, my father was on night duty, so I ‘stole’ his radio and tuned in to some sports show. I listened patiently but my name was not on the list,” he recalls.
Surprisingly, Igga was not on the list, too. Isingoma got to learn that Igga had got an injury and Ssendyowa had replaced him with Iddi Bukenya from Kasese.
After a sleepless night, Isingoma stormed the team camp at the NCS Lugogo hostels with just a pair of playing shorts, three T-Shirts and a pair of old playing boots.
At 7am, he was at the team base. He found a man at the gates, who was registering the players. He directed Isingoma to the hostels, where Isingoma straightaway booked a bed in the farthest corner.
“There was no trace of any player in the hostel, or so, I thought. Then I heard a voice of somebody asking me who I was. I started shaking. In a very nervous tone, I told him that I am Hassan Wasswa.”
The guy went on: “Kid, you think I don’t know how Hassan Wasswa looks? Okay, my name is Zakariah Lubega. Ever heard that name before?” he asked. Isingoma’s response was a flat “No’.
“This irritated the guy, who was close to twice my height. He threw all sorts of insults at me to the extent that made me feel like wetting my pants,” reveals Isingoma.
On the evening of the second day, the coaches and managers called for an assembly to rollcall the players present. At that time, Isingoma says he was sweating profusely and developed an abrupt running stomach and headache.
Almost all players had ganged up on him, because, honestly, he was not ‘one of them’. Many of the players knew each other because they were playing for the country’s biggest clubs like SC Villa, Express, KCCA, Simba, Police and Top TV. But above all, they used to meet in the Copa Coca Cola Secondary Schools tournament that Isingoma had never played in.
But the grand moment came when Sam Timbe, the then head coach and Team Manager Angelo Lonyesi, started reading names one by one. So they would read the name and you shift to the opposite side.
“When they read Hassan Wasswa, the “real” Wasswa stood up, and I also stood up. The coaches were confused just like everyone else. But because they knew Hassan Wasswa, they directed all the crosschecking at me. They asked if I am Hassan Wasswa. I told them that was correct. And the club that I was playing for? Mbuggu FC.
Everybody burst into laughter and Timbe asked if I meant Mbogo clan. I told him I meant Mbuggu FC, a team in Mbarara.”
But here is the thing. Since Isingoma’s religious name is Hassan, he chose to add ‘Wasswa’ because he is a twin and in Bakonjo culture, Isingoma is the equivalent of Wasswa. So, he was “Hassan Wasswa”.
“Mbuggu was a team based in Mbarara and when I told that to Timbe, they all laughed at me, arguing that Mbarara cannot produce a good footballer. My explanations that I was a very talented footballer tickled the whole team into more laughter,” he adds.
To hell and back
So they rang Ssendyowa and asked him if he had sent Isingoma to the team. With the phone in loudspeaker mode, a conversation ensued.
Timbe: Hello Mr. Ssendyowa, do you know a footballer called Isingoma Hassan Tembo?
Timbe: Are you the one that forwarded him to the camp?
Timbe: Does he play for your team?
At the end of the call, Isingoma was asked if he had some money on him because the next morning he was to board a bus to Mbarara. But as that was going on, Ssendyowa called back: “True, I did not send him neither did I forward his name.
The only boy I forwarded from Mbarara is Igga but he got an injury. But Isingoma is a good player, you may need him. Give him a chance to train with you,” said Ssendyowa.
“I felt like I had escaped the executioner’s gallows. Timbe agreed to give me the chance. I knelt down and thanked them as the other players were laughing. At that moment I didn’t care what anybody said. After the meeting I just went straight to my bed and for the first time in days, I had a very peaceful sleep,” he recalls.
The next morning, coaches were arranging players in accordance to their respective positions. Remember Isingoma had “summoned” himself as a striker. He realized he did not stand any chance against the strikers, most of them he had only read about in the newspapers. Players like Lubega, Robert Sentongo, Martin Muwanga, Tony Odur and Bruno Olobo were household strikers in Ugandan football.
Isingoma switched to midfield. But again, the midfield had big names, too. Tonny Mawejje, Patrick Ochan, Abdallah Malo, Tom Semwogerere, Aloysius Lubega, Hassan Wasswa, among others.
So when his turn came, Isingoma told the selectors he was a fullback. After the meeting they headed to the Cricket Oval for ball work. Fourty players altogether but they had to be trimmed down to the final 18. Serious drills had to be endured. Due to his earlier trainings, Isingoma realized he was fitter than most of the rest.
After five days, some players were dropped on fitness grounds, while others failed to live up the physical demands and simply walked away, for good. But along the way, Timbe and the players started to appreciate that Isingoma was good, indeed.
And this was a problem on its own because other players started hating him, targeting him on the pitch and throwing all sorts of insults at him. They turned him into a ballboy and every day, Isingoma was tasked to collect the cones and balls and carry them back to and from the store.
Trial matches and the final seal
As the days progressed, trial and friendly matches began pouring in. The first game was against Top TV FC. Isingoma started as a right-back, and later in the game, the coaches switched him to the left-back position.
The next match was against the dominant SC Villa that had players like Hakim Magumba, Alex Isabirye, Phillip Obwiny, Dan Wagaluka. Isingoma did not start as Solomon Wasswa and Sula Ssebunza played left and right fullback, respectively.
But as luck would have it for Isingoma, Wasswa got an injury after 15 minutes. “That day I played leftback like it was my natural position. Everyone was amazed. I literally pocketed Villa wingers and even Micho (Villa coach then) talked about me. After that match I became confident and some players now wanted to be my friends,” boasts Isingoma. The third and final trial match was against Villa, again.
Now that was the one to determine the final squad. Isingoma gave it his very best and started feeling that he had made the final team.
But Lubega, who had now turned from foe to friend, cautioned him: “It’s too early to jubilate because the coaches might overlook you and take “their boys”. After two more days, Isingoma had made the final team. His hardwork and perseverance had paid off.
Looking back, Timbe appreciates Isingoma’s resilience and focus. “He was determined to play. None of the barriers put him off his track and when he proved his quality, I included him on the team. Not many coaches do select players on merit, but I did and I still do. It is a shame that that boy did not go on to play serious football for long. I don’t know what happened because he was truthfully a good player,” says Timbe.
For Isingoma, he had to continue with his education and he believes that it hindered his chances of playing at a more serious level because he turned many offers down. However, he doesn’t regret the move.
In Zanzibar, Uganda lost to the hosts on penalties in the final. Isingoma went on to dominate Zone 6 for two consecutive seasons as the best defender until when he led Biharwe FC to the top tier in 2007-2008.
He went on to further with his teaching profession at Kibuli SS where he took on the volunteer coaching mantle, grooming players like Allan Okello, Julius Poloto, Steven Mukwala, Nafian Alionzi, Fahad Bayo, Timothy Awany, Sadat Anaku and others.