The duel for the Mandela Cup

Kaizer Chiefs, Moroka Swallows and Orlando Pirates might be immersed in lucrative sponsorships, record gate takings and fanatical support, but in some ways, the clubs of Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana are Southern Africa’s real winners.

Teams with obscure names like Matlama, Gaborone United, RDLF, Mbabane Swallows and Highlanders annually compete against the cream of Africa in two competitions from which South Africans are barred. Both are run by the Confederation of African Football (CAP), the sport’s controlling body in Africa, which is based in Cairo and has refused to readmit South Africa until apartheid is abolished.

Ironically, South Africa’s white footballing body, the Football Association of SA (Fasa), was one of the three founder members of CAF in 1958 along with Egypt and Ethiopia. But South Africa never got to compete, for no sooner was CAF formed than Fasa was expelled for its whites-only policy. CAF has two intra-continental club competitions each year, for the champions and cup winners in each of its 47 member countries.

The African Champions Cup is the most prestigious, run on the same lines as the European Cup. This tournament has long been a measure of African football power. In 1985, Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces club won the cup, and then provided the bulk of the national team that shone at the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

Last year, the Champions Cup was won by Zamalek of Egypt, and the national squad clinched the biennial ‘ African Nations Cup. Not far behind in status is the African Cup Winners’ Cup, also dominated by North African countries, but renowned for its annual quota of shock results.

Last year, Egypt’s glamour team, National or Al Ahly won the tournament for the third consecutive year and earned the right to keep the General Abdelazziz Mostafa trophy, named after the Egyptian soldier who is a vice-president of Fifa. The new trophy, sponsored by CAF, has been called the Nelson Mandela Cup, making South
Africa’s inability to take part even more frustrating.

On the same weekend as more than 60 000 people jammed Ellis Park to watch the Ohlsson’s Challenge semi-finals, Maseru played host to a Champions Cup first round tie between local team Matlama and the strong Ugandan outfit, Nakivubo Villa Sports. Villa, in February, won the eight-nation East and Central African Challenge Cup, and were always going to be too strong for Matlama, who would struggle in the NSL’s second division.

In the first leg of the tie three weeks ago in Kampala Villa coasted to a 4-0 win. Three weeks later, they flew to Maseru, via Johannesburg, for the return. CAF rules stipulate that the host country foots the bill for a 22-strong party, pays hotel costs and gives players and officials a $30 a day (about R60) living allowance.

Lesotho’s sporting authorities ensured their visitors were housed in the worst hotel in Maseru, forced to take more than three connecting flights before reaching Maseru, and given limited training facilities before the game. The neutral match commissioner, who oversees the match, and the three match officials were, however, booked into the swanky Lesotho Sun and pampered by their hosts. Even so, Villa still scored an easy win, 1-0, in the game at the Pitso Ground, where the pitch has more potholes than tufts of grass.

The striking aspect of the proceedings is the formal tone in which they are conducted. Surprisingly, this match started on time, for in Africa it is customary to wait for the honoured dignitaries to arrive before kicking off.

In Botswana last year, a large crowd had to wait for almost an hour before President Quett Masire pitched up to cheer the team on in a friendly against Malawi. After the teams were formally introduced to the president, a rag-tag band played both national anthems, and then Masire took the field again, to kick off officially.

In the Maseru game, this honour fell to Lesotho’s Minister of Sport, whose kick showed little football prowess and skewed over the far touchline. The two captains then tossed up, posed for pictures and exchanged pennants commemorating the occasion. Only then did the football begin.

The obvious weakness of the Southern African sides — Matlama’s qualification for the quarter-finals of the 1978 Champions, Cup is their best performance — makes it difficult to analyse the major African clubs that have played against them. Villa never switched into top gear and were content with their early second half goal and a 5-0 aggregate lead.

But what is apparent is that the style of Soccer differs considerably from the flashy South African habits. With European coaches now common in East, Central and West. Africa the African game bas become a lot mom disciplined. There are still the flashes of brilliance that characterise the continent’s football, but they are kept in check for the right moment — unlike in the South African game. Passing is accurate and frequent, and defences are tighter and more ruthless.

Sportsmanship is always evident, as players rarely exchange words with officials, and apologise profusely after cynical fouls. Undoubtedly South African football will pay for its isolation when the country returns to CAP competition. But with the depth of talent here, it should take no more than three or four years to wipe out the backlog, and make South Africa a power on the absorbing African football scene.

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