Battle for the finest across three generations

From left to right. Paul Ssali, Sadiq Wassa and Dennis Oyango. Photo by Eddie Chico and File

What you need to know:

  • After joining the army in 1972, Ssali was among the 20 commandos President Idi Amin sent to Israel to undergo special training in artillery operation and on return was deployed at Masindi Artillery regiment.

The three ace goalkeepers belonged to different generations but all arrived on the big stage like a musician’s wonder hit. Paul Ssali excelled for Simba, KCCA and Uganda Cranes in the 70s and early 80s, Sadiq Wassa followed suit both at club and national team during the 90s while the man of moment happens to be the maverick Denis Onyango. The three goalkeepers appear to have had so many things in common, yet those who knew them so well will testify that they are completely different with each one boasting his own goalkeeping qualities.

The similarities shared by the three include among others all having begun their footballing careers at school not in goal but playing as strikers, having once been Uganda Cranes undisputed custodians and superb at saving penalty kicks. Below we give readers a brief history about each one of them and what they have achieved during their careers for one to pick the best.

Paul Ssali Against all odds, Paul Ssali emerged from nowhere to conquer a number of great goalkeepers he found on the Ugandan soccer scene both at club and national levels. His early interest in football can be traced way back in primary school at Kitebi, a stone’s throw away from Muteesa II stadium Wankulukuku in Lubaga division before moving on to St. Francis Tutorial College in Mengo. After joining the army in 1972, Ssali was among the 20 commandos President Idi Amin sent to Israel to undergo special training in artillery operation and on return was deployed at Masindi Artillery regiment. This was where Ssali’s serious football began for he used to play as a winger in the regiment’s football team until one day when something unusual happened.

The team’s first choice goalie conceded silly goals in a match and never turned up for the next match against Tsetse Fly FC in the Bunyoro district competition.
So puzzled was the coach that he looked around and decided to try Ssali in goal. To everyone’s surprise, the new goalkeeper put up an extra-ordinary performance and since that day played in that position. Ssali was later transferred to Mbuya military barracks in Kampala to enable him feature for the army’s top club, Simba FC. To Ssali’s astonishment, Simba already had four good goalies in Patrick Natan, Fred Nkolwa, George Nakayero and Ramathan Ssebi. Luck came his way one day when none of the four turned up for a friendly match against a visiting team from Zanzibar. So furious was the team’s patron , Major Abdallar Nasur that he looked around ordering a “kadogo” (the skinny fifth-choice goalkeeper that day he became Simba’s first choice goalkeeper.

Ssali was first summoned to the Cranes national team in 1975 but the same story of starting on the bench continued to haunt him. The team had star goalies like Jamil Kasirye, Hussein Matovu and George Mukasa meaning that his role only stopped in training sessions. Once again luck came his way in 1976 when some top Cranes goalkeepers were dropped due to poor form. As if that was not good enough during the 1976 Cecafa tournament in Zanzibar the first choice keeper George Mukasa got an injury in the opening match and coach Peter Okee had no choice but to field Ssali in goal.

He played throughout the tournament up to the final where he excelled for Cranes to beat Zambia 2-0 and lift the trophy. In 1977 Ssali cemented his Cranes position when Uganda defended the title once beating Zambia with him saving three penalties and becoming an instant hero. Then came the decisive 1978 Afcon qualifies where Uganda Cranes edged Ethiopia to qualify for Ghana that saw Ssali save a penalty in Addis Ababa and another one during the return leg in Nakivubo. In Ghana Ssali featured for Cranes in all matches including the final one when Uganda lost 2-0 to hosts Ghana. At club level he won the league with Simba in 1978 and later with KCCA FC in 1983 and 1985 plus the knock out Uganda Cp in 1982, 1984 and 1987.

Sadiq Wassa
After Paul Ssali won the 1977 Cecafa title with the Cranes, it took Uganda 12 years to win another title and this they did so in 1989 in Kenya when Sadiq Wassa was in goal. Just like Ssali in 1977, Wassa had to exhibit penalty saving skills for Uganda to win the final against Malawi.
During his early life when still at school in Lugazi Wassa had no interest in football with his favourite sport being basketball which he used to play so well.

One day a friend advised him to give football a try. He started as a right winger and at the same time used to train with Scoul FC . In 1981 when only 16 the Lugazi-based club gave him a license. Just like Ssali , Sadiq Wassa became a goalkeeper by accident when the club’s goalie one day failed to turn up for a Mukono district competition match against a side from Nkokonjeru. Scoul won the match 2-1 with Sadiq saving a penalty. Since then he became the team’s first choice goalkeeper.

In 1984 he joined Nile FC whose number one goalie Adam Wenga was a good friend . His first league match with Nile came in 1985 in a 1-1 draw against Coffee SC. He was in 1987 summoned to the Cranes team by coach Barnabas Mwesiga but could not be fielded as the side already had better custodians in Edward Nassamba, John Tebusweeke and George Kayizzi. It was the 1988 season that helped expose Sadiq\s immense goalkeeping talent. He had an exceptional performance with Nile in the league where he almost saved all the penalties the club conceded He was included in the Cranes squad for the 1988 regional Cecafa tournament and got a chance of being fielded when both Nassamba and Tebusweeke fell sick. His presence was noticed event though Uganda didn’t go far.

In 1989 Sadiq joined KCCA FC and the same year played a major role in the national team that won the Cecafa title in Kenya by saving two penalties against Malawi in the final. In 1990 he was again instrumental when Cranes retained the title in Zanzibar and two years later when won it for keeps. With KCCA Sadiq Wassa won the Ugandan football league in 1991 and 1997 and two Uganda cups in 1990 and 1993.

Denis Masinde Onyango In past media interviews, the now undisputed number one goalkeeper in Uganda and Africa made it clear that he was motivated to become a goalkeeper listening on radio to how Sadiq Wassa used to make heroic penalty saves. Since then he developed a dream of one day becoming Cranes’ goalkeeper even though during then played as a striker. Onyango’s football interest began during his childhood when he played football with peers around Nsambya and surrounding areas and later for the Sharing Hall team. He joined SC Villa as a youth in 2005 where the club’s goalkeeping coach late Fred Lukwago trained and taught him all the tricks (It was Lukwago that dislodged Joseph Masajjage as Express FC’s number one goalkeeper during the seventies and later went 810 minutes (Nine matches) without conceding a goal). As a youth player, Onyango was at one time also handled by former national youth coach and Cranes star Paul Ssali.

For the short time Onyango stayed at Villa park he won the Cecafa Kagame Cup in 2005.After SC Villa, his next port of a call happened to be Ethiopian St George FC. While in Ethiopia he was spotted and signed by Supersport FC of South Africa where he played for four years making 70 appearances and scoring one goal through a penalty kick. Onyango thought that his profession career had hit a dead end when in 2010 Supersport released him only to join a dwarf league club Mpumalaga Black Aces, a club he was later relegated with to the lower division. Against all odds Onyango was very lucky to be spotted and signed by Mamelodi Sundowns in 2011 even though his new club already had two superb first choice goalkeepers.

He was In 2013 loaned to Bidvets Wits only to return to Mamelodi two years later. Onyango’s turning point came when Mamelodi’s top goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene went to play for Zambia in an Afcon tournament forcing the Mamelodi coach to try him. He did so well relegating Kennedy Mwene to the bench. As of September 27, 2019, Onyango has appeared in 95 matches for Sundowns.