Although Denis Onyango has been playing at the highest level for many years, he will look back at 2016 as the year in which it all came together: Winning the South African Premier League title with his club Mamelodi Sundowns, captaining his national team as they qualified for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 1978 and then crowning all of that with a winners' medal from the CAF Champions League.

And as if all of that was not enough, Uganda is one of just four teams yet to concede a goal in Africa's 2018 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying competition as the Cranes find themselves in a much stronger position than anybody would have expected.

Drawn into a tough group with Egypt and Ghana, the east Africans were not expected to challenge for the sole qualifying berth for Russia, but a stunning goalless draw in Ghana and a 1-0 victory against Congo, sees them on four points – two behind the Pharaohs, whom they face in their next match.

“When we started out we had a vision and our vision was to win our three home games, but the fight that we put up against Ghana gave us hope and we knew that we could come up with the results. Every team wants to qualify for Russia, but we have to be realistic. It is a dream, but then some dreams become reality.”

Dreams come true
Presumably, when Onyango and his Sundowns team-mates embarked on their Champions League campaign in February this year, they had the dream of going all the way. In April that dream came to an end as a 2-1 victory against Vita Club saw them eliminated on the away goal rule. They then entered the CAF Confederations Cup, but again their dream went no further as they were knocked out by Ghanaian team Medeama.

What followed can only be described as a fairy tale as they were taken back into the Champions League to replace the disqualified Vita Club. The happy ending came in the shape of Sundowns winning the trophy and Onyango becoming the first footballer from his country to win Africa's club showpiece.

“It really was like a dream come true. And what made it even more special is that it came not too long after we qualified for the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations. That was big for our country.

“I think why we achieved that is that, unlike previous campaigns - where we were a group of individuals - this time around it was all about team-work. We have a brotherhood among the players. The senior players met and said we had to work together. We welcomed newcomers as if they were part of a family and that made a huge difference.”

The finals will be held Gabon in January and February and the Cranes will be facing two of the teams that stand in their way of qualifying for Russia: Egypt and Ghana. “Even though I think we are regarded as the whipping boys of the group, I think we can surprise the other teams. Our fans accept that we have not been there for a long time, so they are not expecting any miracles from us, but we want to escape the group phase.

“It will also be very good for us to play against Egypt ahead of the World Cup qualifiers in March. After drawing in Ghana, we believe in ourselves. If we did not believe in ourselves, we would not even go to the Nations Cup. We are, of course, aware that the winners of the Nations Cup qualify for the Confederations Cup. And why should we not dream about that too?”

But even if their dream of making it to the Confederations Cup and the World Cup fails to materialise for Onyango, he still has the FIFA Club World Cup to look forward to in Japan in December with Sundowns.

And that, of course, is not too shabby.