Remembering Luo Union, club that once ruled regional football
- Long before Gor, AFC Leopards and Tusker emerged, the now-defunct club had set the bar high
- AFC Leopards (1964) have for years now been riding on the wings of their evocative heritage but are nowhere near the team that dominated East and Central Africa with three straight titles in 1982, 1983 and 1984.
Navigating a tortuous course marked by sharp hills and valleys, Kenya’s three oldest football clubs, AFC Leopards, Gor Mahia and Tusker, have survived the test of time.
In fact, two of them – Gor Mahia (established 1968) and Tusker (1970) – are the top guns of the local game. Tusker are the current Kenya Premier League champions; they just beat Gor Mahia to it last season.
But Gor Mahia, the only club with an African title in their trophy chest, a record 15 premier league titles and showing all the appetite for a 16th one this year, are really the ones who cough and the rest anxiously ask what’s the matter.
AFC Leopards (1964) have for years now been riding on the wings of their evocative heritage but are nowhere near the team that dominated East and Central Africa with three straight titles in 1982, 1983 and 1984. They were also the champions in 1979. They last won the KPL in 1998.
There is a fourth team whose epitaph we must write, however belatedly, because of the able way in which it played in this league, the horizons it expanded for our game in the region and because of the colourful personages who populated its ranks and whose memories endure in us many years since they took off their shirts and hung their boots.
All bow for Luo Union.
Forty years ago this year, Luo Union became the first club to mount a successful defence of their Cecafa East and Central Africa Club Cup. The achievement ignited wild excitement in the country and everybody wanted a piece of the heroes. Even if the new height that they had set the bar would later be cleared by others, the point had been made and the new household names would last us decades to come.
In this picture taken in January 1977, Luo Union players display a placard on arrival in Nairobi from Tanzania after clinching the East and Central Club championship. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Their odyssey began in 1976, the year they grudgingly surrendered their national league title to their fierce rivals and kinsmen Gor Mahia who rubbed it in by making sure they dethroned them with an unbeaten record.
That year, Kenya swept the board, winning the junior and senior Cecafa Challenge Cups and, of course, the club cup through Luo Union. The final was held in Mombasa and the Kenyans were paired with defending champions Yanga of Tanzania.
Yanga were a team with legendary names. Journalists called them the “Invincible Yanga” although that was not their official nickname. The ace forward Sunday Manara and his brother, midfielder Kitwana Manara, were their big draws.
Everybody, schoolboys and knowledgeable adults alike, mentioned the names of the Manara brothers with awe. But they also had defensive midfielder Gibson Sembuli, goalkeeper Patrick Nyaga and winger Muhaji Mkuki as standouts as well.
When years later Sembuli died, he had a heart rending song sang for him. It was a hit. The Daily Nation of January 19, 1976, headlined a story “The day Luo came to town” to describe their Mombasa date with Yanga. “It was the day Luo Union came to town, took Mombasa by storm, and then decided to leave,” Polly Fernandes wrote. “In the preceding 24 hours, the subject in most of the restaurants and street-side cafes was only of the final. Mombasa was in a festive mood the whole of yesterday. Large crowds began showing up early in the morning at Makupa Road to buy their tickets in advance. Those without tickets watched from the rooftops overlooking the Municipal Stadium. Some climbed the trees in the stadium to get a better view. First aid men had to carry off a few fans on stretchers when a branch laden with spectators gave way and fell down.”
More than 20,000 people crammed the stadium to pay a record Sh143,000/- to watch the final. They were not disappointed. Luo Union beat Yanga 2-1 in final that Fernandes said was “played in a pressure cooker atmosphere.”
Yanga scored in the fifth minute and their invincibility seemed all there for everybody to see. And then Luo Union burst into life. Thirty seconds before half time, overlapping defender Sospeter Otin sent in a long ball into the Yanga penalty area which striker Charles Ochieng connected with properly and his volley was well beyond goalkeeper Nyaga’s reach. The moment of destiny came in the 76th minute.
The peerless William “Chege” Ouma latched onto Fred Siranga’s cross to slam in his sixth goal of the tournament, the highest of any scorer, and it was all over.
Luo Union went to Tanzania to defend their title in 1977 bearing deep grudges with Gor Mahia who went to the tournament as Kenya champions. Gor Mahia had not just dethroned them, but they had also poached their young and highly promising goalkeeper, Dan Odhiambo. And this Gor Mahia had done at the very last minute before the teams departed for the tournament. The move threatened to incapacitate Luo Union where it mattered critically because their number one, James Siang’a, was having problems with his foot. He was walking with a limp.
This week, David Okello, one of the Gor Mahia players of the day, told me:
“They were really bitter with us and vowed to teach us a lesson which in fact they did and there is not much we could do about it. Our coach then, Peter Ouma, was a man who lacked confidence. He kept reporting back to the office, ‘oh, this guy is getting too fat, oh this guy is not training hard enough, oh this, oh that.’ But in the case of Luo, Agonda Lukio, Charles Ochieng and Peter Omaya were simply outstanding. In fairness, though, you have to give it to the whole. Their motivation made them unstoppable.”
Luo Union thrashed Gor Mahia 4-2 in their opening game played in Tanga. Somebody had made an error in the seating arrangements, putting Gor Mahia chairman Peter Anyumba and his Luo Union counterpart Dan Owino next to one another. Maybe Owino said something to Anyumba because the next thing people knew was that Anyumba had smashed the chair he was sitting on in a fit of rage.
But the flying debris didn’t injure anybody and cooler heads ensured there was peace. Luo Union then tripped themselves with an uncharacteristically under-par show when they fell 0-1 to Uganda’s Kampala City Council before regaining their stride to thrash Zanzibar’s Navy 3-1. They then saw off Tanzania’s Simba 1-0 to reach their second Cecafa Club Cup consecutive final. They were seeking to make history.
As they had done with Mombasa the previous year, they entered the Tanzanian seaside capital brimming with confidence but taking no chances. There was an aura of maturity around the team and focus could be read from their eyes.
Their opponents were the plucky Somalia side, Horseed who not a few neutrals wrote off. (One of the least talked about casualties of Somalia’s long tragedy is the death of its football. They may not have been heavyweights in the continental or even regional game but some of the most attractive football we ever saw was played by them).
Luo Union were led into the tournament by a man who sought to enter his name as one of our most notable football personalities – Steve Yongo. He was a mainstay of Harambee Stars and was their player coach in Tanzania. Yongo put together a great team.
This was his line-up: James Siang’a, Odhiambo Gor, Martin Ochieng, Edward Kiiza, Peter Omaya, Edward Wamalwa, Charles Ochieng, George Oduor, William “Chege” Ouma, Agonda Lukio and Fred Siranga.
If you removed not more than three players, the rest were just as could as Kenya could assemble. Still, there was that special talent: William “Chege” Ouma. Even today, some people say that he has never been replaced as a striker. Luo Union fans were going by a slogan: “Mambo bado”. It is the equivalent of the American phrase “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” or in proper English, the best is yet to come.
As dozens of their fans in Nairobi and Kisumu chartered flights to Dar es Salaam to watch their heroes, a Zairean (DR Congo) astrologer/jujuman/palmist threw a spanner in the works. His name was Dr Ibrahim Dijiba. Calling Nation Sport from his Kampala base, he pronounced that Luo Union would not be able to defend their title. Horseed it would be – according to the oracle he consulted.
This jarred quite a bit since this man had predicted Luo Union’s victory the previous year. But he had also predicted that Zaire would retain their 1976 Africa Nations Cup title in Ethiopia. He was wrong. Morocco won. Dijiba ashindwe, Luo Union fans prayed as they headed south in planes and buses. For sure Dijiba was defeated. The Kenyans replicated their Mombasa victory, complete with the score-line: 2-1. This time, Agonda Lukio finished top scorer with four goals.
It would take Gor Mahia four years, AFC Leopards six and Tusker 12 before they could equal this feat. And by that time, Luo Union had become Re-Union and embarked on a sharp downward spiral before finally dying an unremarkable death.
But we cannot forget: at the height of its powers, Team Manager Albert Aketch’s was a great team which gave us all those stars whose exploits in either Luo Union or Harambee Stars’ colours will always remain in our thankful memory.