It’s Sundowns’ time to shine
The biblical Lazarus would surely not have minded another brief resurrection just to share in the euphoria that erupted in the wake of Mamelodi Sundowns’ unbelievable feat in winning the coveted Confederation of African Football African Champions League title.
The reigning Absa Premier League champions from Tshwane were bundled out of the competition in April after losing on the away-goals rule to their nemesis, AS Vita Club of Congo, in April.
Downs’ hopes of becoming continental champions were dead and buried after the defeat by Vita relegated them to the less prestigious CAF Confederation Cup.
But, in May, a miracle came in the form of the continental body giving Sundowns a lifeline after kicking out Vita Club from the tournament as punishment for fielding an ineligible player in the early stages of the competition.
Like Lazarus who was dead and buried until he was brought back to life by a miracle, Sundowns miraculously found themselves in the group stages.
The lifeline seemed to give the yellow brigade from Tshwane a new lease on life, a killer spring in their step, which saw them slay all in their path to be crowned African champions in October.
Sundowns did not just beat their formidable opposition, which included former continental champions Enyimba and Zamalek along the way, they beat them well and convincingly, like a team powered by some divine force.
They have conquered Africa, and now world glory beckons in the Fifa Club World Cup, which kicked off in Japan on Thursday this week. Even though the game of football is played under the same rules, with the same size of ball, on the same type of field with the same measurements the world over, the world stage could be a completely different ball game for Downs.
It has been nearly two decades since a South African team played in an official intercontinental club competition, and most would prefer it remain forgotten. Orlando Pirates, then reigning African champions, took on Korean club side Cheonan Ilhwa Chunma in the now defunct Afro-Asian Club Championship.
The Fifa-recognised tournament, which was discontinued in 1999, featured the winners of the African Champions’ Cup and the Asian Club Championship.
In December 1995, Pirates had what remains arguably to date the best squad in the club’s 80-year history. But in the heat and humidity of the brawling, bustling metropolis of Seoul, Africa’s best were reduced to complete amateurs in a 5-0 roasting by Ilhwa Chunma.
History doesn’t count for much in football though. Legendary SABC Setswana football commentator Clement Cebo has a famous phrase for that — “therefore doesn’t count in football”.
Basically, because Bucs were humiliated in intercontinental football all those years ago, when most of the Sundowns players were running barefoot in villages and townships, doesn’t mean the Brazilians are destined to suffer the same fate.
Sundowns are set to face the winner of the opening clash of the club champs, which features Japanese champions Kashima Antlers and New Zealand’s Auckland City.
In the same tournament last year, then African Champions TP Mazembe were humbled 3-0 by San Frecce Hiroshima in the quarterfinal and went down 2-1 to Club de Futbol America in the fifth place play-off. No African team has ever won the Club World Cup since its inception in 2000.
It wasn’t a particularly bad showing by Mazembe, a club renowned for its direct football anchored by robust, tight marking and sometimes even kung fu-style tackling. But what does Downs take to the world that Mazembe didn’t?
The boys whose club has its ancestral beginnings in slummy but vibrant Marabastad bring flair, skill and style. On top of that, they have dollops of that carefree swag, unique to the streets of South African townships.
Under their shrewd, passionate coach, Mr Football himself, Pitso Mosimane, the Brazilians have managed to do what many local teams have struggled to put together.
Mosimane, whose desire for winning and perfection sometimes borders on the unjust, has succeeded in fusing that stylish South African flair and skill with tight European discipline, the grit of North Africa and tactical genius of Latin America.
As a result, Sundowns have ceased being just a South African team but have become a world team if there ever was anything like that. Watching Sundowns matches, even when a result doesn’t go their way, is often like sitting through a stimulating 90-minute football lecture.
Mosimane, who is revered for his football knowledge and for his thorough analysis and dissection of the opposition, would do well not to change his winning formula going into the tournament.
South African society has this obsession with imitating everything that comes from across the seas, from music, fashion, hey, even accents, very much to the detriment of its own development and progress.
Perhaps it’s time the world got a taste of what South African football can offer, just as the Mahotella Queens and Ladysmith Black Mambazo have managed to do in the world of music.
As much as football is about winning, the best Sundowns can do going into this tournament featuring the likes of Real Madrid is to play the type of game that has made them African champions.
Sundowns have an opportunity to cause the same sensation that Roger Milla and his Cameroon teammates created at Italia 1990.
Ranked as underdogs, the West Africans lit up the football world with a fine display of skill, flair and grit that earned them a shock 1-0 win over world champions Argentina. They followed this up with a sensational win over Columbia and shocked rigid, long-ball specialists England with an electrifying performance in the knockout stages.
Cameroon lost that match against England 2-3 but their performance earned African football renewed respect the world over and opened more doors for players from the continent to ply their trade in the lucrative European leagues.
Even if Sundowns don’t lift the Fifa Club World Cup, they have an opportunity to show the world what South African football is all about. A fine display by the men from Pretoria will no doubt focus the eyes of the world on our shores.
For this crop of Masandawana, they would do well playing the game the way they know best, with scouts aplenty keeping a hawk’s eye on matches in a bid to lure special talent to the big time in Europe.
Win or lose, it’s Downs’ time to shine.