Denis Onyango made history as the first goalie to win the Confederation of African Football (CAF) award for African Player of the Year – Based in Africa. This is in addition to his sterling performances in the CAF African Champions League, the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL) and the knockout Domestic Cup with his South African-based side, Mamelodi Sundowns.
The 29-year-old, who was also crowned the PSL Goalkeeper of the Year, was monumental in the return of the Uganda Cranes to the 2017 African Cup of Nations after 39 years of absence. In addition he was named one of the best 10 goalkeepers in the world by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics.
The Uganda Cranes and Sundowns, where Onyango wields great influence, were named national team of the year and club of the year 2016 respectively by CAF, the organising body of African football. In spite of the fact that the Cranes failed to impress in Gabon on Africa’s biggest stage, winning none of their three outings against Ghana, Egypt and Mali, analysts concur that Onyango’s shine is intact.
In an interview with The Independent, a Ugandan magazine, Phillip Ssozi, a legend of Ugandan football, described Onyango’s influence in the world of football as “immense”. “Denis is number one in Uganda, East Africa and Africa. Every player must be proud of him because he shines a spotlight on the continent. His inspiration is not limited to Uganda,” Ssozi was quoted as saying.
“I knew that when given a chance I would give my best to keep the number-one jersey, and that’s what I have done all my life.” – Denis Onyango
Who is Onyango?
Born on 15 May 1987, Denis Masinde Onyango would have been Kenyan had he been born four kilometres east of his Maili Munana village. Instead he was born and raised in Kampala, Uganda’s central business district.
A father of four, Onyango confesses to not being a frequent visitor to their country home in the Elgon region. “I was born and brought up in Kampala. We rarely went to Busia. In fact, I have been there only six or seven times since I was born,” he told TIA.
His career journey started at Nsambya FC, before SC Villa, then a top club in Kampala, spotted him in 2003. The SC Villa coach, Serbian Milutin Sredojevic, aka Micho, had organised a friendly match with a lower-division side when he spotted a tall, big-bodied teenager with an impressive raw talent and height. Even though Villa was not looking for goalkeepers at the time, Micho, who would later become the coach of the Uganda Cranes, was in no doubt that Onyango was a talent worth recruiting.
When TIA met with Onyango for an interview in Kampala, following Uganda’s shockingly early exit from the AFCON, he spoke highly of Micho, saying that the coach has been ‘a father’ to him since he started his professional career.
In fact, after his stint at SC Villa, Micho joined the Ethiopian side St George SC, and in 2005 he lured Onyango into signing up for the club. Despite being a student at Makerere University Business School, Onyango ‘saw the opportunity’ and joined his former coach and mentor in Addis Ababa.
Started at the bottom
His career was not always a bed of roses for Onyango, who has since played against the world’s best, including Cristiano Ronaldo, the 2016 Ballon d’Or and Best Player winner at the FIFA Club World Cup tournament. Onyango started out at Villa Park as the fourth-choice keeper, trailing Postnet Omwony, then Uganda’s first-choice keeper, Hannington Kalyesubula, his main understudy, and Matthew Ottamax Owino, a highly talented but very peculiar Kenyan stopper. But Onyango was patient and kept training hard as he awaited his chance.
“I knew that when given a chance I would give my best to keep the number-one jersey, and that’s what I have done all my life,” Onyango told TIA.
It wasn’t long until his opportunity came and just as quickly, Onyango rose through the ranks to win the league with SC Villa in 2004. Following a brief stint in Ethiopia, Onyango joined SuperSport United in 2006 and won the South African championship for all three the seasons he was there. In 2010 he moved to Black Aces. In 2011, he joined Mamelodi Sundowns where, strangely, he once again started out as a very marginal fourth-choice keeper and had to spend the 2012/13 season out on loan at Bidvest Wits FC.
In just two seasons upon returning, he went on to win the league, the Champions League and the CAF award, the most accolades ever won by a single Ugandan player in a calendar year.
“Denis is number one in Uganda, East Africa and Africa. Every player must be proud of him because he shines a spotlight on the continent. His inspiration is not limited to Uganda.” – Ugandan football legend Phillip Ssozi
Retirement and future plans
On the question of retirement, Onyango preferred to keep fans guessing, arguing that he still has a couple of years to play for his club and country. What he was open and optimistic about, however, are opportunities to play in European and Asian leagues, should those doors open.
“Of course, I am still ambitious and if a chance comes to play somewhere else, I would consider it. Money is also important and with the football climate at the moment you see players leaving Europe to go to Asia. It means Asia is where the money is. If a club in Asia can agree with my club, I would be open to move to greener pastures,” he told the Daily Nation while still in Gabon.
No matter which route he takes, Onyango has inked his name not only in the hearts of Ugandans but also in the history of African football as a disciplined, determined and zealous player who worked his way up from the bottom to achieve the seemingly impossible.