2016 has been quite the year for Mamelodi Sundowns’ Hlompho Kekana. After a 2015/16 domestic title triumph in May, the South African midfielder was trusted with the club captaincy in August after the departure of former team-mate Ramahlwe Mphahlele.

Since donning the armband for Sundowns, more titles and accolades have followed for the midfield workhorse. Kekana guided Masandawana to their first CAF Champions League trophy in October before making the FIFA Puskas Award’s ten-person shortlist just last month, after scoring from his own half for Bafana Bafana against Cameroon back in March.

Kekana’s memorable year concluded with the 31-year-old travelling to Japan for the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup, captaining the first South African side to take part in the competition.

“2016 has been a good year for us as a team and personally I’d say that it’s a year I’ll never forget,” Kekana told FIFA.com. “We have been excited with our achievements this year. Lifting the Champions League was huge and then to be playing at the Club World Cup was an even bigger step for us as a team. Competing at that level is always special, every player in the world wants to take part in the Club World Cup.

“It inspires me a lot to captain a team like this," he continued. "Mamelodi Sundowns are an ambitious team and we work hard on and off the field. I’m very privileged to work with this group. I think we are making our own little bit of history and it’s important to keep working, grinding and looking for more and more.”

Long-range screamer
Kekana made international headlines back in March by joining the likes of David Beckham and Xabi Alonso in having the tenacity and technique to shoot and score from inside his own half. The midfielder’s spectacular long-range strike, in a CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Cameroon, sailed over goalkeeper N’dy Assembe’s head into the net without touching the ground to the amazement of the Yaounde crowd.

Kekana’s brilliantly-executed goal saw him nominated for the ten-person FIFA Puskas Award for best goal of the year, alongside the likes of Barcelona pair Neymar and Messi.    

“It was special to get recognition from FIFA for the goal. I never thought that one day I’d be nominated for the Puskas Award by FIFA, but it happened,” said Kekana, renowned in Africa for his ability to score spectacular long range effort. “It was a special goal and one that is still unbelievable in my eyes. I still can’t believe I’m the one who scored it! 2016 was a great year for me and I’m proud of my work over the years, I’m reaping the rewards now."

The third South African to ever make the Puskas Award shortlist, Kekana followed in the footsteps of Bafana Bafana internationals Katlego Mphela and Siphiwe Tshabalala, who were nominated in 2009 and 2010 respectively. While he missed out when the contenders were whittled down to three, Kekana received unwavering support for his goal, not just at home, but from football supporters across the African continent. It was a gesture which left the midfield general extremely touched.

“It was a special moment where you see our impact as footballers, how we touch people’s lives and how people can get together through sport,” he said. “It was such a beautiful experience and humbling to see such support and I dedicate that goal to all Africans.”

Japan journey
Kekana’s memorable 2016 concluded with Mamelodi Sundowns representing Africa at the Club World Cup. While it wasn’t the finish that Pitso Mosimane’s side had in mind, losing their opening game to eventual finalists Kashima Antlers before suffering another defeat in the match for fifth place against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Masandawana still made history for South African in taking part at the tournament - with Kekana having the honour of leading them.

“It was a very special moment in my career,” said Kekana, on donning the captain’s armband at the Club World Cup. “It was a moment that I’ll forever cherish, competing with the best teams in the world in Japan. I learned a lot at the tournament.”