By Fred Mwambu
Hassan Zungu is just 28 years old. He is currently the youngest coach managing a club in the national football leagues with Gaddafi firmly in contention for promotion to the StarTimes Uganda Premier League next season.
The young coach was a surprise appointment when he took over the reins at the club in April from veteran Caf A and C coaches, namesakes Frank and Michael Ssebagala, following a run of two losses to Maroons and Kataka that threw the club’s promotional hopes into uncertainty.
During his playing days at Jinja SSS and later Kirinya-Jinja SS (now Busoga United), his peers referred to him as “a pass master” but rather than building on that and polish his skills, Zungu was more concerned with how the coaches ran their business on the touchline.
Zungu started his football journey at a tender age of seven in 2002 where he was enrolled at Nile Toto Football Academy while in P2 at Njeru Primary in Buikwe District.
He captained his school and district to the 2005 and 2006 primary schools competition. Zungu later joined Lord Meardes College, Buikwe, for his O-level in 2008 but his talent earned him a bursary at Jinja SS in 2010.
There, Zungu managed to guide the school to the national post-primary thrice in 2010, 2011 and 2012 before graduating to the club side Kirinya-Jinja SS in 2013 under veteran coach Mathew Lucha and current coach Abbey Kikomeko.
He was among the lot that guided the club to two consecutive but unsuccessful Fufa Big League promotional playoffs in 2013/14 and 2014/15 before making the breakthrough in 2016 where they earned direct promotion.
A chance to play in the topflight presented but Zungu’s dream had changed. He chose an early retirement and started coaching.
“I was not very keen in continuing to play and often found myself trying to coach the junior players,” Zungu reminisces his early passion for coaching.
“Every coach around me saw that I was too inquisitive why coaches made particular tactical and technical decisions; I was more interested in understanding how the coaches thought rather than concentrate on my own game.
“Some coaches felt that I had qualities of coaching and that’s why [Mathew] Lucha (Rip) started using me in arranging cones and warming players and later gave me the junior team to handle. He explained to me why we make some substitutions.”
Rowing the tide
Zungu went against the tides at the Copa Coca-Col aPost-primary games in 2017 in Masaka and stunned experienced coaches like Edward Golola to the ultimate prize as Jinja SS broke the jinx, becoming first school from outside Buganda and Kampala to achieve such a feat.
He also reached the finals of the 2019 edition and the 2017 and 2019 East Africa schools games. He is credited for identifying and grooming key players who reached the Afcon U-20 final with Uganda Hippos. They include Isma Mugulusi, Kenneth Semakula and Delton Oyo.
“That performance in Masaka (2017) was my breakthrough because everyone started believing in what I was doing. I was promoted to an assistant coach to Charles Ayiekoh when he joined Busoga United in 2017, a position I served until I crossed to Gaddafi,” Zungu said.
The biggest challenge to Zungu is managing players who are older and experienced, some of who have played at the top level. But he has managed it well.
“I have learnt to be professional and try to make players understand our style and objective. It is all about winning their hearts and minds,” Zungu said.
His main task is to see that Gaddafi joins the elite, an assignment that he boldly takes. He is already igniting talk about his dominant passing style that has managed to get the team back to the playoff zones.
Breakthrough, YouTube and Pep Guardiola
After gaining qualification, Alex Isabirye, then at Kirinya Jinja SS, was impressed with Zungu’s love for coaching and hunger to learn and roped him into his technical bench as a fitness trainer.
Isabirye left unceremoniously midway and Abbey Kikomeko, who was handling the school team with Zungu, assumed the mantle. Kikomeko would get consumed with the club’s relegation battle and left the school team entirely in the hands of Zungu and Hannington Kalyesubula as his deputy. The young coach grabbed that chance with both hands.
“When I was handed the school team, I knew that was my chance to show what I can do. I organised the players and taught them what I wanted them to play,” he says.
Zungu fell in love with Manchester City’s Spanish coach Pep Guardiola’s style of possession and attacking football. He had few of such models locally to emulate and that turned his focus to YouTube.
“I fell in love with Guardiola’s style right from his time at Barcelona through Bayern Munich and then City. I used and still do go to YouTube channels to understand his coaching.
“I make notes and then go back to watch replays and try to apply in my teams. I want to be organised right both off and on the pitch and that’s what I ask of my players.”