Battle for the finest across three generations

After joining the army in 1972, Ssali was among the 20 commandos President Idi Amin sent to Israel to undergo special training in artillery operation and on return was deployed at Masindi Artillery regiment.

Battle for the finest across three generations
From left to right. Paul Ssali, Sadiq Wassa and Dennis Oyango. Photo by Eddie Chico and File
By Robert Mugagga

The three ace goalkeepers belonged to different generations but all arrived on the big stage like a musician’s wonder hit. Paul Ssali excelled for Simba, KCCA and Uganda Cranes in the 70s and early 80s, Sadiq Wassa followed suit both at club and national team during the 90s while the man of moment happens to be the maverick Denis Onyango. The three goalkeepers appear to have had so many things in common, yet those who knew them so well will testify that they are completely different with each one boasting his own goalkeeping qualities.

The similarities shared by the three include among others all having begun their footballing careers at school not in goal but playing as strikers, having once been Uganda Cranes undisputed custodians and superb at saving penalty kicks. Below we give readers a brief history about each one of them and what they have achieved during their careers for one to pick the best.

Paul Ssali Against all odds, Paul Ssali emerged from nowhere to conquer a number of great goalkeepers he found on the Ugandan soccer scene both at club and national levels. His early interest in football can be traced way back in primary school at Kitebi, a stone’s throw away from Muteesa II stadium Wankulukuku in Lubaga division before moving on to St. Francis Tutorial College in Mengo. After joining the army in 1972, Ssali was among the 20 commandos President Idi Amin sent to Israel to undergo special training in artillery operation and on return was deployed at Masindi Artillery regiment. This was where Ssali’s serious football began for he used to play as a winger in the regiment’s football team until one day when something unusual happened.

The team’s first choice goalie conceded silly goals in a match and never turned up for the next match against Tsetse Fly FC in the Bunyoro district competition.
So puzzled was the coach that he looked around and decided to try Ssali in goal. To everyone’s surprise, the new goalkeeper put up an extra-ordinary performance and since that day played in that position. Ssali was later transferred to Mbuya military barracks in Kampala to enable him feature for the army’s top club, Simba FC. To Ssali’s astonishment, Simba already had four good goalies in Patrick Natan, Fred Nkolwa, George Nakayero and Ramathan Ssebi. Luck came his way one day when none of the four turned up for a friendly match against a visiting team from Zanzibar. So furious was the team’s patron , Major Abdallar Nasur that he looked around ordering a “kadogo” (the skinny fifth-choice goalkeeper that day he became Simba’s first choice goalkeeper.

Ssali was first summoned to the Cranes national team in 1975 but the same story of starting on the bench continued to haunt him. The team had star goalies like Jamil Kasirye, Hussein Matovu and George Mukasa meaning that his role only stopped in training sessions. Once again luck came his way in 1976 when some top Cranes goalkeepers were dropped due to poor form. As if that was not good enough during the 1976 Cecafa tournament in Zanzibar the first choice keeper George Mukasa got an injury in the opening match and coach Peter Okee had no choice but to field Ssali in goal.

He played throughout the tournament up to the final where he excelled for Cranes to beat Zambia 2-0 and lift the trophy. In 1977 Ssali cemented his Cranes position when Uganda defended the title once beating Zambia with him saving three penalties and becoming an instant hero. Then came the decisive 1978 Afcon qualifies where Uganda Cranes edged Ethiopia to qualify for Ghana that saw Ssali save a penalty in Addis Ababa and another one during the return leg in Nakivubo. In Ghana Ssali featured for Cranes in all matches including the final one when Uganda lost 2-0 to hosts Ghana. At club level he won the league with Simba in 1978 and later with KCCA FC in 1983 and 1985 plus the knock out Uganda Cp in 1982, 1984 and 1987.