As Uganda and the rest of the region eagerly awaits the Cranes’ first appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations tournament (Afcon) in Gabon from January 14 in four decades, expectations are high as the team makes a comeback as the Confederation of Africa Federation’s National Team of the Year and its talismanic goalkeeper Denis Masinde Onyango as the CAF African Player of the Year (Based in Africa).
Onyango and Cranes were honoured on January 5, at the CAF Awards 2017 held in Abuja, Nigeria.
Onyango also made history by being the first goalkeeper to win this award and that of overall Player of the Year.
Onyango is basking in the glory of being the first Ugandan and East African to receive such recognition, which has capped an illustrious footballing year during which he won the CAF Champions League with his current club Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa where he plays professional football; the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL), the knockout Domestic Cup, and was crowned the PSL goalkeeper of the year.
He was also named among the best 10 goalkeepers in the world by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics. He appeared at the Fifa Club World Cup tourney – the first Ugandan and East African to do so – and brushed shoulders with the likes of 2016 Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
Onyango’s success has been attributed to his discipline, work ethic, patience and respect for everybody he works with, including ball boys.
In an interview just three days to the CAF awards night, he acknowledged the importance his success was not lost on him.
“My success is an inspiration to people in different ways because they will apply it depending on what they are pursuing. For me that comes with a lot of responsibility and demands to work harder because many people will look up to me as their inspiration and role model,” he said. He was speaking at Villa Park club on January 2 when he paid a courtesy call.
But who is Denis Onyango?
Meddie Sembajja, the secretary of Sports Club Villa Fans, said that in 2003, the team’s then Serbian coach Milutin Sredojevi aka Micho organised a friendly match with the lower division side Nsambya FC. It was routine for the club to play friendlies with lower division teams to test their strength before meeting other top flight teams without giving away their form to the latter.
In goal for Nsambya FC that day was Onyango, a tall, big-bodied teenager whose raw talent and height impressed Micho, who currently coaches Uganda’s national team the Cranes. Even though Villa was not looking for goalkeepers at the time, Micho was in no doubt that Onyango was a talent worth recruiting.
“So he recommended the then SC Villa goalkeeping coach Giringi Lukwago to assess Onyango. Giringi was a highly respected goalkeeping coach and he took no time to approve of Onyango. It was now up to the management to seal the deal,” added Sembajja.
The task to sign Onyango with SC Villa was passed on to Hakim Magumba, a Ugandan football legend in his own right and an SC Villa icon. Magumba was then the team’s deputy captain and also acted as club scout, particularly to sign players from eastern Uganda where he hailed from.
Although born and bred in Kampala, Onyango’s ancestry is in Busia, at the border with Kenya.
“I spent nearly the whole night looking for Onyango, until sometime around midnight or thereabouts when I found him somewhere in Ndejje behind Namasuba on the Kampala-Entebbe highway,” Magumba recalled.
“I had seen him play before… he was good but because there were a number of goalkeepers, he would sometimes play as a striker and he would play there very well also. No aerial balls went to waste with him,” he added.
Onyango was presented to Umar Mandela — then club treasurer and biggest financier — in the middle of the night. There was an urgency to sign him up before someone else beat Villa to it, according to Phillip Ssozi, another legend of Ugandan football and an ex-Villa star.
“His name had started making the rounds and a number of other big clubs had begun eyeing him,” recalls Mr Ssozi.
To lock out other clubs, SC Villa agreed to pay Onyango’s tuition as part of the deal.
The appeal at SC Villa wasn’t only its success in domestic competitions, the club presented a sure ticket to professional football. A good number of Ugandan footballers who played in foreign leagues had once been part of the club.
Onyango started out at Villa Park as a very marginal choice behind the likes of Posnet Omwony, Uganda’s first choice keeper, Hannington Kyalesubula, his main understudy, and Matthew Ottamax Owino, a highly talented but very eccentric Kenyan stopper.
But rather than despair and seek playing time elsewhere, the teenager stayed put.
“I knew my qualities and also the fact that in football everyone will always get a chance to play. So for me I knew that when given a chance I was going to give my best to keep the number one jersey and that’s what I have done all my life,” Onyango told The EastAfrican.
It did not take him long to rise through the ranks to become the club’s number two goalkeeper. In 2004, he won the league with SC Villa.
In July 2005, Micho lured his protégé to Ethiopia’s St George SA, which he was coaching at the time. Thus began his professional career that, a year later, would blossom in South Africa.
Onyango started out at SuperSport United in 2006 and won the South African championship for all the three seasons he was there. In 2010 he moved to Black Aces. A year later he joined Mamelodi Sundowns where, strangely, he once again started out as a very marginal fourth choice keeper.
He had to spend the 2012/13 season out on loan at Bidvest Wits FC. Yet in just two seasons after returning, he went on to win the league, the Champions League and the CAF award.