He is one of the most influential people in the history of Ugandan sport
A fabled footballer, coach and one time top dog of the sport, he was widely ridiculed and at times vilified by the press for his perceived inadequacies, Denis Obua, who collapsed and died on May 4 aged 62, is only the second person to complete the full football cycle of Ugandan football after John Semanobe
Denis Otim Obua was born June 13, 1947 in Akol village, Awelo Sub County in Amolatar District. He attended Boroboro Junior School and his childhood dream was to become a pilot.
However, as he grew up, his teachers discovered he was naturally gifted with a deadly left foot and encouraged him to play football. He spent much of his early childhood playing football at Boma Grounds (renamed Akii-Bua Stadium). He never looked back when he moved to Manjasi High School.
TAKING FOOTBALL AS A CAREER
In 1966, newly formed Coffee FC staged a series of build-up matches upcountry with the aim of tapping young talent.
This was in preparation for the first ever national football league and in one of those games at Boma, Coffee FC officials Henry Balamaze Lwanga and Gerald Nabugere spotted a young Obua and immediately signed him up.
At Coffee, Obua teamed up with budding players like Polly Ouma, Alex Oundo, George Bukenya, Ben Kasozi, Charles Omigi, Francis Kulabigwo and many more.
In 1967, Obua was summoned to play for the Northern Region side in the Aspro Cup and after starring in the tournament, it soon dawned on Coffee that their strategy of tapping young talent had become its undoing. Just before the beginning of the league in 1968, the ‘Curers’ lost several youngsters, among them Obua.
Ouma led one group to Army FC but Obua and Kulabigwo moved to Police FC. While there, his childhood dream of becoming a pilot almost came to fruition when he was posted to the police Air wing. He did a course in aviation at Naguru police Air wing but had to abandon it due to pressure from playing for the club on a regular basis.
In 1971, the ‘Cops’ narrowly missed out on their first league title on goal difference after tying with Coffee.
At the time, Obua had established himself as Police FC’s star man and played all outfield positions but his best was the left wing. He knew his way around the defences and was a stylish dribbler who possessed one of the hardest shots in the game.
With time, he also became a dead ball expert, taking Police corners, penalties and free kicks. However, Obua was also known to be immobile and his work rate was low as was the case with most of the exceptionally skilled players at the time.
He was a joy to watch with the ball but rarely tracked back when his team was on the receiving end. That said, so good was Obua that many described Police as a one-man team.
It was not only Police which benefited from Obua’s immense talent; twice Simba (Army FC) FC employed him as a ‘mercenary’ in its fairytale 1972 Africa Club Championship campaign when the club reached the final.
One memorable incident happened in 1972. Uganda was hosting Somalia in an All Africa Games qualifier but the match found Obua locked up at Makindye Barracks following a crackdown on influential Langi after the fall of Milton Obote’s regime in 1971.
However, the sports fraternity pleaded with the authorities and Obua was released just minutes before kick-off. He was brought straightaway to Nakivubo stadium and without any training, he went onto the pitch and scored in Uganda’s 5-2 win.
As Obua did his magic on the pitch, his cousin John Akii-Bua pulled off perhaps the greatest feat by any Ugandan sports personality when he won gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics in the 400m hurdles.
Another unforgettable afternoon in 1974 had Obua score all 4 goals as Police defeated a star-studded Express team 4-1.
Then in 1975, Obua was again the centre of attention – this time doing the damage from the back. Going into the last match of the season, Simba needed to beat Police to take the league title but Obua pulled off one of his most memorable performances – playing as a centre half – as Police held on for a 2-2 draw.
The result also ensured Express took the title. Despite being a winger, Obua regularly scored goals at will and he was the league top scorer with 24 goals in 1977.
In a surprise move shortly afterwards, Obua left Police and joined Maroons FC (formerly Prisons FC). However, his time at Maroons lasted just one season.
This was precipitated by the fall of Idi Amin’s government in April 1979 and the instability that followed afterwards. Together with Ouma, Timothy Ayiekoh and Abbey Nasur, they crossed to Kenya and Obua joined Luo Union FC.
He made a low key return to the country in 1980 rejoined Police FC, which by now was playing in the lower division. He quit the sport after failing to regain his form but in 1983 made a comeback and joined SC Villa.
He was part of the Jogoos side which battled Mozambique’s Ferroviario in the Africa Club Championship. However, little did he know that that would be his last meaningful match because a few weeks later, he was shot by gunmen while taking a drink at Contafric Bar in Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb.
Several bullets went through his abdomen and he was flown to Germany where his life was saved.
As fate would have it, Obua never won any domestic title as a player and all his honours were with the national team.
He joined The Cranes in 1967 after replacing John Semanobe, who was pushed to the centre forward position. In no time established himself as the undisputed left winger.
He appeared in the 1968 Nations Cup in Ethiopia and later was in the East Africa select side which played against British’s West Bromwich Albion side which visited the region——but Obua’s moment in the limelight came in the 1969 East Africa Challenge Cup where he scored four goals in the 7-1 win over Zanzibar.
He went on to score many spectacular goals but the most memorable one was the equaliser against Egypt in 1972. With three minutes to go, Egypt led 2-1 in this 1973 All Africa Games qualifier.
Up stepped John Ddibya, who hoisted the ball from the wing up to the 18-yard line and as Ouma attempted to head, Obua asked him to leave it and he connected well with a fierce volley into the roof of the net that left the Egyptian custodian glued in one position.
Then came 1973 during the Africa Cup of Nations eliminations against Kenya the first match played in Kampala, Obua scored Cranes first goal before Ashe Mukasa added the second for Uganda to win 2-1.
In the return match in Nairobi, Kenya needed just one goal to qualify. They scored first, but Ashe Mukasa equalized from the spot kick. With minutes ticking away, Obua scored Cranes second goal to book Algeria for the final round.
In the Algeria match, Cranes scored first through Ashe Mukasa but Algeria equalized. However, Obua scored the winner in the second half with ten minutes left. The Cranes held Algeria 1-1 in the return leg to qualify for the 1974 Africa Cup of Nations.
Obua was feared in the entire region and many children especially from Malawi, Kenya and Zambia named themselves Obua. In Uganda, former Coffee star Gerald Senyondo is known as Obua and few know him by his real name.
Obua’s success story with the Cranes includes six CECAFA titles (1968, 1969, 1970, 1973, 1976 and 1977). He played in three Africa Cup of Nations tournaments in 1968, 1974 and 1976 and scored two goals.
However, his legacy was also littered with misconduct. On several occasions, Obua left The Cranes camp for a drinking spree here and there but he was quick to mend fences by apologizing.
The departed left winger also had many altercations with his superiors. This explains his absence in Ghana during the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations. The insurgency in the country and advanced age played a big part in Obua’s exit from the Cranes in 1981.
After a failed comeback attempt, Obua – who had risen to the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police on top of being the force’s sports officer – regularly lent a hand in coaching Police FC. Then in 1995, he took over as Police FC coach and guided it back to the Super League after 19 years in obscurity.
At Police, Obua nurtured several youngsters like Hassan Mubiru, James Odoch and his own son David Obua. He was team manager of the national youth side which played in the 1991 All Africa Games and played a similar role for the Kobs – the second string national side that reached the 1995 CECAFA Cup final.
On October 13, 1996, Obua was elected Chairman of Super Division Clubs Association (SDCA) but on several occasions, the association clashed with local football body FUFA.
This didn’t go down well with FUFA boss Twaha Kakaire, who is said to have pressurized SDCA to replace him and on April 8, 1997 with Patrick Lwanga.
This only galvanized Obua to fight on and on December 1, 1998, he achieved a rare milestone when he was elected FUFA boss.
However, he failed to live to the expectations and was accused of financial mismanagement and administration. That said, he still managed to win a re-election in 2001. Still, the situation didn’t improve; something which led to the intervention of government which dissolved his executive in February 2005. But before being shown the FUFA exit, he was elected CECAFA chief and held the post till 2008.
Even after his exit from FUFA, some soccer fans wanted Obua to account for FUFA funds – which he failed to do and ended up in Luzira Prison. He was later released.
From then on, Obua kept a somewhat low profile even though he always turned up to watch league and national team games.
He is survived by 18 children and already, four of them have taken his mantle in sports. David Obua plays for Scotland’s Hearts, Eric features for URA FC, Kevin stars for St. Mary’s Kitende while Sarah Desire Birungi is a star netball midfielder with NIC netball club.
The author is Director, Marketing & Promotions, Observer Media
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