The last time I met Jimmy Kirunda, the gentle giant of Ugandan football was in Lewisham, South East of London in 2001.
At the height of Uganda’s football in the 1970s I had the privilege and honour of interacting with the soft spoken Kirunda as he was fondly known, off the football field.
Footballers and football fans used to hang out at the then Kampala International Hotel now Sheraton Kampala Hotel for the Sunday Feast.
Every Sunday afternoon, we would be there enjoying sumptuous buffet and live music.
It was during that time that in one of our conversations he wondered how we enjoyed watching football. He just couldn’t understand how someone would live home go the stadium to watch other people play. In his own words, he told me: “I only go to the stadium to play but I don’t think I would enjoy going there to watch others play. Probably if I were a coach. I really respect you guys for supporting us and cheering us as we enjoy ourselves.”
Kirunda will be remembered among other football exploits for scoring a spectacular goal against his former team Express FC soon after joining KCC FC. An Express fan who admired Kirunda on learning that Kirunda had scored against his side gave out a loud cry “Kirunda atusse” loosely translated Kirunda has killed us. He collapsed and died instantly!
KCC went on to win that match. The rivalry between Express and KCC which was a new kid on the block was fueled mostly by the tendency of KCC’s coach Bidandi Ssali fondly known to his clubs fan as “Mister” to poach Express’ ace players especially Jimmy Kirunda and Ashe Mukasa one of the finest left backs Uganda has ever produced.
Jimmy Kirunda was a center back aka no 5 (sweeper) He replaced Ibrahim Dafala who had replaced Moses Wamai as central defender in the Uganda National Team. Jimmy mentored Tom Lwanga who ably filled in his big shoes. All the four central defenders were cool headed and rarely had issues with refrees despite being the last men after whom the goalies would be exposed to lethal strikers.
Kirunda knew the football pitch like the back of his hand. He was a general on the pitch who understood the game and had mastered the art of defending and attacking. It would later manifest itself during the evening of his career when despite being a defender became a top scorer in the national League. A record which would last over a decade until ace striker Mukasa broker it.
Apparently the fastest footballers of that time appeared to be the slowest to the viewers. Kirunda and Polly Ouma, according to those who played with them were very fast runners who were extremely difficult to beat to the ball, yet to us in stands they appeared extremely slow and gentle.
Kirunda exploited his hight to the maximum both while defending and attacking. I believe there are two players who would match his heading prowess. Kasozi the legendary diminutive left back of coach Pape’s era. Despite being short no striker, no matter how tall would beat Kadozi to the high balls.
Then the other one was Godfrey Kisitu, a striker who had made it a habit of scoring with his head every time corner kicks would be taken by his team. Much as he would be tightly marked, he pretend to walk away from the goal area but he would be watching from the corner of his eye and as soon as the ball was midair, then he swiftly turn round and snake through defenders, sore high and boom head the ball into the net.
Era Kisitu agutomodde negunywa. Corner kicks were like penalty kicks with Kisitu on the pitch. Kisitu’s head rarely missed to score. But then according to him “how could a head with eyes miss to see the goal?”
Jimmy Kirunda like many other legendary Ugandans who have us proud, has gone quietly like he didn’t matter when he lived. Wait a minute, now you are going to hear pronouncements, accolades, and all sorts of statements praising him when it is too late!
I urge the media as a matter of urgency to seek out the surviving heros of 1978 and we celebrate them. Capt (Rtd) Polly Ouma, WO1 (Rtd) Paul Mukisa Ssali, Tom Lwanga and others.
May the Almighty God grant the family, friends and fans grace to deal with the loss!
Over to you!
Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi is a Visual Arts Practitioner/Consultant
NNYANZI ART STUDIO
He is also the Vice Chairperson – NACCAU