Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, the former Kenyan president who died on February 3, was a political giant whose influence transcended East Africa during his 24-year rule.
But much as he is best remembered for his role in politics, I couldn’t help but remember his notable, albeit unintended, contribution to Ugandan football when he propelled The Cranes to win the 1989 Cecafa Cup.
Even before the tournament, Moi was already a renowned football enthusiast who often showed up to support Harambee Stars. In December, 1989, I travelled to Nairobi to cover this tournament on behalf of Soccer World magazine and the frenzy atmosphere in Nairobi set up a carnival-like atmosphere even before the start of the tournament.
The opening game between The Cranes against hosts Kenya drew a full house at Nyayo stadium. With Moi in attendance to bolster support, Uganda stood little chance and trailed 0-2 at half time before Sam Ssimbwa, on his competitive debutant, curled a beautiful cross for Umar Senoga to head in a late consolation.
A 1-1 draw with Zimbabwe meant that Uganda had to comprehensively beat outsiders Tanzania in the last group game to stand a chance for the semis. Tanzania had already lost both games to Kenya (1-2) and Zimbabwe (0-3).
The last group matchup had The Cranes taking on Tanzania on December 8 before the Kenya-Zimbabwe game the following day. So, Uganda’s tall order was to first surpass Zimbabwe’s win over Tanzania and pray that hosts defeat Zimbabwe. A draw between Kenya and Zimbabwe would automatically eliminate The Cranes.
Before the last round of group games, rumours swirled in Nairobi that Zimbabwe and Kenya would fix the match to eliminate Uganda. For one, Kenya had already qualified for the semis and local reports indicated they would field a second-string side. Matters were not helped by the poor relations between Uganda and Kenya at the time. So, everything was stacked against Uganda.
I also remember the mood in The Cranes camp was damp and Zimbabwean journalists and fans with whom we shared a hotel were so confident they even extended their hotel stay for another week as we prepared to board the next bus to Kampala.
In spite of this, Magid Musisi didn’t leave anything to chance and led the onslaught on the pitch with a hat-trick to guide The Cranes to a 5-1 rout of Tanzania. However, there wasn’t much celebration at the end of the final whistle because our fate lay in the hands of Kenyans to beat Zimbabwe the following day. That night, some players packed their bags at team hotel, ready for the journey back home.
Come D-day, the Kenya-Zimbabwe game started on a slow pace as both teams looked disinterested as though they were conserving energy for the semi. However, everything turned on its head when it was announced President Moi was due in the stadium any minute. Indeed, he arrived on the half-hour mark when the stadium was half empty.
He immediately ordered organisers through the stadium public address system to open all gates and let fans enter free of charge. “Baba Moi has said the state shall pay,” said the stadium announcer, amidst a thunderous applause. In just few minutes, the 30,000-seater stadium was full to capacity and mood on the pitch had changed from casual to competitive.
It became evident that Harambee Stars could not afford playing for a draw in front of their head of state, who often rewarded success with huge monetary tokens. Kenya upped the tempo and scored the opener on the stroke of half time, sending the few remaining Ugandans in hysteria.
Zimbabwe equalized to create anxiety in the stadium but that didn’t discourage Moi from rallying his boys. It is not clear whether Moi knew about Uganda’s stake in the match. An animated Moi stood up to clap for every half chance Kenya created and when the hosts scored a late winner, he celebrated by removing his hat, hoisted his baton and hugged whoever was nearby.
Moi’s tact served to inspire Uganda, which went on to defeat highly-fancied Zambia 3-1 in the semi-final courtesy of goals from Musisi, Senoga and Robert Aloro before claiming the title after a tense final by defeating Malawi 2-1 in a penalty shoot-out.
Looking back, it is perhaps Moi’s moment of magic that turned around a humiliating Cecafa experience into the most glorifying Cecafa title for Uganda. That’s Baba Moi for you.
The author is The Observer operations director.