By JamesS Bakama
WHILE almost every Ugandan knows the countryâ€™s biggest soccer achievement, few people seem to have a hint about their national teamâ€™s path to that feat.
Quite understandable. As the Cranes soared to the 1978 Nations Cup final, the qualifiers held the previous year paled in insignificance.
Whatâ€™s ironical though about this outstanding run, is the fact that it was a result of easy pre-tournament qualification.
After a walk over against Tanzania, Uganda had two second round battles with Ethiopia before advancing to the finals in Ghana. Tanzania withdrew because of political tensions with Uganda.
They requested CAF to schedule the match in a neutral venue but the request was roundly rejected.
October 2nd 1977
Ethiopia 0 Uganda 0
Ethiopia, fresh from a stint in China, Germany and USSR, promised to take the Cranes to Sunday School. The Cranes on the other hand wanted to make up for an early dismissal from the World Cup qualifiers by Zambia.
Ugandaâ€™s problems started in the last ten minutes when Addis Ababaâ€™s high altitude started taking its toll on the visitors.
As pressure mounted, goalkeeper Paul Ssali was outstanding as Ethiopian danger man Solomon tore Cranesâ€™ defence shreds. In a desperate moment, Ugandaâ€™s captain Jimmy Kirunda brought down the Ethiopian star to concede a penalty.
The hosts went wild in celebration only to be disapointed by an acrobatic Ssali save.
But Dennis Obuaâ€™s shot had earlier stretched goalkeeper Getachew momentss after a Kirunda header also narrowly missed the mark. Nsereko had after a brilliant build-up with Timothy Ayiekho and Polly Ouma looked on as his shot rattled the woodwork.
Cranes- P. Ssali, E. Ssemwanga, A. Mukasa, T. Lwanga, J. Kirunda, M. Kiganda, S. Mubiru, T. Ayiekho, A. Nasur (P.Ouma), Obua, Mwesige (Nsereko).
Ethiopia- A. Getachew, Medhin, T. seyime, A. haile, Bayu, Adam, B. Adam, G. Manuel(Muhammed), N. Gebra (Hayelu), Solomon, Teka, Tesfaye.
October 16th 1977
Uganda 2 Ethiopia 1
It was the Cranesâ€™ chance to pin the vocal Ethiopians, who were again talking big.
But the visitors started eating their words almost immediately after kick-off as Cranes went into full attack.
Amidst the pressure Ethiopiaâ€™s Solomon was quick in discovering weak spots.
Solomon cursed Paul Ssali nine minutes into the match when his close range shot was punched into a corner. Ssali blocked more goal bound shots in the 15th and 18th minutes.
Dennis Obua, who had been off the picture, stamped his authority on the match mid-way through the first half.
As Voice of Ugandaâ€™s Paul Waibale Senior put it at the time, â€œ Obua dribbled past two defenders into the Ethiopian box and commissioned a bullet that hit the target without any attempt by goalkeeper Getachew to block it.â€
Score Uganda 1 Ethiopia 0.
Uganda was already in the Ghana finals if the score remained that way.
Ecstatic Ugandans were however silenced in the 59th when Tom Lwanga brought down an Ethiopian striker in the box.
Referee Anangwa pointed to the spot. Ssali yet again proved that he was one of Africaâ€™s best goalkeepers.
Like a cat, hepunched the ball out.
Solomon, Gebra and Manuel were not yet done. They fired canons but Ssali, popularly nicknamed â€˜Commandoâ€™ for his survival skills, was unbeatable.
With ten minutes left, Mike â€œComputerâ€ Kiganda nimbly controlled an Ayiekho pass and beat goalkeeper Getachew with a low ball that hit the woodwork.
Okeeâ€™s survival instinct told him that only a man of Stanley â€œTankâ€ Mubiruâ€™s power would at that point save the Cranes. Mubiru thus came on for Nsereko in the 75th.
But trust the Ethiopiansâ€™ resilience. With three minutes left, a throw in deep into the hostsâ€™ territory had Ayiekho heading the wrong way.
Ssali punched the ball away but amidst the confusion Solomon lurched onto the loose ball and did exactly what was expected of a striker. Score 1-1.
With such a score, and barely a minute left, Ethiopia had qualified for the Ghana finals. The referee was already checking his watch and spectators were streaming out of the stadium. Only a miracle could save Uganda.
Itâ€™s at about that point that a charging Mubiru was on the right flank near the Kirussia wing. Ugandaâ€™s free kick specialist Ssemwanga prepared for the last-ditch attempt.
But before Ssemwanga could kick, he had a word with Kirunda who thereafter ran deep into the opponentsâ€™ half to wait for the ball.
Ssemwanga kicked a high ball. There was an aerial scuffle. But it was the 6â€™3â€ Kirunda who stood out. He seemed to defy gravity as he not only jumped highest but also stayed seconds longer in the air to head the ball in.
The unbelieving Ethiopians attacked the referee as Kampala suddenly lit up. Chants of â€œKirunda our manâ€ and partying continued late into the night.
Uganda had qualified 2-1 on aggregate.