Denis Onyango, 33, the Cranes captain and goalkeeper, wished he were somewhere else but Uganda, when I met him at his home in Kyambogo during his latest visit home.
With most of the world glued to their TV sets to watch the grandest of football occasions, the World Cup, Onyango had hoped a few months ago that he would be with The Cranes in Russia for the 2018 showpiece.
However, as he sipped his canned Bessa bushera drink right in the shadow of Kyambogo University, he could only imagine what could have been. His home surrounded by a host of university students hostels and overlooking a huge chunk of land holding the Kabaka’s farm of Friesian cattle, Onyango’s four-bedroom house is in such a quiet setting.
His living room bears a huge 80-inch television screen, and a plethora of pictures of his wife and children. A painting of himself in The Cranes jersey and his awards won while at Mamelodi Sundowns football club complete the quiet decor.
Onyango’s compound, surrounded by a wall and a big gate at the entrance, is enough to accommodate a five-a-side football match. It offers a soothing serenity and breeze from the trees. The lush green turf would leave Namboole stadium in envy.
An old Adidas World Cup 2002 football lies in the compound, which Onyango says is left outside for children in the neighbourhood to come and play. Such is Onyango: always welcoming and warm.
During the interview a few days ago, Onyango was often interrupted by phone calls of people asking him for boots, jerseys and all sorts of help. As a star, it is inevitable that Onyango’s following grows by the day in all forms; admirers aside, there are people, who look up to him as a lifesaver.
“It is true, I have many fans. I accommodate them to the best of my ability, because these are people who love me and cheer me all the time. So, I lend a hand whenever I can, although sometimes I fail because of the many relatives I have to take care of,” Onyango said.
Together with his wife Barbara Namubiru, Onyango has four sons aged 12, 8, 6 and 3. They all live in South Africa.
“I have always wanted to have a girl. But God chose boys for me, and I am content with that. No problem. They are all children. All I pray for now is that they can grow up to be wonderful human beings, that are exemplary,” Onyango said. “I never knew I would come this far in life. So, that is why I honour God everyday for the talent, because without it, I would be a nobody.”
In fact, it is the same spirit Onyango is instilling in his children: to love God and be faithful to Him. In essence, through loving others, you love God too, Onyango believes. Like many people who saw a helping hand extended to them in time of need, “giving back” is part and parcel of Onyango’s life.
Born and raised in Nsambya, Onyango began playing football in the same locality at the famous Sharing Youth Centre. At the time, he was a pupil at Railways primary school in the mid to late 1990s.
In 2001, he joined first division football side, Nsambya FC, one of the oldest football teams in Uganda. There, he was spotted by former Umeme FC footballer Richard Amatre.
One fortune led to another and soon SC Villa officials Micho Milutin Sredojevic and Tushar Ruparelia spotted him for their club. The Denis Onyango of steller credentials was truly born then, especially when he later got to play for the national team.
The Cranes goalkeeper looks back on one moment in 2003, as an up and coming custodian, when he felt like being swallowed up by the ground. It was an Under-20 Africa Youth Championship, when Uganda took on Madagascar at Nakivubo stadium in the first leg.
Uganda led 2-1 going into added time, only for Onyango to commit a gaffe by letting the ball from a harmless back pass slip under his right boot into the back of the net. Onyango had denied many Ugandans in the stands a victory they had already started celebrating. No sooner had that happened, than the final whistle went.
Then 19, Onyango fell in his goal and cried profusely, many football fans will remember. His team-mates had to support him off the field.
“It was my worst nightmare. I felt I had let down my country. It was such a terrible experience,” Onyango, now vindicated and decorated, recollected.
Yet, even though many media reports at the time called for Onyango to be dropped from the team, his coaches Jackson Mayanja and Moses Basena stood by him, as he kept goal in the second leg, which Uganda won 2-0 away.
The Good Life
With such moments, Onyango cannot thank his coaches enough for not giving up on him even when he was far from the ‘star’ he is today. He is enjoying the fruits of that resilience.
Onyango is far from that Nsambya hustler; he drives a BMW X6, carries two smartphones: an iPhone X and a Samsung S8. Yes, they are just material things, but in this country they are still a symbol of a life being lived in the right direction.
Off the football pitch, Onyango has become an icon many corporate companies want to relate to. Recently, he was involved in a promotional event by Fufa’s new corporate partner BetLion, a betting firm. He is also involved in real estate business ventures.
Yet still, Onyango is not a braggart that talks up himself all the time, or shows off his achievements. He is very private. He is very cognizant of the fact that he is a role model to many and that it comes with responsibility.
“To be a role model, you have to be humble no matter how big a star you are. That is something I tell my sons all the time,” he said.
Interestingly, Onyango’s love for football does not stop on the field alone. He engages in PlayStation video games with his children, who are also crazy about football. Onyango is also an avid reader.
“One of my favourite books is The Manager: Inside The Minds Of Football Leaders,” he said.
On his days off, he cooks for his family; his specialty is posho and fish. If he can do all that with Eddy Kenzo and Bobi Wine’s music in the background, even better. As he approaches the twilight of his career, he hopes the legacy he leaves behind portrays him as one of Uganda’s best footballers ever; a lifetime inspiration.
And before his retirement, he is still hoping for World Cup glory with the Cranes; after all, goalkeepers are known to have the best longevity in football. Egypt’s second-choice goalie in Russia this year was a 45-year-old Essam El-Hadary.
Even when the goalie gloves come off, his future lies with football, either as a coach or an administrator. Maybe then, he can create another Onyango.
Denis Onyango fact-file
- Played for Nsambya FC in 2001 and 2002
- Played for SC Villa from 2003 to 2005
- Played for Saint George of Ethiopia in 2006
- Played for SuperSport United from 2006 to 2010
- On loan at Mpumalanga Black Aces 2010 to 2011
- On loan at Bidvest Wits 2011 to 2012
- Joined Mamelodi Sundowns in 2012 to-date
- Capped by Cranes since 2005
- Won the League with SC Villa in 2003 and 2004
- Won the Cecafa Club Championship with SC Villa in 2003 and 2005
- Won the Ethiopian League in 2006
- Won Premier Soccer League with SuperSport United in 2008, 2009 and 2010
- Won the Premier Soccer League with Mamelodi Sundowns in 2014, 2016 and 2018
- Nedbank Cup winner 2015 with Mamelodi Sundowns
- Telkom Cup winner in 2015 with Mamelodi Sundowns
- Caf Champions League winner with Mamelodi Sundowns in 2016
- Caf Super Cup winner with Mamelodi Sundowns in 2017
*African Footballer of the Year (based in Africa) in 2016