Mamelodi Sundowns have had some hairy journeys in their quest for continental glory before, but this weekend’s Confederation of African Football Champions League fixture in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo will test the veracity of their ambitions and the resilience of their players.
The Premier Soccer League leaders are just two matches away from reaching the group phase of the CAF competition and sharing the spoils of its television and marketing revenue – even though cash is of little concern for Patrice Motsepe’s team.
But in order to reach the last eight, Sundowns must get through the final round of knockout qualifying, where their opponent is AS Vita Club, the biggest team in a giant country, although no longer its richest and most successful.
Both Congolese and, to a lesser extent, African club football have been dominated in recent years by TP Mazembe from Lubumbashi in the south of the country, bringing an end to the long-standing dominance of clubs from the capital.
But while Mazembe were emerging victorious in last year’s Champions League, Vita won the Congolese championship and there is, therefore, no doubting the validity of their pedigree as they await the arrival of the South African club.
It will be a testing weekend in a city where visiting teams rarely feel welcome. In fact, the DRC has previously been banned for a year from participating in pan-African competition after CAF grew tired of the repeated complaints from visiting clubs about the treatment they received in Kinshasa.
Rickety buses, poor training facilities, lousy hotels and general aggression are standard fare. Sundowns, hopefully, will have made alternate arrangements to counter some of that gamesmanship.
Sunday afternoon’s game is at the Tata Raphaël Stadium, a dilapidated venue traditionally filled to its 50 000 capacity by rabid fans. Usually there is a fair contingent from the city’s other big team, Daring Club Motema Pembe, who come specifically to support whoever Vita are playing against – even if they are foreign.
Jomo Sono had told of his bemusement when he finally figured out why there were so many cheers for his Jomo Cosmos team when they played at the stadium in 1993.
Sundowns host the return leg in Atteridgeville on Wednesday April 20, as CAF experiments for the first time with midweek matches for the annual club competition.
But before that, Pitso Mosimane’s side have plenty else on their plate.
Sundowns return home on Monday and are scheduled to play two days later in the league, in a poor reflection of PSL planning. They should have played their game at Polokwane City last Wednesday before the trip to Kinshasa.
Sundowns are also still in the Nedbank Cup, which adds to their workload – and the danger of imploding, while not realistic, is still possible. Their last league match held out the potential of equalling the record for an unbeaten run in all domestic competitions – 19 in total – but they conspired to lose to struggling Bloemfontein Celtic at home.