Sam Ssimbwa’s journey from a leading midfielder to a sweeper had the word stylish written all over.
From the succulent pinpoint passes, close control to beautiful linkup play, Ssimbwa was a player many fans loved to hate.
Sam Ssimbwa was born into a diehard Express FC family. His father, Prince William Blasio Nakibinge (RIP), used to take an impressionable young Ssimbwa to Express matches in the desperate hope that his son would warm up and eventually play for the Red Eagles one day.
Ssimbwa then used to also watch German football on the national broadcaster, UTV (now UBC).
The fluid football that was displayed captured Ssimbwa’s imagination and it was clear that if he was to warm up to a football club, it had to produce the same brand of football.
That club happened to be KCC FC. The short, crisp passes that the likes of Phillip Omondi and Moses Nsereko used to swap in the KCC side of the 1980s won over Ssimbwa. But at the time, the youngster was still in school, first at Mukono Bishop before moving to Jinja Kaloli Primary School.
At Jinja Kaloli, Ssimbwa was a versatile player who featured in all outfield positions but his game waned when he joined Kitante Hill School in 1981.
It, however, didn’t take Ssimbwa long to rediscover his rhythm; in the 1984 inter-school competitions his sterling performances forced national youth coach George Mukasa to summon him to the team.
The following year (1985), Kibuli SS Games Master Badru Sentongo secured an unconditional bursary for the youngster for his ‘A’ level.
At Kibuli, Ssimbwa was appointed the school skipper; his talent had become more apparent to the top clubs.
The KCC move
In 1986, at 19, Ssimbwa signed his first club licence with Jinja-based KK Cosmos and made his debut in the super mini-league held in Jinja. His form attracted the attention of KCC chairman Jack Ibale (RIP) who had seen him on many occasions at Kibuli.
Ibaale agreed with club coach Moses Nsereko (RIP) to recruit Ssimbwa for the 1987 season. At KCC, Ssimbwa was joined by young burgeoning talents like Jackson Mayanja, Adam Semugabi, Moses Senkubuge, and Moses Lassu among others.
However, due to the March ‘A’ Level exams, Ssimbwa took long to make his KCC debut. When he did, it was a rather forgettable with the Yellow Lads falling 2-1 away to lowly Buikwe Red Stars.
But in the club’s next game against Nile FC at Nakivubo Stadium, the Yellow Lads whipped the brewers 3-0. Ssimbwa created the first two goals which Mayanja scored before Frank Kyazze added the third.
After many trials, Ssimbwa was ushered into KCC’s midfield with George Nsimbe and Mayanja.
The youthful KCC side went ahead to restore the club’s lost pride by beating SC Villa in the 1987 Uganda Cup final.
Rise to stardom
In 1988, Ssimbwa featured more in KCC’s local and international competitions. His combination with Nsimbe, Mayanja and Charles Senyange gave the Yellow Lads a perfect countenance.
However, Ssimbwa sometimes got obsessed with unnecessary ball carrying which would annoy KCC fans who accused him of being selfish.
These wails didn’t prompt Nsereko to rebuke Ssimbwa; instead Nsereko would encourage Ssimbwa to delay to discharge the ball so as to improve his creativity—especially making the killer pass.
There was some good news for Ssimbwa in 1989, though. FUFA revived the regional tournament that year and Ssimbwa featured for Kampala region under coach Timothy Ayieko.
Ayieko shifted Ssimbwa to the unfamiliar right wing position. To the surprise of many, Ssimbwa enjoyed some breathtaking performances for Kampala Region and was inevitably selected to join The Cranes.
Ssimbwa did make his Cranes debut in the Nairobi-hosted 1989 CECAFA Championships as a late substitute in a match against Kenya.
Cranes was losing 0-2 when Ssimbwa came in. He then turned things around by laying an assist that Umar Senoga converted for Cranes to lose 1-2. In the next games, he was a joy to behold.
Cranes went ahead to win the title after 12 years. Since then, he became the Cranes undisputed right winger. About 70% of Uganda Cranes goals scored by Magid Musisi were created by Ssimbwa and Sula Kato.
In September 1990, during a Group 8 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Kampala against Zaire, Ssimbwa ran rings around left-back Makonga Kasongo and summarily helped Uganda win 2-1.
In November, Ssimbwa travelled with The Cranes to Zanzibar and became a darling of the fans thanks to his dribbling skills. In the final against Sudan, Ssimbwa scored Cranes’ first goal and created the second for Musisi to win 2-0 and retain the title.
In 1992, Ssimbwa was in the victorious Cranes side that won the CECAFA Cup title in Tanzania. Sadly, injuries forced him to quit the Cranes in 1993.
In a 1990 first round league match against Express, the fans wanted coach Lwanga to shift Ssimbwa upfront claiming that he was an Express fan who might let in goals but his thunderous free-kick not only secured KCC a 1-0 win but left the fans eating humble pie.
KCC failed to win the league and its only hope lay in the Uganda Cup. In the semi-final against Uganda Airlines, Ssimbwa returned to the midfield. He played in the same position in the final against SC Villa.
Ssimbwa was a menace to the Jogoos’ defence as KCC used goals from Mayanja, Masiko and Issa Sekatawa to win 3-0. No doubt, Ssimbwa was the best player in the country. Uspa confirmed the belief when the sports scribes voted him “1990 Footballer of the Year”.
In 1991, Ssimbwa was part of KCC’s league title-winning side, but was a villain when he missed his spot kick in the Uganda Cup quarter final game against Nile FC.
At the end of the 1991 season, skipper Charles Masiko tried to cross to Express FC and after some negotiations he changed his mind and stayed in the club but this didn’t go down well with his bosses at KCC, who summarily stripped him the club captaincy.
Ssimbwa too was dropped, but fans opposed the decision and he was retained and handed the club’s arm band.
In April, KCC travelled to Maseru to play Arsenal of Lesotho in the Africa Club Championship. With KCC trailing 2-0, Ssimbwa picked up a loose ball a few metres away from the centre line to score a vital goal. KCC later won the return leg 1-0 to advance.
Ssimbwa then helped KCC win the 1993 Uganda Cup, but his game was interrupted by a knee injury. In 1995, he left for Cyprus for an operation, but failed to regain his form when he returned.
In one of the league games against Nile FC where he played as a sweeper, he was visibly below standard as Nile used his position to notch two goals. The off-colour Ssimbwa asked coach Paul Ssali to substitute him, but Ssali refused.
Surprisingly, Ssimbwa walked off the pitch in what was his last game for KCC. In 1996, he left for a coaching course in Germany and has since assumed a number of coaching positions at KCC, Health, Military Police and Simba SC. Today, he coaches Kenyan league champions Sofapaka.
- As a player, Ssimbwa won six won one league title with KCC (1991) and two Kakungulu titles (1987 & 1993). Three CECAFA Cup titles with The Cranes (1989, 1990 & 1992).
- Played for three clubs: KK Cosmos (1986), KCC (1987-1995) and Mbale Heroes (1999-2000).
- As a coach he won two Kakungulu Cup titles with Mbale Heroes (1999) and Express FC (2007).
- He has coached 10 clubs Health FC (1998), Mbale Heroes (1999-2000), Masaka LC (2001), Military Police (2002), KCC FC (Twice 2002 & 2009), Top TV (2003-2004), Attraco FC (2006), Express FC (2007), Simba FC (2008) and Sofapaka (2009-2010).
- He never received a red card in his playing career but was dismissed from the bench on two occasions.
- He captained Jinja Kaloli Primary School, Kibuli SS and KCC FC.
- He holds a diploma in accountancy and has six children.
The author is Director, Marketing & Promotions of The Observer Media