Tuesday 25th April 2023 afternoon as we prepared for our weekend NBS Sport & Next Radio show, The Dug Out, I asked Ian Mutenda how Dad was. His brief and cold answer “not good Jonah.” left me with fear and confusion.
I decided not to push the conversation but offered my encouragement that he would be well as he had shown progress the previous days, slowly being taken off the oxygen cylinders a few days earlier. Less than 24hours later the news broke that Mr. John Mutenda had lost his earthly battle. I wasn’t sure what to say next as I picked up the phone to confirm the news myself. Indeed, the journey had ended for a man Ugandan football owes a lot.
I met John Mutenda as a young boy in Kampala Parents School where I studied with his son Ian from 1992. My very first conversation with him was after Ian, and I joined Kings College Budo at one of our visitation days.
He had watched me play for the school football team and quickly told our then coach Mr. Joel Ssekabembe, himself a national team (Uganda Cranes) selector and a member of the technical team. “That one has strong spirit and is a leader,” he commented as he smiled. I shyly introduced myself as Ian’s friend and classmate before joining back the team onto the pitch for the 2nd half. I did not interact with him again until 2010-2011 when I returned to Uganda after completing my University at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Ian together with a group of our friends had started a football team Hope Football Club with almost no funds and relying on the goodwill and support of individuals and well wishers such as Major General Moses Rwakitarate, our patron at the time and Mr. John Mutenda himself amongst others. I quickly signed up as a player on Ian’s request as he firstly knew how good of a footballer I was, but more importantly he knew I would not request for transport refund and a salary.
Hope FC battled through the Kampala Regional League and eventually earned promotion to the Big League attracting top Ugandan coaches such as Mike Mutebi and Asaph Mwebaze along the way. Mr. John Mutenda made sure to attend almost every home game Hope FC played, first at Nakivubo Blue Primary School football pitch and eventually to the KCCA StarTimes Omondi Stadium. Occasionally with his small chair he carried, he sat by the touchline with his other son Collin and made sure not to interfere with the work of the coaches especially aware that the coach was his very own son.
He inspired me so much that when I was playing well, I would peep towards his direction waiting for his smile and nod of approval, and he didn’t disappoint. That validation increased my self-belief. On one occasion as we battled for promotion to the topflight against Bright Stars FC at Nakwero, he came to me as we completed our pregame warm up and said to me “You are way better than their captain,” Bernard Muwanga at the time. I glanced over at Bernard and had all the inspiration I needed. The line-up was announced, and I was to start on the bench, no explanation from Ian who was the coach.
I sat on the bench and part of me smiled as we went a goal down knowing I would be needed sooner than later. At half time the coach told me to get on and before I could lace up, Mr. Mutenda’s wide smile greeted me. A quick thumbs up from him and I knew I had to impress him. We drew the game 1-1 and at full time he came to me with the ultimate praise. “You can replace Isiinde in the national team if you decide to train.” I had gotten a job with Ecobank in Mukono which meant I could no longer train with the team and as a result had dropped in fitness and the coach had to send a message across that no one would play if they didn’t train, as good as you might be, or regardless of if you were his friend.
Mr. Mutenda inspired our young generation by watching most of our regional league games on Sunday afternoons and he was humble and gentle even when offering constructive criticism. During the week he made his way to almost every KCCA FC home game at Lugogo. Football was his life.
A man whose name was synonymous with KCCA Football Club, a team he supported so dearly becoming their life chairman. His era of football management was alongside giants such as Fred Muwema, Kavuma Kabenge, Omar Mandela, Tushar Ruparelia, Godfrey Kirumira and others that led to the formation of VEK a union of the three giant Ugandan football clubs, Villa, Express and KCCA.
He wished for a bright football future free of scandal, mismanagement, and corruption. He wished to see the national team competing regularly at the very top, more importantly at a home stadium not a foreign rented venue, and probably quietly hoped his son would carry that legacy and play his part on getting the nation there. He is now gone but his dream of a better footballing nation lives on and will be fulfilled by us the younger generation he leaves behind. To the leaders of today, the challenge is upon you to match his legacy. May you not drop the ball.
REST WELL LIFE CHAIRMAN.