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Flashback: When Pele lauded Uganda football

A few days ago, I was touched by the visit to Uganda of Chess legend Garry Kasparov.

Hailed as the greatest chess player, Kasparov’s sojourn should have a lasting effect on Ugandan chess and personally, it inspired me to revive my interest in the game. Kasparov also served to remind me of a visit 37 years ago of another greatest, Pele, who temporarily put Kampala on a standstill.

Ugandans are a crazy lot. Sometime back, I eavesdropped a conversation in which a middle-aged man was convincing another that 80s crooner Billy Ocean was born in Gulu. I have also heard tales of people that believe Bob Marley was Ugandan-born.

Aside from the queer imaginations, I also meet people, some within sports circles, who doubt Pele ever stepped foot in Uganda. In reality, February 5, 1976 is the day the former Brazilian football legend jetted in at Entebbe to embark on a three-day tour of Uganda to promote development of youth football.

Playing for the New York Cosmos at the time, Pele’s trip was sponsored by Pepsi and thousands of Ugandans turned up to get a glimpse of the football idol. Interestingly, Pele’s visit to Uganda was not planned in advance; the legend, who had toured several African countries with Kenya being his last stop before flying back to the US, was convinced to visit Uganda at the eleventh hour.

“I was contacted by Kenya Football Federation (KFF) boss Kenneth Matiba whether Uganda was  ready to receive him [Pele], to which I said why not,” recalls Era Mugisa, who was Fufa and Cecafa boss at the time.

At Entebbe, Pele was received by NCS boss Ernest Oluo, NCS general secretary Martin Okoth and Mugisa. The following day, Fufa organised a football gala comprising of school teams from King’s College Budo, Kololo SS, Lubaga Boys and Old Kampala SS as well as a select team from the central region youth sides. However, before kickoff, Pele gave pep talks to all the youngsters and later featured in group photos with each of the teams.

Pele, who made the first kick before the commencement of play, was greatly impressed by the skills exhibited by the youngsters and acknowledged every good pass with a clap.

“Uganda is on the right track in football development and you should stick to this kind of arrangement of encouraging players at a young age,” he said afterwards.

One of the participating youngsters was Fred Musisi Kiyingi, who remembers the day with a tinge of pride. “It was a historical moment for me being part of the Kololo SS team,” says the Daily Monitor journalist.

On February 7, Fufa organized another match between topflight sides Coffee and Uganda Prisons (Maroons). Before the game, there was speculation that Pele would showcase his extraordinary skills at half-time.

This only served to heighten the interest in the match and by 2pm, Nakivubo was full to capacity.
But what was supposed to be an interesting match turned out to be a boring game as all the 22 players on the pitch tried hard to impress the Brazilian, who seemed to be unimpressed by the level of football displayed.

To this day, it remains a mystery why Fufa opted for teams renowned for dull football tactics instead of giants like Express and KCC. The fans also expected a showdown between Uganda Cranes which was preparing for the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations and the Uganda Lions (Uganda second strings side) which had just returned from China where they played build-up games.

It didn’t help matters at half time when Pele’s limousine left the stadium. Angry fans hurled jeers towards the pavilion where officials sat. Indeed, many fans rushed for the exits as a handful stayed to dull goalless draw.

The author is Director Marketing & Promotions of The Observer Media Ltd.

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