Down memory lane – when Harambee Stars silenced Tanzania in Dar
- Players like Mahmoud Abbas, JJ Masiga, John 'Bobby' Ogolla, Josephat Murila, Wilberforce Mulamba among others, enjoyed a cult like following and were household names in the country.
- With Uganda safely out of the way, only the Tanzanian hurdle now stood between Kenya and glory.
- On the 28th of November 1981, in a packed and partisan Uhuru Stadium in Dar es Salaam, sheer Kenyan grit would came up against Tanzanian elegance.
The decade – 1979-1989 is widely considered by many football aficionados as the golden era of Kenyan football. It is a period that saw Kenya produce a crop of talents that are today held in high esteem as football royalty and legends of the game.
Players like Mahmoud Abbas, JJ Masiga, John ‘Bobby’ Ogolla, Josephat Murila, Wilberforce Mulamba among others, enjoyed a cult like following and were household names in the country. Kenyan football clubs, namely Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards dominated on the international scene.
However, nothing exemplified this Kenyan dominance quite like the great Harambee Stars team that won three Council of East and Central Africa Football Association (CECAFA) tournaments on the bounce – an achievement that is yet to be replicated to date.
It is not the three consecutive wins that makes this achievement remarkable, but rather the manner in which they were accomplished. They won it in Tanzania in 1981 against the hosts Taifa Stars, followed by perhaps the most memorable win in Uganda, beating the hosts on post-match penalties in 1982, and completing the run with a win in Nairobi at the then newly built Nyayo National Stadium in 1983.
Forget the shell that it has become today; during the 1980s, the CECAFA tournament was a prestigious event that was arguably only second to the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in the continent.
As veteran sports writer Roy Gachuhi once wrote, during this era, ‘televised matches were still an alien concept, Kenyans would religiously converge around radios to follow tournament proceedings and celebrate their favourite players’.
“The 1981 tournament held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was set on the backdrop of rising nationalism and political tensions especially between the three East African nations. Following the collapse of the East African Community in 1977, matches between the three countries ceased to be just sporting spectacles and became a matter of national honour,’Gachuhi wrote in his Daily Nation column.
For Kenyan players, getting selected and donning the national team jersey was the epitome of glory. It might not have been as lucrative as it is today, but they still took great pride in representing the country.
“We didn’t make much, unlike today where CECAFA Cup winners take home up to Sh. 3 million in prize money,” former goalkeeper Abbas Mohammed, also known as ‘Kenya One’, who captained the side in 1981, recalls.
Harambee Stars arrived in Tanzania with a few scores to settle. It had been six years since their last CECAFA win in 1975. Despite boasting a generation of some of the region’s best clubs and players, it seemed the national team just could not do it on the grandest stage of them all.
As hosts, Kenya had also lost to Malawi in the final in 1979. The loss is still considered a stain in an otherwise glory-filled period of Kenyan football history.
“We had gone too long without a tournament win. I missed the 1979 final through injury, so I was desperate to set things right,” Ogolla recollected in an interview with Citizen Digital.
He was one half of a solid defensive partnership at center-back. With Josephat Murila, they formed the core of a hermetic defence that was famed for almost being impenetrable.
In their tournament opener, Harambee Stars dispatched Malawi by a solitary goal. This was followed by a 2-1 win against Zanzibar which set up a mouth watering semi-final clash against rivals, Uganda.
With a place in the final against Tanzania up for grabs, Harambee Stars produced a performance for the ages to slay the Uganda Cranes by three goals to one. The match brought to the fore Ogolla’s versatility as a player.
“A centre-back by trade, I was pushed into the defensive midfield position for tactical reasons, and I ended up giving a flawless exhibition of no-nonsense tackling that tipped the match in Kenya’s favour,” Ogallo remembered with a gleeful smile.
With Uganda safely out of the way, only the Tanzanian hurdle now stood between Kenya and glory.
Reaching the final had come as a shock to many. Harambee Stars, under the tutelage of coach Marshall Mulwa had gone into the tournament without much pomp. Mulwa had only been on the job for a year, and his strategy of bringing in new players from little known clubs had raised eyebrows.
Tanzania, on the other hand, were heavy favourites. They were playing at home and had stream rolled their way to the final. In a World Cup qualifier just the year before, they had also humiliated the Kenyans, beating them by five goals to nil. Conventional wisdom suggested a comfortable Tanzanian win.
On the 28th of November 1981, in a packed and partisan Uhuru Stadium in Dar es Salaam, sheer Kenyan grit would come up against Tanzanian elegance. A shiny trophy and bragging rights for the next 12 months awaited the winner.
An early James ‘Jacaranda’ Ouma free-kick gave the Harambee Stars a shock lead, but it would only invite more trouble from the opposition.
“Desperate to avoid the embarrassment of losing a home final, Tanzania kicked into fifth gear and turned the match into a one-sided affair,” Abbas remembered.
Unfortunately for them, they came up against a sturdy defence marshaled by Murila and Ogolla who remained impervious in the face of their unrelenting attacks. At the end of 90 minutes, Mulwa’s charges had managed to pull off the mother of all upsets.
“We could not believe it. We beat a strong Tanzanian team having created only two chances. At full time, almost all of us were in tears,” Abbas observed.
Ogolla describes the win as a turning point for the team. He felt a sense of relief that poured into his parched soul; redemption. “I was ecstatic. We had finally made up for all those years of disappointment,” he told.
They were joined in their celebrations by a delegation of fans and government officials from Nairobi led by then Cabinet Ministers Paul Ngei and Moses Mudavadi. A chartered flight had been organized by the Kenyan government to ferry the victorious Stars back to Nairobi.
As champions, Harambee Stars now had a target on their back. Their rivals retreated with their tails tucked firmly between their legs. Desperate for revenge, they had 12 months to come up with a blueprint on how to wrestle the trophy from Kenyan hands.
It would all unfold spectacularly in Kampala, Uganda, in 1982.
Keep it here for Part II next week!
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