JOHANNESBURG - Denis Onyango laughs as he recollects how low he set the bar for himself in the CAF Champions League after getting his first taste of continental football with Ugandan club SC Villa more than a decade ago.
The Mamelodi Sundowns goalkeeper has not only realised his dreams but has also exceeded them by conquering the continent with the Brazilians in 2016 to become an African champion for the first time in his career.
The 32-year-old’s display in that Champions League success, coupled with his leading the Cranes to their first Africa Cup of Nations appearance in almost four decades, helped Onyango scoop CAF’s African Player of the Year - Based in Africa award last year.
“As an individual, playing in the Champions League has helped me grow because it was my dream to play in this competition,” he said. “My initial dream was to be in the group stage of the Champions League.
"But I have done more than that and I want to do even more now. That has kept me going all the time. There are lot of challenges and pressure that I face which means I need to perform every time I step into the field. I know that anyone can do my job, but if I do it with distinction I can stand out.”
Onyango and the Brazilians have to do their job with distinction if they are to conquer the continent again as they have been drawn in the same group as the reigning champions Wydad Casablanca. The Moroccan giants are part of Group C that also features AS Togo-Port of Togo along with Guinea’s Horoya.
The biggest challenge for the Brazilians will come against Wydad who knocked them out in the quarter-finals last year en-route to winning the continent's premier club knockout title.
Sundowns will host the Moroccans in their opening match of the group stage in the first weekend of May. Such high-profile matches bring out the best in Onyango.
“When you play on the continent, you need to show your experience because the pitch might not be proper and the opponents might use mind games to rile you up,” Onyango said. “There are a lot of challenges, beyond just playing football. But you shouldn’t focus on that, you should just get the result and go back home.
"That needs a lot of experience and mental strength. That affects certain players but it doesn’t affect me. I have played in many hostile environments in the continent and managed to come out of stronger. I do everything in my power to help the club. I know that as a foreign player I need to help the club when it comes to continental football.”
Sundowns are appearing in the group stage of the Champions League for a third successive year. They’ve lost the naivety that saw them eliminated just before the group stage by TP Mazembe in 2015 to become a recognised force on the continent three years later.
“It’s always nice to be in the Champions League because you get to meet different teams and see different countries,” Onyango said. “It’s a great feeling for us to be at this stage of the Champions League as players. Getting into the group stage was very important for us because being knocked out of the quarter-finals last year hurt us.
"We needed to go again and do better because the people who knocked us out last year went on to win the Champions League. This drives us because it shows that we were knocked out by a good club. It’s routine at Sundowns now that we have to play Champions League football all the time.”