In the noonday of Timothy Ayieko’s life, training session conversations were about living life at the summit of African football.
At the Uganda Cranes where he reigned long as the defensive midfielder of choice, they just fell short of winning the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations after falling 2-1 to Ghana in the final match.
Next door in Kenya, Gor Mahia players drawn predominantly from his ancestral homeland in Nyanza also valiantly reached the final of the Africa Cup Winners Cup in 1979 and again fell short, losing to Cameroon’s Cannon Yaoundé 8-0 on aggregate.
They would win that cup in 1987 at the expense of Tunisia’s fabled Esperance.
Ayieko returned to the land of his birth after the 1978 near miss, played for Gor Mahia for several seasons in the early 1980s and then went back to his adopted country to live out the rest of his life.
Now they have returned his body to Kenya for burial and closed the circle on a life that tells much of a beautiful country that almost existed. It was called East Africa.
The players he first idolised and then succeeded at the Uganda Cranes, such as the legendary goalkeeper, Joseph Masajjage, played for it. When English FA Cup champions West Bromwich Albion came to Kenya in 1968, they played two games against East Africa.
And other sports, too. Writing on the retirement of one of Kenya’s greatest cricketers in 1980, Jawahir Shah, correspondent Zoeb Tayebjee retraced the steps of “the run machine” in his career for Kathiawar, Nairobi Gymkhana, Kenya and East Africa.
Ayieko’s generation were the last citizens of East Africa. They are the people who used the services of the East African Railways and Harbours, the East African Posts and Telecommunications and the East African Airways.
One of the biggest events in the world sports calendar at that time was the East African Safari Rally. And the regional football tournament with the highest billing in the African continent was the East African Challenge Cup between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar. Ayieko’s was one of the names that gave it lustre.
East Africa’s servings also included two eagerly-awaited boxing contests that had the fans’ cups overflowing: the annual Brunner-Urafiki tournament between Kenya and Uganda and the Inter-Cities Cup between Nairobi and Kampala.
In those days, Nairobi was called “The Green City in the Sun” and Kampala, “The City on Seven Hills.” To use such terms today against a backdrop of the violence, the disorder, the filth and the sheer uncertainty of what the future portends in these two cities would be to laugh at their inhabitants.
Timothy Ayieko belonged to the most pampered generation of Ugandan sportsmen. When the Cranes won the 1976 Cecafa East and Central African Challenge Cup in Zanzibar, the sports-loving Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin Dada, asked them where they wanted to go for shopping as their reward.
Traditionally, the Challenge Cup takes place in the months of November and December when it is winter in Europe.
His team mate, Abbey Nasur, recalled that episode for me in 2012: “I remember it was David Otti who spoke up first. He was our coach. Otti told the President that the players wanted to do some shopping but they couldn’t do that in Zanzibar because ‘there was nothing there.’
At that point Amin asked us where in the world we wanted to go shopping. He said he was going to facilitate that at once.
“A brief exchange took place. Somebody said we go to Europe but another, I think it was Otti still, pointed out that Europe was too cold then. It was November and it was winter.
It was then that somebody made the inspired suggestion of Libya. Amin became very excited and told us that Col. Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, was his bosom friend. There and then it was agreed that Libya was the place to go.
Amin announced that he would call his friend Gaddafi at once to host us.”
(Amin was telling the truth when he said that Gaddafi was his great friend. Libya is where he first sought refuge when he was ousted from power three years later before spending the rest of his life in exile in Saudi Arabia).
There were no direct flights between Uganda and Libya but that was no problem. There was a weekly cargo flight that freighted cotton to Europe. It was operated by a Boeing 747. Amin decided that a portion of that plane would be configured into passenger roll to accommodate the Cranes.
The plane would then make a stop-over in Tripoli on its way to Europe and drop off its VIP passengers. It would do the same a week later to collect them with their shopping. And that is what happened.
“Each one of us was given $5,000 (approximately Sh516,500 at current exchange rates) as an allowance,” Nasur said.
“In Tripoli, all we did was wake up in the morning, eat a massive breakfast, shop all day and retreat to our hotel for dinner. We did this daily for one week. And mark you, Tripoli is a modern city; it was just as if we were shopping in Europe.” Apart from the weight in baggage, the players returned to Kampala with a lot of added body weight.
In another incident, when Ayieko’s team mate, the livewire striker Philip Omondi, suffered a career-threatening broken ankle, he was rushed to Germany for treatment as if he was Kenyan politician. His career was saved.
The galaxy of Ayieko’s team mates in the Uganda Cranes included captain Jimmy Kirunda, Moses Nsereko, Stanley Mubiru Tank, goalkeeper Paul Ssali, Tom Lwanga, Edward Sserwanga, Abbey Nasur, Sam Musenze, Godfrey Kisitu, Mike Kiganda, Fred Isabirye and, of course, Philip Omondi who, like Ayieko, hailed from Kisumu County.
Nasur, the winger who completed this trio, has his roots in Kibra, Nairobi.
Living players at Gor Mahia that Ayieko played with are Allan Thigo, James Ogolla Kadir, Bobby Ogolla, Maurice Ochieng, Osmasto Ogwanjo, Ouma Ogwanjo, Simon Nyatome, Abbey Nasur and David Okello.
Ayieko’s specialty was the dead ball. Each time an infringement occurred anywhere within 30 metres of the goal, half of the stadium comprising the Green Army would burst into a long and deep: “Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimm…!” And their wish would be promptly granted. The more successful his deliveries, the more popular he became.
A newer generation of fans can remember a similar call made for South Africa’s Mark Fish, especially during their successful Africa Cup of Nations campaign in 1996.
Each time the Bafana Bafana libero touched the ball, the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg reverberated with the booming: “Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiish…!”
Like all good defensive midfielders, Ayieko’s style of play was marked by a high work rate and elegant ball control all wrapped within a pleasant and warm personality.
He made going to the stadium worth the time; he made football reporting a delightful labour and his combinations with Thigo, Sammy Owino and George Yoga in their day of days brought out the magic in their team’s name for all of us to watch and enjoy.
How fitting then that his generation bequeathed the same proficiency to the successor class of midfielders like George Onyango Fundi, John Zangi Okello and Abass Khamisi Magongo who finally scaled the African football summit in 1987. Sadly, that chapter is now well and truly behind us.
His passing will intensify the mellow memories we have of that style of play and that level of achievement because the goal of making it to the knock-out stage of the Champions League is the only reasonable ambition we can have.
It has been a long spiral downwards and the technical gap opened by countries that used to be our equals is now frightful and even benumbing. To a great many fans who never had time for European football leagues when Tim Ayieko donned the green shirt, the bell tolled a long time ago.
It is time to believe in miracles because there is no visible pathway to a return to the days of Confederation or Nations Cup finals.
The last time I was in Kampala, I met a number of football personalities. The past, the present and the future mingled seamlessly in our animated conversations and the nights were shorter than we would have wished.
“Please find time and go to Jinja,” Abbey Nasur implored me. “Go and talk to Tim Ayieko. He will give you very useful information.” I checked my schedule and thought I could make the trip. I re-checked and changed my mind: it was too tight.
Nasur was disappointed. “I wish you could go,” he pleaded again. “Ayieko will give you very good stories.” There will be another day, I assured him.
Unfortunately, that day never came. Last Sunday at the Kakira neighbourhood of Jinja where he lived and worked, Timothy Ayieko died. He had a heart condition that had given rise to other medical complications.
This week, the body of the native son was returned home in preparation for burial in the land of his forebears.
They will bury him in Nyakach next Saturday where people of his generation will doubtless reflect on the great distance travelled downhill from the noonday of his life when East Africa was practically a country.
After that dream perished, the countries solidified into three fiercely nationalistic entities. Now the most potent discussion is whether Kenya shouldn’t break up into two republics. They will wonder where this will all end.
But all that is now behind “Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimm……!” He has taken leave of his earthly labours and his free kicks are now thrilling the inhabitants of heaven. In gratitude, that is all we can pray for.