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CELEBRATING ADECADE WITH OURLONG SERVINGHEROESAuthor: Dumisani KoyanaPhotos: BackpagePixA decade with Mamelodi Sundowns Football Club is a milestone worth celebrating. The 2021/22 season pays homage to three players who have been with Masandawana for ten seasons - Themba Zwane, Hlompho Kekena and Denis Onyango. Coming from different backgrounds and journeys, the trio joined the club in 2011, culminating in memorable moments at Chloorkop. Themba Zwane joined Mamelodi Sundowns in January, 2011. His stay at the club has been memorable, as he formed part of the team that won the ultimate African accolade, the 2016 CAF Champions League as well as the CAF Super Cup in 2017. ‘Mshishi’ as he is commonly known amongst the supporters, has earned several nominations and awards since he joined the Brazilians. Last season, the dynamic playmaker won the DStv Premiership Midfielder of the Season award. The season prior, Zwane won the PSL Footballer of the Season, Absa Premiership Player’s Player of the Season and Absa Premiership Midfielder of the Season at the 2020/21 Premier Soccer League (PSL) awards.
Zwane has been lauded for his dedication and professionalism to the club. The Mamelodi Sundowns Digital Magazine crew got a chance to sit down with him and discuss his journey.
"Every day has been exciting for me. There are people who have been there for me, who have taught me how to behave on-and-off the field. I have achieved a lot with the team and they have taken good care of me all these years”.
Speaking on his first memories at the club, Themba Zwane excitedly describes when he joined Masandwana, “If you remember, I came to the club from an amateur team, Vardos FC. At first, I couldn't believe that Sundowns was after my services. I still remember the first day I saw guys who had played in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and now I was in the field training with the likes of Teko Modise and Suprise Moriri. There was a point where I was just standing during training and was in awe.” Just seven months later, the forever smiling goal minder, Denis Onyango, joined the Brazilians in August, 2011. Onyango has been showing season after season that he is a quality goalkeeper with over two hundred appearances for Masandawana. He was part of the CAF Champions League-winning side in 2016 and was named the African-based African Player of the year. More so, he was ranked as the tenth best goalkeeper in the world in 2016 according to International Federation of Football History & Statistic (IFFHS) ahead of Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech of Cech Republic and FC Barcelona’s German keeper Marc Andre Ter Stegen. He also represented Uganda at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations and registered over 80 caps for the Cranes. The recently retired Ugandan international shot-stopper spoke about how challenging it was when he joined the club. At the time, he was competing with some of the best keepers in the country, he had to build up his reputation and prove his worth to make the starting line- up.
The experienced goalie described his rise with the club, "It was scary as I was coming into an environment with a lot of stars. The profile was bigger, I was well received by the lads and management. Upon joining the club, I had a dream of playing in the CAF Champions League group stages even as a kid. There were quality keepers who I was competing with at the time such as Calvin Marlin and Wayne Sandilands. I had to be patient, I even went on loan to test the waters outside the club and that was a way, for me, going out there and getting valuable game time so I could come back and fight for my place at the club.” Following in the footsteps of Onyango, a confidant and close friend of the keeper, who is also one of the most decorated captains in South African Football, Hlompho Kekena, also joined the club in August, 2011. Kekena has enjoyed his fair share of incredible moments at the club. The midfield dynamo formed part of the CAF Champions League and CAF Super Cup-winning team of 2016 and 2017 respectively. Remarkably, he won these continental titles just a few months after being given the Captain's armband. Kekena also won the Absa Premiership Goal of the Season for his strike in August 2019 against Cape Town City; a goal that was nominated for the FIFA Puskas Award.
A few years earlier, in 2016, he had earned a similar nomination for his Bafana Bafana goal against Cameroon from his own half in the AFCON qualifiers. With eight league titles to his name - six with Sundowns and two previously with former side SuperSport United, Kekena is a true African legend of the game.
Kekena’s move to Masandawana happened after the Brazilians pipped rivals, Orlando Pirates, for his signature. The Zebediela-born spoke about how he was set on joining Pirates but was convinced to make his way to Chloorkop. “It was crazy because at the time I had made up my mind that I was going to Pirates. The decision to join the club was based on my ambitions to win trophies and when I looked at the Mamelodi Sundowns team, I saw that my chances were higher with them. Alex Bapela who comes from the area where I grew up convinced me that I should join the Sundowns team and assured me that my personality will suit the philosophy of the club." Ten years for these three players at Mamelodi Sundowns is a big feat and it does not come easy. The trio spoke about the storms they had to face before the sun rose. Mshishi spoke of how he competed with some of the big names when he arrived at the club. "I was competing with the likes of Lebo Mokoena, Elias Pelembe and Papi Zothwane who were top players at the time, the best part was that they were also the ones that gave me advice so that my game could be elevated to another level. Coach Johan Neeskens was very instrumental in my development as a player as he would take me aside and tell me what he wanted from me.”
Zwane further elaborated on his debut, “I remember the week where I was going to make my debut, the coach made me aware that I was going to play and I must prepare myself. He told me that I must just keep doing what I was doing in training and I will be fine. At some point, I went out on loan because a new coach came in and said he was going to sign players. That day, I spoke to Surprise Moriri who told me that a loan doesn't mean I am a bad player, I must go there, make the most of it and enjoy my time. When I came back to the club, Coach Pitso Mosimane told me that I did well and that I must start scoring goals as that was the only thing missing in my game." The long-serving goalie reminisced about the challenges he faced. "It was all about the ambitions the club had, which were complementing mine. Patience and hard work are why I am still here. It comes with a lot of responsibility to be at a big club like Mamelodi Sundowns. What you do on and off the field is important, making sure that you represent the brand every day. Being with the club means you get to play with the best players all the time. I am the only goalkeeper to have won the CAF African-based Player of the year and that would not have happened if I did not work hard.”
Mamelodi Sundowns goalkeeping coach, Wendell Robinson was full of praise for Onyango and what he brings to the Brazilians, “Dennis gets on with everyone at the club. Along with Kennedy Mweene, they have the biggest characters and are the most energetic within the group. Dennis is an exceptional person and a hard worker. Some of his qualities include being a good listener and a quick thinker. He is always trying to improve himself and never looks down on anyone. These traits have made Dennis a great individual at the club.” Kekena recollected some of the tough times he encountered in his early days and how he weathered the storms. “From the day I arrived, I have taken good care of myself on and off the field. I told myself that I must not be comfortable with where I am and work hard to sustain my stay at the club. The players made it easy for me to apply myself. Every game I played was like my last game. I was conditioned to give my best and that is what pushed me to the limit. To be at Sundowns for so long reminded me of the journey I have been through as a person and that has carried me daily. The difficulties I’ve overcome are always a constant reminder of why I played in the first place. There was a time where I played well in the build-up to a final but I did not feature in that match, that was a bitter pill to swallow. I also remember when we lost the 2016 MTN final against Wits in Mbombela, that was my lowest point but the game teaches you to fight and move on.”
There is no doubt that the trio have fought tough battles to earn the coveted Champions League star and trophies at the club; they have been instrumental in contributing to the success that the team has achieved over the years. The club is forever grateful for the sacrifice and commitment that these three icons have shown to our badge over the last decade; they are an inspiration to the players and people around them. Mamelodi Sundowns and the Yellow Nation would like to send a message of appreciation to these remarkable players for their dedication to the club.