By John Vianney Nsimbe
The beef between Express FC and SC Villa had been simmering for a while.
More especially, as has normally been the case, when their clash is drawing ever closer. At the time, so much underhandedness was suspected on both ends of the divide.
No love lost
Express felt that Villa was up to no good, as far as they were concerned; always plotting subversiveness, to disrupt them.
Express always thought of Villa the same way Russia and the USA view each other. And a media war of words between Omar Ahmed Mandela of Villa and Godfrey Kirumira of Express was common.
While for the media, and the football fraternity, these were the aspects of utmost interest. It is upon them, that the Express and Villa game sold out.
Yet, the fact remains, there was legitimate hate between the blue and red side of football, the likes of which had never been seen before.
Fans stocking hate
In fact, Express fan Luba Kyooya used to call into the football talk shows late in the night, and tell people, that when he reached home without bread or milk for his children, he would tell them, that the Villa fans ransacked him on the way.
Genuinely, this spread hate between the two sides: Villa fans feeling riled by what they called fake news. But they could not set the record straight, however much one of their own Brown Kiyingi, who always attempted to counter Luba Kyooya narrative, tried.
However, matters came to a head midway through the 2000 Super League season. Express played a home game in Wankulukuku on a Tuesday against Iganga. But the Red Army, as the Express fans are commonly known as, felt victimized by the centre referee of the day.
So, as the game was drawing to the end, still level, a section of Express fans decided to start throwing stones at the match officials. Ordinarily, the game would simply abort, calling for a replay, maybe. FUFA took that line a lot then.
But to the dismay of Express, an efficient boardroom decision taken by FUFA just 24 hours later, stipulated that the Wankulukuku Stadium would be banned indefinitely.
The ruling stated in summary, that the security of fans would no longer be guaranteed at the Muteesa II Memorial stadium.
This was done by FUFA, well aware that Express’ next fixture was against Villa. And Express knowing how Villa struggled to win in Wankulukuku, felt they had the Jogoo cornered. That was a good opportunity for Express to have one over their perpetual rivals.
Instead, FUFA decided, that the weekend game between the two sides would take place at Nakivubo Stadium, a neutral ground for both Villa and Express at the time. Villa used Namboole stadium as its home ground. Nonetheless, Express felt aggrieved.
First, having Wankulukuku banned, and then, FUFA imposing a ban on where they would be playing henceforth. Express supremo, Kirumira could not resist throwing his weight around, any more than he normally fastened his trousers close to his chest cavity.
The Nakivubo possibility met a resounding no from Express. And for the fear of antagonizing an already clawed Red-Eyed Eagle, FUFA let Express choose where they wanted to play their home games without any duress.
But remember, at the back of the minds of the Express management, beating FUFA at their game, also by extension, was intended to inconvenience Villa, if not hurt and disorganize those at Villa Park.
Two days before the game, the Express hierarchy came out with a decision, that would shock the football fraternity.
Kirumira said that Express had chosen to play their home games at the Barifa Stadium in Arua. Quite frankly, very few football fans had ever heard of that ground; at least I had never.
While FUFA begged Express to reconsider the decision, clearly made to spite the federation led by the late Dennis Obua, the Red Eagles dug their heels in.
Express felt FUFA had favoured Villa, and therefore, it was time to fight back. You see, in the years building up to that debacle, Villa had taken top players away from Express.
Build-up of Express anger
For example, Joseph Mutyaba, Phillip Obwinyi, James Odoch, and Geoffrey Bukohore in the years building up to that incident.
So, it had been years of piled up anger especially because Express had been unable to take any player away from Villa, that was not deemed surplus to requirement at Villa Park.
Even the ego of who had more money between Mandela and Kirumira was a major talking point. The financial muscle of the two men is said to have played a huge part in the kind of squads both teams had.
And the joke, that made rounds then, was that the money Mandela was using then, was what his Grandfather had saved.
But he had not started using his and his father’s savings like Kirumira, who was deemed at the time, to be running his ‘small savings’ dry.
Such rhetoric stocked the fire. And when Express decided to drive to Barifa on the morning of match-day, Mandela and his colleagues, Franco Mugabe, then Villa chairman and Andrew Kasagga Zzimwe decided to charter a plane to fly their players to Arua.
Within no time, the Jogoo were in Arua; right on time for breakfast. By then, the Express players bus was reaching Matugga – just 15 miles from their home ground at Wankulukuku.
When the Villa players reached the Barifa stadium, to do their first warm-up, at least an hour before kick-off, Express were at the Karuma Dam being received by the UPDF soldiers, who were guarding the place against the LRA rebel insurgents.
Unfortunately, Express, who were captained by George Ssimwogerere then, would not be allowed to proceed on their own. According to the arrangement, they had to wait until more vehicles heading to Northern Uganda reached Karuma.
Then, the UPDF would escort all of them in a convoy, to ensure their security against the Joseph Kony-led rebels, that were so volatile then.
By the time Express went through all the security detail, the sun was beginning to set on that side of the country too. Villa had picked up three points without kicking a ball.
As Express driver navigated to turn the bus, to begin the journey back, the Villa boys were already at the famous, yet now-defunct ‘Golden Table’. Hakim Magumba was playing pool, his favourite pass-time.
Captain Edgar Watson was enjoying African tea while Timothy Batabaire, who was so fond of hitting the ‘molokoni’ on his melanin plate, to remove the bone marrow, was so concentrated on it.
It is what made him as hard as nails; something he needed to outlast Express and ultimately win the league that year.
John Vianney Nsimbe is a leading sports journalist in Uganda with decades of experience as a sports writer with the Observer newspaper and a commentator on TV and Radio.