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The rise of Denis Masinde Onyango

The Independent reflects on his journey to being Africa’s best footballer

Denis Masinde Onyango was on Jan.5 crowned the Confederation of African Football (CAF) African Player of the Year – Based in Africa.

Uganda’s talismanic shot-stopper made history as the first goalkeeper ever to win CAF’s topmost honour; a prestigious individual award nobody else in Uganda has ever got.

The continental recognition smoothly rounded off an outstanding season in all of his 14 years in topflight football.

In a post to his Facebook page on Jan.10, the 31-year-old Onyango dubbed 2016 as a year to remember in his football career. He likened himself to his age mate Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s best footballer, who, like him, had won just about everything there was to win in 2016.

The two featured at the FIFA Club World Cup – the first time any Ugandan and East African was appearing at the competition – even if they did not play against each other. Ronaldo’s Real Madrid won the tournament, picking up one more accolade alongside the European Champions League, the European Championship, and the UEFA Super Cup he had already bagged. Ronaldo went on to win the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA Player of the Year Award ahead of his fierce rival Lionel Messi of Barcelona.

With his irrepressible Mamelodi Sundowns, Onyango won the CAF African Champions League, the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL), the knockout Domestic Cup, and was crowned the PSL Goalkeeper of the Year.

What is more, the International Federation of Football History and Statistics named him among the best 10 goalkeepers in the world, ahead of the likes of Petr Cech of Arsenal, East Africa’s most beloved team in the world’s most lucrative English Premier League.

On Jan.10, Parliament honoured Onyango for his outstanding accomplishment, recognising it as testimony to relentless hard work, discipline, determination, humility and focus. His achievement, the House noted, will be a great motivation to young men and women who dream of careers in football, or other fields for that matter.

“Denis is number one in Uganda, East Africa and Africa. Think about it. Every player in East Africa must be proud of him because he shines a spotlight on the entire region. His inspiration is not limited to Uganda anymore,” noted Phillip Ssozi, a legend of Ugandan football and an icon at Sports Club Villa; Onyango’s boyhood club.

Onyango’s rise to continental stardom has not been without hiccups. Twice in his career – at the beginning and at the ascent to its current peak – the 1.85 metre tall keeper started out on the periphery in spite of his skill and height; a test that has often crushed many talents with immense potential.

He, however, managed to pull through on account of his character and unwavering reassurance from his coaches; particularly Milutin Sredojević aka Micho, Uganda’s national coach. Onyango duly acknowledged Micho’s contribution when he bagged the continental gong, saying he has always been a father to him since he started his professional career.

Sredojević, or Micho as he is commonly known, recruited Onyango to SC Villa, which he was coaching, in 2002. Two years later he backed him against a career crushing gaffe when, during an Under-23 Olympic qualifier game, a light back pass to him rolled beneath his foot into goal.

“Everyone in Nakivubo cursed and hurled insults at him. We even told him not to return to our goal again but Micho and Giringi (Lukwago, the goalkeeping coach) just told him he should not bog himself down with it, such things happen in football,” said Meddie Sembajja, the secretary of SC Villa Fans Club.

A year later, Micho, who had since moved to Ethiopia’s St George SA, lured his protégé to Addis Ababa, kick-starting his professional career.

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