, KAMPALA, Jul 4 – Just before Uganda’s national football team set off for a regional tournament in Zanzibar in 1976, they received a last-minute boost from a rather intimidating visitor.
"When President Amin came to see us, to see us off, we told him that we are going to travel by road," Jimmy Kirunda, who captained the Uganda Cranes through much of the 1970s, recently recalled to AFP.
"He said, ‘no, no, no. The presidential jet is here. Why don’t you use this one?’ So, the presidential jet flew us to Zanzibar. We were more comfortable, we played better, and lucky enough, we won the tournament."
Few Ugandans miss the days of Idi Amin’s brutally unpredictable dictatorship from 1971 to 1979, during which around 300,000 people died. He died in 2003 in Saudi Arabia after nearly a quarter of a century in exile.
But among fans who are old enough to remember his reign, there is no doubt that the Amin era was, for the national football programme, a period of unprecedented success.
Amin was fond of assigning himself grand titles, including "the most highest head of state in the world" or "a pure son of Africa".
Perhaps, for all his crimes, "Uganda\’s greatest sports patron" would have been more accurate.
With the South Korea-Uruguay World Cup last 16 round match playing on a giant screen in a sports bar downtown Kampala, Tom Damulira, 42, remembered the excitement of supporting the Cranes as a boy in Amin’s Uganda.
"I had elder brothers who were really football fanatics, so I began going to the stadium at the age of five," the civil engineer told AFP. "We were one of the biggest teams in Africa."
Uganda qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations three consecutive times under Amin (1974, 1976, 1978), and played in the 1978 final in Ghana.
They lost to the host nation — their best ever result at Africa’s most prestigious tournament — and the Cranes haven’t qualified for the African Nations Cup since.
Flipping through a newspaper while eagerly awaiting Ghana’s second round match against the US, Frank Isingoma Amoti, 41, said he followed Uganda\’s last appearance at the Africa cup on the radio as a boy.
He remembered every detail, the year, the location and the final match result without prompting.
Damulira and Amoti both said they never would have imagined that Uganda would fail to qualify for the tournament for the next three decades.
— \’We had the love\’ —
Amoti suggested the success of the 1970s was partly to do with the president\’s personal support. "He liked sports," Amoti said.
Amin was, indeed, boastful about his own athletic prowess, as about most things.
"You should know that I used to run 9.8 seconds (in the) hundred yards," he said in a 1974 speech at the Kampala Sheraton Hotel — a time only slightly worse than the world record.
He also frequently boasted of his accomplishments as a boxer, but, by 1979, when he was ousted from power in a Tanzania-backed coup, Amin’s physique had taken on distinctly unathletic proportions.
But according to several accounts he did regularly visit Uganda’s national sports teams before they departed for major international contests.
Kirunda said the Cranes played well through the 1970s partly because Amin’s personal engagement with football fostered a sense of patriotism among the players.
"We had the love," he said. "We were a bit patriotic. We loved what we were doing."
Recalling Amin’s visit to a club match in Uganda’s domestic league, Kirunda said the president chose not to sit in the assigned VIP area.
"Surprisingly, he refused to go to the pavilion. He came and sat on the playing field, where the journalists normally sit. That’s where he sat. And then he watched for the entire 90 minutes. And then, after the match, he gave each team some money," the former captain recounted.
But Kirunda, who now works as a special assistant to the head of Uganda’s national football authority, said presidential support was not the only factor that contributed to Uganda’s success on the pitch.
He explained that the structures put in place after independence to ensure that all schoolchildren were exposed to football decayed through the 1980s and 1990s, partly due to continuous conflict in Uganda.
But the players on the national side in 1970s certainly appreciated some of the perks offered by the head of state following a big win.
After the team won the 1976 CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup tournament in Zanzibar, Amin, according to Kirunda, dispatched another plane to take the squad to Libya for a celebratory shopping trip.
"I bought a fridge," Kirunda said before erupting in laughter.
"They were scarce, these things, so I bought one."