/ 22 May 2008

The anti-Brazilian

Mpumalanga Black Aces coach Kenny Ndlazi, who will lead his side to the Nedbank Cup final on Saturday at the Johannesburg Stadium, has at least one attribute nobody can take away.

He is the only South African coach to occupy the bench when a South African national team beat their Brazilian counterparts.

Record books will show that Ephraim ”Shakes” Mashaba was the coach when a South African team scored its greatest international victory — beating Brazil 3-1 in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But Mashaba had to watch that match from the stands and it was up to Ndlazi to bark instructions from the bench.

It was a special evening and celebrations went on well into the night — so much so that the team had nothing left to give in their next match and crashed to Slovakia, to miss out on the quarterfinals.

Who could blame that blessed generation of youngsters: Steve Lekoelea, Matthew Booth, Benni McCarthy and their teammates had upset a Brazilian team made up of the likes of Ronaldinho, Alex, Edu and Baiano.

Ndlazi has another chance to upset Brazilians. But these, known more formally as Mamelodi Sundowns, are just down the road from the infamous Moloto road that links Pretoria with the Mpumalanga area in which Black Aces have their headquarters.

Aces have played in three cup finals before this weekend’s match. They won two and lost the other.

They beat Orlando Pirates 1-0 at the Orlando Stadium to win the BP Top Eight in one of local football’s major historic upsets. Meshack ”Touch” Mukwevho scored the goal while Pirates star Amos ”Heel Extension” Mkhari missed a penalty.

Then they lost 1-0 to the Thomas Hlongwane- and Joel ”Ace” Mnini-inspired Moroka Swallows team in 1993’s Bob Save Superbowl. Mnini scored the decisive goal, one of the best seen in a cup final.

In their last cup victory Richard Peer scored a splendid free kick to silence the Kaizer Chiefs majority. It proved to be the beginning of the end of a great football institution.

The victory saw the club qualify for the continental Cup Winners Cup the following season. Two years later the club suffered irreparably from the financial and physical toll that travels across Africa inflicted. They were relegated to the second tier and have never returned to the top flight.

This season they finished fifth in the inland stream of the first division. Success in the cup and the backing of 7 000-odd fans who watch their home games should go some way to restoring their position.

They are fondly referred to as AmaZayoni Abafundisi — because of the blue and white colours they share with the Zionist churches.

Though the impatience and short memories of fans suggest otherwise, in Sundowns Aces meet a team that have made it to the final of every local competition they entered this season.

They won the SAA Top Eight, beating Pirates 1-0; they lost to Chiefs on penalties in the Telkom Cup final; and now they have Aces on their radar.

Sundowns finished fourth. While this and the number of cup final appearances this year would see other clubs crow about their performance, the high standards of their billionaire president, Patrice Motsepe, prompted them to look back on the season with shame. It did not help that Free State Stars hammered them 4-0 in their last game of the season.

Winning against Aces is therefore a requirement if they are to save face. This should spell bad news for Aces and their loyal fans.

Sundowns are by far the best team in the country, far ahead of the first division’s also-rans. On playing personnel alone, there is no reason that Sundowns should lose to Aces.

Aces, to their credit, have experienced players such as Edilbert Dinha, Lucas Tlhomelang, Michel Babale and his countrymen Felix Mwamba Musasa and Kapamba Musasa, their top goalscorer in the competition with three goals.

But these are all players whose powers are in decline.

Sundowns, on the other hand, features players at the height of their abilities. Esrom Nyandoro, Surprise Moriri, Mbulelo Mabizela and Josta Dladla each deserve a place in their country’s national teams.

Aces have achieved much and will be proud to have gone as far as they have. But hoping to beat Sundowns might just be a bridge too far.

Then again, Ndlazi will be on the bench and might just feel that he has not received the respect he deserves. More importantly, Sundowns might just find out the painful way that Ndlazi does indeed have the Brazilians’ number.