Any discussion about Uganda’s top football league, is incomplete without reference to 1960s & ’70s star striker, Charles Ebalu.
As a policeman cum lawyer in the real world, Ebalu may have been charged with dispensing justice to the aggrieved however once on the football pitch the opposing defenders were always left wondering whether to report him to the authorities/referee for constantly robbing them of the ball and their dignity.
It was very competitive and much stronger than what we see today, simply because most government institutions took sports seriously and this partly explains why clubs like Prisons, Police, Lint and Coffee were so strong and actually at the beginning dominated Ugandan football.
At the time, there were so many good players but not all of them had a chance of being summoned to the Cranes. “Almost every Cranes number was being competed for by not less than three outstanding footballers in the country,” Ebalu recalls.
Ebalu had an interesting footballing career. He was born to a sporting family in Teso district (present day Kaberamaido) in 1949. Ebalu’s father Obong Abemeraki once played football but at school level during his days at Mengo Senior School.
Ebalu went to a Primary school in his home village, then Mbale College and Comboni SSS in Lira before proceeding to the prestigious St Mary’s College Kisubi (SMACK) for A-level. It was at SMACK that he started playing serious football that got him spotted.
As a newcomer while in S.5, he one day went to the school’s football ground to watch SMACK take on neighbours Kisubi Seminary. It was a stalemate towards the last 20 minutes.
As the visitors put more pressure on the home team, Ebalu approached the school team’s coach, Brother Arthur requesting for an opportunity to save his school.
At first Brother Arthur ignored the boy since he didn’t know much about him but due to pressure facing his team he later succumbed to Ebalu’s demand. A star was born when Ebalu scored two quick goals for SMACK to carry the day.
From that day Ebalu became Kisubi’s undisputed leading forward and with the likes of former FUFA boss John Baptist Ssemanobe, Engoru and Kasule they turned Kisubi into such a feared force that terrorized many schools in national championships.
Kisubi made headlines when they walloped defending school champions Old Kampala 5-0, a school that boasted of great players like Uganda Cranes legend Jimmy Kirunda.
How he joined prisons
After completing A-level at SMACK, Ebalu joined Makerere University to study Law. As a fresher, Ebalu was one day approached by the Uganda Prisons administrators for serious talks.
They persuaded him to do the “unthinkable”. Abandon his prestigious course at Makerere in return land a top job at their Luzira Prisons headquarters.
The prisons service administrators’ logic was such simple: Since Ebalu was studying to earn a living from a well-paying job, then why waste time at Makerere instead of joining them and start earning a fat salary right away!
Ebalu gave the argument a serious thought and to the delight of the Prisons Service people he agreed to the request, packed his bags and bid Makerere University farewell. He immediately joined Uganda Prisons, first underwent a solo intensive nine months training at their Luzira Staff College.
After the training, Ebalu was given a title of cadet ASP (Assistant Superintendent of Prisons) and started earning a good salary right away. His former classmates at Makerere University couldn’t believe it, for they had all along thought he was being taken for a ride.
After joining Uganda prisons, Ebalu transformed the Prisons Football Club into the most feared one in the National League. His football prowess earned him a call to the national team, the Cranes. He joined the team at the same time with the likes of Jimmy Kirunda, Ahmed Doka and Ashe Mukasa.
Football almost earned him a wife
In the Cranes team, Ebalu was the lead striker and later went into record books by scoring five goals for the Cranes three times against Somalia, Zanzibar and Burundi.
Ebalu will never forget the friendly match he played for the Cranes away in Blantyre against Malawi. The match was to mark Malawi’s Independence Day and it was on this very day that late former president Hastins Kamuzu Banda declared himself “life president”.
But why such a memorable match for Ebalu? “I and Denis Obua had a great match at the end of which the Malawi Football Association presented each one of us a beautiful Malawian woman to take back to Uganda as a wife,” Ebalu told us before adding. “Something we both turned down but thanked them for their generosity,” Ebalu remarked.
The people of Malawi are said to have a culture of rewarding good results or exceptional visitors with virgin and beautiful daughters of the soil. Elsewhere, it was in Bujumbula that Charles Ebalu once scored all the five winning goals for the Cranes against Burundi forcing the Burundi fans to carry him shoulder high around the stadium in disbelief.
Ebalu’s footballing career in Uganda didn’t last long though. Being a Senior Prisons service officer, one day word went around from friends in the army who informed then President Idi Amin Dada that a Nubian playing with Prisons FC was protecting political prisoners jailed in Luzira from torture.
He still remembers the day he escaped across the border into Kenya. “Not to arouse any suspicion, I left everything in the house intact, took a taxi to Busia from where I tactfully walked across the border unnoticed with some other people.” Once insider in Kenya I felt relieved even though thought of a hard time ahead of me in a foreign land,” Ebalu told this writer.
What Ebalu didn’t know then was that it would again be his football talent to save him. Those few years he had played for the Cranes he became known throughout the East African region.
Earlier on, he had been to Nairobi playing for the Cranes against Harambee Stars. On this occasion many Kenyan fans wondered where the then unfamiliar Ugandan striker (Ebalu) who could give their much feared Kenyan defender Jonathan Niva a run for his money had all along been.
Niva was a skillful and powerful defender feared all over east and central Africa. So when Ebalu went to exile in Kenya, word went around that the dangerous Ugandan striker was in town.
Easy life in exile
Kenyan side Abaluhya United (now AFC Leopards) moved fast and signed Ebalu. “Surely I was saved by my football talent which made my life in exile comfortable, unlike many Ugandans I found there.”
The Kenyan club also got Charles Ebalu a job with Business Machine Ltd and after proving himself they got him even a better paying job, becoming a manager at Rank Xerox.
This turned Ebalu into a “capo”, for he was at the time earning two salaries, one for playing football and another one for working elsewhere.
They say, “East or west, home is best.” At the end of the liberation war that ousted Idi Amin from power, Charles Ebalu returned home in Uganda in 1979.
He never played serious football again but decided to go back to Makerere University where he completed his Law degree and later moved to Law Development Centre, as it’s required.
With his Law degree secured, Ebalu shortly afterwards left for the United Kingdom where he practiced for some time. Now 69, Ebalu lives peacefully at his home in Kiwanga near Namanve.
Ebalu holds a view that parents should never discourage their children from engaging in sports activities or improving on their given talents. “There is a need to combine and take seriously both sports and academics and to find time for each one.”
“I myself played great football and produced good results for Uganda Cranes and Prisons FC but at the same time I consider myself to be an intellectual and successful person who has never begged for help in order to survive,” he remarked.
This is why Ebalu is urging sporting students to equally take academics seriously because time will definitely come when age catches up with them and can no longer deliver and only to be saved by their academic qualifications.