Sundowns shake the foundations

What if Phakamani Mahlambi had arrived in the box just a shade earlier and had not been able to drive the Mamelodi Sundowns’ final nail into the Al Ahly sarcophogus? Moments like that candefine empires or bring down dynasties.

Until last Saturday, Al Ahly’s biggest recent defeat came in their 2013 Club World Cup 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Mexican side Monterrey.

When Mahlambi, who himself flunked out of the Egyptian club just months ago, made it 5-0 he triggered the biggest loss the club has endured in 77 years. The smashing of the near century-long precedent sent reverberations that were felt beyond the sands of the Sahara.

The men responsible have been forced to their knees to beg for their jobs. “I would like to send a message to the Al Ahly fans who attended the game in South Africa, as well as the ones who watched the game on TV. We are sorry,” Uruguayan manager Martín Lasarte has since spluttered out. “We are embarrassed and apologise to you. There is nothing else to be said. We will talk less and work more from now on.”

His boss, chairperson Mahmoud El Khatib, was having none of it and called an urgent meeting during the week to demand answers from the players and the coaching staff. One suspects the broader inquisition will continue well into the postseason.

There’s no guarantee that Al Ahly, by far the most successful team on the continent, will be able to resuscitate itself. Gone are the days when Essam El-Hadary celebrating a new trophy atop his goalposts was synonymous with the competition.

The fall is indicative of that which Egyptian football as a whole has experienced. Years of military rule have forcefully limited crowds and, by all accounts, have sucked much of the magic out of the game.

The effects on the pitch are now being felt more keenly than ever: May will mark the first time in three years that an Egyptian side is not in the final.

Sundowns don’t really care about all that. Barring a miraculous intervention in the second leg in Cairo this weekend, the magnitude of which hasn’t been seen since Moses parted the sea in these parts, they’ll be in the CAF Champions League semifinals, standing pretty with a real chance of going all the way.

That’s no novelty either, the Brazilians having won the whole thing in 2016. But this time something’s different. This time there’s opportunity to leave a lasting mark instead of an erasable dent.

By taking a 5-0 sized bite out of Africa’s big dog, Pitso Mosimane has legitimate cause to claim that he’s now the alpha of the yard. Three-nil could have been passed off as a mishap — not so with this mauling.

One of the coach’s first actions of celebration was to compare Themba Zwane, a key catalyst of the result, with Andrés Iniesta. In the context of club football on the continent, that’s not a ridiculous exaggeration. In players like him, Gastón Sirino and Lebohang Maboe, Mosimane has an attack that can dictate the pace against any opposition put in front of it.

Love it or loathe it, the strategy of hoarding every talented individual in sight is about to pay off in a huge way. We’ve already seen the dividends locally. How long until it has a sustained push beyond our borders?

South Africa has never been home to an African giant. To everyone, the prospect of one emerging to claim the vacant throne should be tantalising.

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Luke Feltham

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

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