Pitso on safari: The Big Game hunt
The players were not even back down the tunnel yet after celebrating on the pitch when coach Pitso Mosimane began casting his thoughts forward to next year.
The victorious Mamelodi Sundowns squad got a chance to go back out on the field and celebrate their championship triumph on Thursday – after the pitch invaders had been cleared away while their coach stood under a barrage of microphones and cameras in the tunnel at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium.
His review of the season was briefer than an analysis of the 3-0 win over SuperSport United, as emphatic and imperious as any title-winning match in the history of the domestic game. “We started nervously, but we’re all human beings. I didn’t talk much at half-time. Just one or two important points. I told my coaches to leave the players, that they would come right.”
The quality of the attacks, on a night that saw the Pretoria crowd bolstered by the gates being thrown open for free, served to emphasise the class and quality of a Sundowns side that had worked their way back from a nine-point deficit to take a first title in seven years.
Mosimane is keen to move right on to a new challenge, with a tilt at the African Champions League now in his sights. “You know my adventure with Africa. Sometimes you journalists do not believe but I like to put myself under pressure. Africa has been my adventure, it has been in my blood,” he opens up in his characteristic machinegun-style synopsis of events.
“We will prepare well for the Champions League. I will learn from [former Orlando Pirates coach] Roger de Sa, how he made it to the final, the strengths and weaknesses – and we’ll strengthen the team again. I know the journalists will say, ‘Ah, buying again’, but we will strengthen. We need numbers. Sundowns had eight key players injured at the some stage this year, so we must have numbers.”
Mosimane brought in 13 players last season but is irritated by the image of a club that has bought its way to the title.
His fresh conquest marks him as the first black coach to have won the title since the PSL started in 1996. Certainly his deep knowledge of the local players sets the 49-year-old apart from most of his contemporaries. There are few who have as broad an understanding of the local game.
There are still many coaches at Premier Soccer League (PSL) level who have little faith in analysis, or bother too much about the opposition, but Mosimane has always striven to empower himself with an intimate knowledge of the game.
But his tactical repertoire is a little one-dimensional; on occasion Sundowns found themselves unable to adapt when taken out of their comfort zone. A good example was when Wits pressed the life out of the game in a 3-1 win in March. But it was the last time Sundowns lost a league match.
Since then, they have won 10 on the trot and sit on the brink of equalling their own record for a winning streak, if they succeed in their final match tomorrow.
Their run started against AmaZulu in a match in which they were severely depleted by injury and Mosimane was forced to take Surprise Moriri out of mothballs and play him as a striker. The coach was probably as surprised as many people at the impact the veteran made and has played ever since – his guile and ghosting ability fitting in perfectly with the attack.
Player of the year
Aljé Schut is the other unlikely hero of the campaign. Mosimane believes he should be the Footballer of the Year.
“Don’t you think he can become player of the year? Aljé Schut? He played all the games … consistently. I mean really, he’s my player of the year. At the age of 33, he deserves it. I don’t want to influence the journalists [who pick the winners], but if the winner of the award is not from Sundowns when Schut played this league the whole season and never dropped his standards once, then I don’t know.”
Schut, it should be remembered, does not count among Sundowns’ foreign contingent even though he is from the Netherlands and has been in South Africa for less than two years. They got him immediate permanent residence using legislation designed to make it easy for wealthy individuals to live in the country and contribute to the economy.
With those papers, he is able to play as a local and not take from the club’s quota of foreigners in a move that, while not illegal, is certainly unsporting and takes much of the gloss off the significant contribution of the veteran Dutch defender.
In the end, though, Sundowns were the best team by far this season and have the resources now to build a dynasty that could dominate for some time to come.
Mining magnate Patrice Motsepe missed his team’s win on Tuesday as he was away in New York on business, but will likely give Mosimane whatever he needs to take the team a step further. And, if next year they can conquer Africa, the real victor will be South African football.