Pitso Mosimane restores honour to Club World Cup

At the end of January, we got one of the most febrile, pure footballing moments we’ve seen in the last year when Breno Lopes found the net in the 100th minute of Copa Libertadores final. 

His looping header painfully lingered in the air, watched all the way by the Santos keeper whose mistimed step forward left him powerless to act, before it mercifully plopped into the far corner. 

Breno Lopes shot off to the Palmeiras fans — the incredibly lucky 2 000-odd who had been chosen to attend this momentous all-Brazillian showcase in Rio’s famed Maracanã — who bustled for the privilege of embracing their hero. Their brethren back home in São Paulo similarly erupted. By all accounts, it was a phenomenal festival with thousands in green taking to the streets to celebrate earning the South American crown for the first time since 1999.

Of course, this frivolity was deeply in violation of social distancing protocols and, one might argue, greatly irresponsible in a country that has the second-most Covid-19 deaths in the world. But, as the red fireworks in Liverpool at the end of last season affirmed, there are pockets of emotion in football that are impossible to contain. These are moments you simply cannot legislate for. 

Authorities, then, will have been relieved to know that they should expect no repeat bursts of ecstasy in the coming weeks. By virtue of winning their continental competition, Palmeiras qualified for the Club World Cup, a tournament which, despite its lofty name, is unlikely to invoke anything close to the sentiment reserved for the Copa Libertadores. Indeed almost no one gives too much of a damn about this little excursion: from a competitive standpoint, it’s best a nice-to-win and, at worst, a fixture clogger. 

No one, that is, except a certain Pitso Mosimane

“If you are a club football coach, you can’t ask for more than this. There’s nothing bigger than this,” he told the South African Football Journalists’ Association on a Zoom call just before his flight to Qatar.

Where others see a nuisance, “Jingles” sees opportunity: specifically, the chance to pit both himself and African football against the best in the world. He has done precisely that over the past few days.

Semifinal spot

After seeing off the threat of local side Al Duhail SC, Mosimane’s Al Ahly set up a semifinal against Bayern Munich: the legendary Bavarians and undisputed powerhouse of world football at the moment.

With such an obvious gulf in resources and ability, the game had a fatalistic feel to it. Hans-Dieter Flick fielded the shiniest of weapons in his mega-rich arsenal — a collection of superstars who have won everything there is to win in European football. They inevitably bossed the game, steering the tempo at their own will. 

And yet, until Robert Lewandowski nodded in his brace in the 86th minute, the result was still technically in doubt. Al Ahly may have toiled in possession (31%), but they did so in the knowledge that it would have taken just one slip to punish their illustrious opponents.

Mosimane reiterated as much when it was put to him in the post-game presser that his side may have been “scared” to push forward lest they get pummelled. The South African coach, clearly offended by the suggestion, underlined the tactical necessity of looking for the counterattack while also taking pride in keeping the scoreline to a minimum. After all, this is the same Bayern that had slaughtered Barcelona with eight goals not that long ago.

The exchange highlights the disconnect between the generally apathetic attitude towards the Club World Cup and Mosimane’s own perception of it as a platform to test himself against the best. He was never going to put on an exhibition for the fans, media or anybody else. This was him against Flick: two equals staring at each other across a chessboard. Worth noting is that Flick had praised Mosimane before the match: “The coach is great. I sat with him for a short time, but I like his style very much.”

On the previous Zoom call, Mosimane explained that the competition presented a rare opportunity to measure African football against its far wealthier cousins in the West.

“For me, it’s more about a personal challenge,” he said. 

“I moved to Egypt to find bigger challenges. Once you have won everything — and I think the challenge came when we won the treble — you ask yourself, ‘What else should I do now? What more?’ Of course, there is more to do, but I want it to be on a bigger stage where [the world] can see what the continent is doing. So what is in it for me? [To see] what am I capable of, what can I do. That’s why I’m here: to test the waters.” 

Mosimane was visibly displeased after he ultimately failed to usurp Bayern. After all, this was the first time he had lost in his highly successful five months at Al Ahly. Many would consider a maiden blemish coming from the European champions as an honour in and of itself. 

The fact that Mosimane does not, explains why he is arguably the continent’s greatest hope to take our football to the next level.

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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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