They came just like a shooting star. In 2012, Uganda’s football was not the beautiful game. It could pass for parody. So, when SC Victoria University (SCVU) rose, Vipers fans weren’t happy. That year, SCVU, an A-team under the ownership of Serbian Simo Dubajic, took even the giants to the cleaners.
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Express’ last trophy in 2012 coincided with Victoria University’s arrival in the Premier League. The Red Eagles had last tasted triumph 15 years ago in 1996.
They were meticulously organised becoming every footballer’s dream destination. SCVU was filled with the next best players who helped themselves to a Uganda Cup title on their first time in the top flight. Though SCVU only lasted five years, their impact on football resonated long after they left.
The Model Club
My first encounter with Dubajic was on the morning of March 29, 2012 in his softly lit and spacious Kamwokya office near the Uganda Museum. He had agreed to an interview about the team’s meteoric rise. Dubajic spotted a fine designer checkered shirt with a silver watch on his left hand, sometimes swinging in the comfy black leather chair. A faint smile, playing across his lips, was of a man comfortable in his own skin even though moments earlier he was from grilling his coaches for drawing a game.
Dubajic did not suffer fools gladly. “I give you all you deserve, I demand results,” I overheard him from the waiting room expressing his disappointment to Ivan Zorić.
Equipped to the teeth, SCVU was probably the only club that conducted professional medicals. It had three doctors responsible for the players’ health and winning bonuses could sometimes go up to $200. The Serb had built a strong team which former Communications Manager Leon Ssenyange described as “the model club”.
The team spent just one season in the second-tier after assembling a top flight squad. They had secured Denis Guma (also known as Iguma), who had snubbed SC Villa, at a reported $10,000 deal. Guma was a kind of player Dubajic personally wanted to sell to Europe.
History is written by the winners, an old cliché attributed to Napoleon says. In Uganda, this maxim had no finer example than the 2013 Uganda Cup winners who stunned moneybags Vipers in the final at Masindi. SCVU had a classic team, a blend of skill and menace. They put their faith in quiet belief as the next big thing.
“Everyone was always motivated to win. Winning bonuses were paid after three games. We would be paid up to Ush 600,000. Sometimes we got Uhs 450,000 or Ush 300,000 depending on the opposition,” Alex Isabirye, who led the team to the Uganda Cup triumph says.
Dubajic pampered his players with the backing of Edulink Consultants, whose parent company was based in Dubai. Edulink managed Victoria University which was accredited to the University of Buckingham.
But money told half the story. Dubajic, who came to Uganda as an employee of Ultimate Security, was a no-nonsense man who treasured work ethic.
The Serb had bought Kampala Regional League side Kase in August 2011. It quickly rose to the Big League, winning the play-off final 4-0 against Aurum Roses to gain promotion in 2012. SCVU finished fifth in the 2012/13 season but won its first major trophy; the Uganda Cup that season.
Kase’s sale left a bitter taste in the mouths of its fans from Kazo, Nabweru and Kawempe. It had become their pride setting a fierce rivalry especially with Bright Stars. But when it emerged that founder Juma Kasolo, had bagged just Shs10m, fans remonstrated.
“Most fans had wanted some of the players to be taken into the new team which was not the case,” Mahadi Ssali, a former Kase media coordinator said.
Men at work
But Simo was doing his business anyway. A methodical man, he admired European standards.
“He was results-oriented and everyone had to deliver. The team was based on a networked principle. Simo [Dubajic] ruthlessly endorsed all the rules,” Ssenyange says of the team science.
Four seasons defined their history. In the 2012/13 season they finished fifth with 46 points. The following season, they gave KCCA a run for their money finishing one point behind the champions. That season they beat URA over two rounds, Express, Vipers and Villa fell too, and they held KCCA home and away. At the halfway mark, they were one point behind Vipers. The title was decided on the final day of the season as KCCA beat Villa 3-1 at Lugogo to seal it. It was double trouble as KCCA eliminated them in the semis of the Uganda Cup. The 2014/15 season saw them finish ninth in the league before being relegated the following season. “They had big dreams to be the leading club in Africa,” former coach Alex Isabirye adds.
On top of support from Edulink, the team had a shirt sponsorship from South African-based Joma and Dasani Water.
SCVU may have been a strong team on the pitch, but the average attendance at home matches stood at just over 100, and some of those were mainly journalists or coaches. For its four-year existence, SCVU played from the 42,000-seater Namboole Stadium. The reason to support SCVU in those days was if one was a friend to Dubajic or a student at Victoria University. But that very lack of support is actually one of the main reasons behind SCVU’s rise, because it allowed the club to implement its plans without any pressure.
In the Ugandan league, the big three of KCCA, Express and Villa have the most fans — a defeat is a treated as a tragedy, leading to talks about crisis. Managers spend most of their time solving real and imaginary crises. Coaches are fired all the time. The media is always looking for the next big crisis. It is nearly impossible to do any sort of planning in those circumstances.
The man with the plan
To outline his ambitions, Simo Dubajic signed Sam Ssimbwa and Steven Bogere but fired them midway the season. Then Isabirye was brought with Morley Byekwaso and goalkeeping coach Moses Oloya.
Isabirye had been seconded by Milutin Sredojevic, who set a meeting in Kigali at the time when Micho was eying the Uganda Cranes job.
“I would describe Simo [Dubajic] as a straight guy. He set his targets perfectly. It was very clear I would be in charge of everything. I had never been in such a set up,” Isabirye said. While Isabirye took care of the team, Muhammad Warda, the personal assistant, was charged with Simo’s business.
The pressure to win at SCVU was great and very public and players had to devote their time to football.
It was an eye-opening experience on and off the pitch for Isabirye. He was supposed to mind about player details including paying home visits. “It was an introduction to what happens in professional set-ups,” he says.
Isabirye took shifts on his team signing the trio of Manco Kawesa, Mutyaba Muzamiru and Yasser Mugerwa. He guided the team to the continent by winning the Uganda Cup. Then a misunderstanding on the failed acquisition of Richard Wandyaka, Milton Kaliisa led to his unceremonious exit.
Winning the Uganda Cup is Isabirye’s highlight although it was Byekwaso who took the team to the Nile Basin Tournament triumph and the CAF Confederation Cup.
I had high expectations for myself and sadly I was unable to reach them. I tried explaining to him why I had paid Jinja Municipal Council and Iganga United sign-on fees against his will and he never listened.Alex Isabirye
But Simo could have been relieved as a Ush 50M monthly bill seemed to be getting hectic amidst the FUFA and SuperSport wars.
SCVU suddenly become popular and started to receive more attention from the national team coach. For players, everything changed quickly.
The University of Buckingham had withdrawn its support to Victoria University citing restrictions to freedom of Speech in Uganda in January 2013 setting up an anticlimax. Simo relocated to Kenya to set up British Education College, the predecessor of Edulink International College to offer technical courses.
He reluctantly accepted to sell the team to Kampala MP Muhammad Nsereko at Shs100m for a controlling stake of 51 percent. It is not surprising that it is a decision Simo regrets today.
As the go-between Simo and Nsereko, the Serbian told me of several challenges ranging from the obvious dwindling finances, mysterious player revolts, unfair officiating to being undermined as a foreigner. Prior to the three-man meeting at Village Mall Bugoloobi, he asked me twice if Nsereko was the right man to take the team. When the deal was unveiled at Serena Hotel, he was uneasy after Nsereko arrived almost an hour late. Simo’s instinct was that Nsereko was simply taking the team for political capital. But the Kampala Central MP assured the gathered press that there was no detail too small to ignore especially that he was already equipped with audited financial reports from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
Post-Simo life seemed to be unfolding as planned with Nsereko attending every training session which he demanded start as early as 6:00AM. Head coach Byekwaso diligently obliged but was visibly turned off by the MP taking over training sessions. Byekwaso never publicly told anyone his mind till today.
Nsereko wanted the team to be in the media as often as possible and used to give one million shillings to be shared among journalists that attended the daily training sessions. This behaviour attracted many people to the team’s training sessions where he gave free replica shirts and free transport to fans during away games.
“Nsereko took over something he didn’t understand properly. Football is a ruthless business,” Ssenyange says.
By February 2015, there was barely any semblance of the team Simo had left behind. Goalkeeper Benjamin Ochan, Geoffrey Sserunkuma, Lawrence Kasadha, Bernard Agele, George Abege, Matthew Odong, Isaac Muleme, Savio Kabugo, Yasser Mugerwa, Murushid Jjuuko, Denis Guma and Isaac Muleme had all left in the January transfer window to be replaced by the likes of Rashid Kiyini (VCC), Fahad Muhammad (Kireka United), Nicholas Kagaba (Kamwokya United) Titus Lubega (SC Villa), Charles Lukwago (Proline) and Ivan Mbowa (Bul). These players and others were bought in cash stashed in a red replica Joma travel bag, one of the many Simo had left for the future players.
A cursory look at the team statistics showed a bare team that could not stay healthy for long. The cold bottom line showed the team limp out of football when they were relegated at the end of the 2016 season. Sadly, without a trace.
Up to now no one is happy. Kase recollected themselves, but they had sold their soul that was engraved in the community. Simo attempted to buy Nairobi City Stars but had sold SCVU’s ghost to Nsereko who cremated it.