Taking on Africa, Sundowns’ style

Bars across Gauteng contained some unusual dynamics on the evening of October 23 2016. Football supporters had put aside day-to-day allegiances and flocked to support Mamelodi Sundowns’ attempt to reach the African summit. A victory for them would be one for all of us.

It was no different when Orlando Pirates gave a second continental title a go in 2013. The resultant pain of failure was palpable across the country’s media, players, coaches and fanbases.

Arguably, what we encounter in this moment is more nuanced than an opportunity to fly our flag. This is the defence of the way we play the game.

The team that could so recently call themselves champions of the continent haven’t been doing so hot. Even the cringe of last year’s early exit wasn’t enough to provide a kickstart to the campaign as Nigerian host Lobi Stars walked away 2-1 winners in the opener. Not a good start — especially with giants Wydad Casablanca travelling to Pretoria tomorrow.

The Moroccans have been a constant migraine to the Brazilians — claiming their title in 2017 after knocking them out and holding them to two draws last year.

“It’s a team which plays like us and it’s a very difficult team to beat,” Kennedy Mweene said from the team’s Chloorkop base this week. “I think it is overdue against Wydad. I don’t think we’re looking at revenge. We’re just looking at winning the games at home and getting the three points. All we want is just to get out of the group stage. There is pride. They know the kind of team we are and we know the kind of team they are.”

In the loss to Lobi Stars, Mweene was a more than able backup for Denis Onyango — named CAF’s goalkeeper of the year two weeks ago. The Zambian was repeatedly on hand to forcefully beat the ball away after the Nigerians had barged their way past a fluffy backline.

But his safety net could only mask the physical dominance of the opposition for so long and by their first goal it was laid bare. A rising header knocking a long ball into the box is a level of route-one football rarely seen in the modern professional game. Such a rudimentary style evidently took Sundowns by surprise and has left them contemplating their approach when they cross our borders.

Locally they have been unbeatable. This week marked a full year since they last fell in the PSL — a 3-1 defeat to the Buccaneers. In that time they have won the league comfortably and, in theory at least, should top it now considering the number of games in hand.

READ MORE: Teething Sundowns ready to bite

Africa has not only got the better of them, but has also been a reflection of their own mortality. It’s a reminder that a strong hammer is more than capable of smashing diamonds brought in from around the world. “You can be a good player in the PSL but when you go into Africa it’s something else,” Mweene continues. “Slowly but surely we’re getting there and I think the new players are starting to understand what kind of football is being played in Africa.

“The kind of football that’s being played there is awkward. It’s hit and run there, whereas here you know teams pass; they play football. But in Africa, it’s tough and they use a lot of their bodies. You know that we don’t have such big guys in South Africa. It’s not that it’s very high in the CAF, only that the football that is being played there is awkward.”

Sundowns are our champions. What does it say about our league if they are dumped out of the group stages? Lose to Wydad and that possibility begins to look clearer.

SuperSport United fans may not be lining up to cheer Masandawana like that day in 2016, but many among us will be hoping that our country’s flair will be enough to conquer the continent’s best once more.

The full effect and beauty of that style was on show only three minutes into the new year as Anthony Laffor finished after a slick one-two with Gaston Sirino. The Uruguayan’s gorgeous return lob finding his man and bypassing the Kaizer Chiefs defence was a move right out of Playstation Fifa. A true advert for our game.

Laffor benefited from the pass-and-move game against Lobi Stars as well when he grabbed the ultimately ineffectual opener. Often reduced to a bit-part player himself, he’s confident the Brazilians have enough depth to challenge in the Champions League without having to sacrifice their identity.

“The goal that I scored in Nigeria is the only goal I’m thinking about,” the Liberian said when he was asked to reflect on his strike at the FNB Stadium.

“It’s going to be crazy but like I say we are prepared for that, we have a big squad this season. Everybody wants to play and anybody that does is willing to work for the team. We just pray that things go well for us in the Champions League this season.

It’s not going to be easy but we are Sundowns. Most of the teams are resting but we’re going to be playing football. That’s our job, we like it and we respect that we have to work for the club. There’s no room for excuse.”

Despite the bad start, there has been very little noise around Chloorkop about possible changes in style. This team has achieved too much success to consider backing down in the face of a challenge now. As much hope as there is for it to work, failure will cause it to take a rather stubborn look backward.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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