The football story in Uganda is incomplete without the year 1978. The Pearl of Africa recorded her best feat in the beautiful game by reaching the final of the Africa Cup of Nations albeit losing to hosts Ghana in the final.
Up to date, that is without a doubt the biggest success Uganda has achieved in football and it took 39 years for the Cranes to return to the continental showpiece in 2017 in Gabon.
However, the 1978 story may not have happened had it not been for Jimmy Kirunda (RIP). His stoppage time winner against Ethiopia in the qualifiers was the gate pass for Uganda to book a berth in Ghana.
The football fraternity in Uganda was left in a sombre mood on Monday when it was confirmed that Kirunda had passed on in Bwaise, a Kampala Surburb after collapsing.
He leaves the stage as one of the finest footballers Uganda has produced given his successful career both at club and the national team.
Additionally, many who saw him playing believe he is the most complete footballer to grace Ugandan football given his ability to play almost in every position. This is backed by the fact that despite being a defender, he emerged as the league top scorer in 1978 with 32 goals, a record that stood for 21 years before it was broken by Andrew ‘Fimbo’ Mukasa.
The historical goal
Prior to the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations, Uganda had played in four editions (1962, 1968, 1974 and 1976) but all ended with no success registered.
Therefore, there was desire to not only qualify but make an improvement in the performance at the final tournament.
The Cranes were pitted against neighbours Tanzania in the first round of the qualifiers but the latter withdrew because of the political tensions between the two countries at the time.
Actually Tanzania had asked CAF to have the games played on a neutral ground but their request was turned down and thus Uganda was awarded a walkover.
In the second and final qualifying phase, Uganda had to play Ethiopia who had eliminated Mauritius 4-2 on aggregate in the previous round.
Ethiopia hosted the first leg in Adis Ababa on 2nd October 1977 and a remarkable performance by goalkeeper Paul Ssali alias Commando helped Uganda to earn a point in the barren stalemate.
Ssali made numerous saves, including denying Ethiopian striker Solomon from the spot after skipper Kirunda had fouled in him in the penalty area.
The teams faced off in the return leg at Nakivubo War Memorial stadium two weeks later and once again, Ssali was outstanding.
Dennis Obua (RIP) gave Uganda the lead midway through the first half and by halftime, the Cranes had one foot in Ghana.
However, Ethiopia stepped up their efforts in the second stanza make several inroads at Uganda’s goal area.
The immense pressure pilled saw them win a penalty in the 59th minute when their fiercest striker Solomon was brought down in the box by Tom Lwanga. But like he did in Adis Ababa, Ssali once again rose to the occasion parrying the resultant penalty.
At that time, Uganda was still in the lead and only needed to keep the score intact to seal their qualification berth.
Three minutes to the death of the clock, Ethiopia levelled matters. The cheering Ugandans were silenced. The mood in the stands swiftly changed from jubilant to sad. Solomon who had been denied on several occasions this time had finally found the back of the net.
At 1-1, Ethiopia was qualifying on away goals’ rule. The clock was fast running and many had lost hope with some of the fans already finding their way out of the stadium.
Deep in stoppage time, Uganda wins a free kick and perhaps their last realistic chance of attack. Kirunda and Eddie Ssemwanga (RIP) share a few words before the latter runs to Ethiopia’s box.
Ssemwanga made the delivery from the free kick and Kirunda jumped high to head home the winning goal that not only sent Uganda to the 1978 AFCON tournament but also began the journey to the most successful expedition of the Cranes.