Sula Kato is, no doubt, one of the most decorated Ugandan players. However, for a man who carried The Uganda Cranes and SC Villa’s hopes on his shoulders for more than a decade, his current condition as a jobless coach leaves you with a sour taste in the mouth. He likes keeping a low profile, which, by his admission, could be a disaantage. Many people think he is not ambitious about life and others have taken aantage of him.
Kato was born in 1966 in Masaka District. He comes from a family of football players. His late father, Ssalongo Zakaria Lubega Magulumeeru played for Buddu County in the Bika by’Abaganda tournaments in the 1950s. His brothers, Meddie Lubega and Moses Ndawula both played for Uganda Cranes. Another brother, Abbas Mulindwa (Rip) played for Express. Kato’s son, Ismail Muwonge, is currently playing for Bombo United.
Kato’s football dream started at Kimanya Primary School. He played as a goalkeeper, a position he found boring and decided to venture upfront. In 1977, he got a football bursary at Kako Primary School. It was at Kako that he and and Peter Aligawesa (RiP) formed a formidable midfield that trounced the other schools in the Masaka primary schools’ tournament.
But things changed when he joined Masaka Secondary School in 1978. The coaches there underrated him for being too small. In 1980, during the inter-class tournament, he put up a display and Father Ryan lured him to St Henry’s College, Kitovu, linking up with a one Begumanya and Sebastian Lwanga.
After impressing at Kitovu, Masaka Boys FC, a local club, called on him to play in the Inter-Regional Tournament. He guided them to the finals but lost to Mbarara. In 1983, he joined Masaka Union, a super division side.
Move to SC Villa
SC Villa chairman, Patrick Kawooya, was once in Masaka and got impressed by Kato. “After a few days, he sent for me and I was driven t to his home in Najjanankumbi. I found other recruits like Ananias Ssemwanga and Moses Nkangi,” he recalls.
His brother, Ndawula, had left Villa for Express, so Kato was signed to fill the void. That year, Villa was bound to face Mozambique’s Ferroviário de Maputo away in the African Confederations Cup. But Kato and his fellow newcomers were not going to find it easy to get on coach David Otti’s team, who preferred more experienced and bigger players like Godfrey Kisitu, Rogers Nsubuga and Sande Mokiri.
“At first, Otti had not even selected us to travel because we were not going to play. But Kawooya bought air tickets for us to go along with the team and learn from the seniors how to approach such a big match.
“That night, I shared a room with Sam Mubiru and I was like a student. Everything he did, I noted he really taught me a lot. ”
Kato played the 1984 season mainly as a substitute and won the 1984 league title. In 1985, star players suffered injuries and new coach Timothy Ayiekho turned to youngsters like Kato and Magid Musisi. “Mokiri had some personal problems and left camp. Then Kawooya started rooting for me telling the coach to give me more minutes, and the rest is history,” he adds.
Birth of a dead ball specialist
When Polly Ouma took over in 1986, he changed the team’s approach in taking dead balls. Where Otti preferred thunderous free kicks, Ouma went for chipped balls and curving efforts, which gave room for players like Kato to express themselves.
Villa thrived on Kato’s specialty in dead balls and won the Uganda Cup and League titles in 1986. One of Kato’s most memorable games was the 1986 Uganda Cup semi-final against Express, where he squared up against his brother, Ndawula. “The fans were all talking about the so-called ‘Battle of Brothers’. It was like war. I ended up on top because I scored the winning goal,” he boasts.
In 1987, Kato scored the only goal as Villa beat Sudan’s El-Merreikh in the Cecafa Club Championships final. That was Villa’s first regional trophy.
He also guided Villa to the 1987, 1988 and 1990 league titles and the Uganda Cup in 1988 and 1989.
During Villa’s 1991 Africa Club Championship campaign, they defeated Pamba 4-1 in Kampala but in the return leg in Mwanza, the Tanzanians grabbed two early goals. Villa was under pressure until Kato’s vital goal earned them a quarterfinal place.
They then met Egyptian giants Al-Ahly and lost the first leg 0-2 in Cairo. However, Villa levelled the aggregate in Kampala through Moses Basena and Twaha Kivumbi, both scoring off Kato corner-kicks. The game headed to spot-kicks and Kato scored the winning penalty for Villa to qualify for the semis, meeting Nigeria’s Iwuanyanwu. Villa won 3-2 in Kampala and drew 1-1 in Nigeria. Once again, Kato was Villa’s saviour. The Nigerians took an early lead through a penalty, until Kato’s free-kick found Musisi for the equaliser. Villa qualified to the finals but lost 3-7 to Tunisia’s Club Africain.
“We lost that game because of many reasons, especially the weather. We left Kampala in a dry season but it was winter in Tunis. We were all freezing,” says Kato.
In 1992, when Villa reached the final of the Caf Cup, Kato created six goals through his in-swinging corners. He also guided them to the 1992 and 1994 league titles.
But what was his secret of scoring vital goals?
“I was just good at improvising, especially during the free-kicks. If I wanted to score directly, I would bend the ball to beat the ‘keeper. If I wanted to pass for a teammate, I would make sure that the ball finds him. Magid (Musisi) benefited a lot from such balls.”
Post-Cranes and the start of his troubles
You would not believe that talented players like Kato never played professionally. At the time, Kato says, the players and administrators never knew the business side of the game. The players felt contented playing before capacity crowds at Nakivubo ‘after all we were celebrities’. Musisi’s transfer to French side Stade Rennes in 1992 opened Kawooya’s eyes, albeit too late. Musisi would later be sold to Turkish top-flight club Bursaspor for close to $1m, a then transfer record for a Ugandan footballer.
“Our bosses knew nothing about the money in football. And by the time they found out, all of us had grown old and were no longer at our best. It was too late. In fact, Kawooya wept after learning of the money he would have made had he released us earlier. But you can’t blame them because they were totally ignorant,” he says, in a broken tone.
He also mentions an opportunity that would have seen him and five other Villa players join South African clubs in 1989.
Uganda had gone to Lesotho for a friendly and one South Africa-based football agent got impressed. After the game, he told Kato, Musisi, Kateregga, Steven Bogere and Hasule about a possibility of linking them to big clubs in South Africa. But when the news reached Villa officials, they “sat” on the deal.
Three years later, the agent sent a fax to Villa through the National Council of Sports (NCS), asking for those players. Still, they were never informed.
“But one day, someone working with the NCS intimated to Kateregga about this fax. Kateregga asked the Villa officials about it but they denied its knowledge. Kateregga secretly worked on his paperwork and travelled alone. But at this time, he was too old, just like all of us, and could not really play for South Africa. He returned a dejected man and we all lost out on that deal,” a dejected Kato says.
Kato is sure that had the deal gone through, his life would be quite the opposite of an impoverished life he currently leads. He reasons that the ignorance from both the players and officials at that time is the major reason for his generation’s players’ current misery.
By his admission, it was a bit premature to retire. “Despite the emergence of young players, I could still play, but the coaches were under pressure from the fans, who reasoned that I and other senior players had overstayed our welcome in the team. So I decided to quit,” he says, unapologetically.
He also points out at the negative politics that had engulfed the Cranes camp. He believes that had it not been for this, Uganda would have played in at least two Afcon tournaments. He describes missing out on the Senegal 1992 edition as a “shame”.
His departure from SC Villa was also unceremonious. In 1993, he was appointed club captain. But he fell out with his bosses when he missed travelling with the team to Masaka to play Express.
“I had some commitments in Kampala and I could travel with the team a day before the match. But I was there in time for the game. They refused to select me, thinking I have been ‘bought’ by Express.”
He was suspended, and thus decided to join the newly-formed Villa International until 1996. He regrets quitting Villa because he never settled at his next clubs. He later left for Tanzania’s Pamba and Yanga. He returned to Villa in 2000 as a player-coach, assisting Head Coach Hasule. He also played briefly in Vietnam before returning to start a coaching career that has seen him win the Uganda Cup for Victors SC in 2008 and Villa in 2010. Collectively, Kato won eight league titles with SC Villa (1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1994), three Uganda Cup titles (1986, 1988 and 1989) and three Cecafa titles (1987 with SC Villa) 1989 and 1990 with The Cranes).
Enviable Cranes career
In 1987, Kato was summoned by coach Robert Kiberu to the Uganda Cranes. But the presence of experienced players like Godfrey Kateregga, Mokiri, Paul Nkata and Kivumbi relegated him to the bench.
His debut came in the 1988 Cecafa Cup in Malawi. His first impressive display came against Zimbabwe in Harare, where he created the first two goals for Musisi and scored the third. Uganda won 3-1. He also travelled with the Cranes to Kuwait for the Peace Games. Against Iraq in the final, he set up Paul Hasule for the equaliser that pushed the game into a shootout. Unfortunately, Kato missed the decisive spot-kick as Iraq won the trophy.
When the Cranes returned, Kato was named on the team that played in the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup in Nairobi. Uganda won the trophy, after a 12-year drought. Kato’s equaliser in the final against Malawi ensured that 90 minutes ended 3-3. But once again, he missed the Cranes’ first spot-kick. However, he helped the Cranes retain the title in Zanzibar, before hanging his Cranes boots in 1994.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor