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Loyalty and loathing in the Champions League

One of the more remarkable football interviews took place amid the detritus of a Sundowns/Wydad Casablanca game in early 2019 in Pretoria. A furious Pitso Mosimane entered the press area still screaming at the enemy he had been warring with for the past 90 minutes.

Eventually turning his attention to the microphone in front of him he blurted: “They do this to us in Morocco! We go anywhere, everybody bullies us. It’s about time Sundowns comes up and plays Champions League. They come to South Africa and want to bully us? No, local[ly] we know what to do – if people bully us we give it back. Gone are the days … The North Africans are always bullying everybody, they don’t want to lose.”

The battle lines could not have been more clearly marked if he had drawn them with the groundsman’s chalk. 

Indeed, throughout his career in South African football, Mosimane has never hidden the glee it brought him to slay North African giants, to be the pest they could never swat away for good. Having won the Champions League in 2016, his side was perpetually the problem team no one wanted to draw.

Ultimately the sub-Saharan renaissance he threatened has never been fully realised – a team from the region hasn’t appeared in the final since that victory. 

Until now. And in an unexpected twist of fate, Mosimane is on the other side. 

He has the opportunity to make it back-to-back titles when his Al-Ahly of Egypt confront Kaizer Chiefs in the CAF Champions League final next Saturday. The South African side will be shooting for their first “star”, joining rivals Orlando Pirates and Sundowns as the only teams from the country to have won the Champions League.    

Compounding his internal conflict is the fact that Mosimane was raised an Amakhosi, a Chiefs fan.

“But at this point in time it’s about me and my family and my team. Those come first,” he told the SA Football Journalists’ Association over a Zoom call this week. “It’s either I want to give the medal to [Stuart] Baxter or I want to keep it. And I think you know the answer.

“It would be nice for another South African team to get a star, to be honest, if I look at the other side. It will be a boost for our country to have three big teams with a star, why not? But we are not a welfare or charitable organisation of handing out stars here. You have to earn it.” 

As much as he undoubtedly loved the Sundowns project and everything it represented, Mosimane could not resist the allure of Africa’s most successful team. At the time of his signature he reasoned it was akin to an advance by Real Madrid or Barcelona — a call you simply can’t say no to.

Al Ahly fans cheer before the CAF Champions League quarterfinal first-leg soccer match between Al-Ahly and Mamelodi Sundowns at Cairo Stadium in Cairo, Egypt, 29 February 2020 (Photo by Ziad Ahmed/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Where he once fought against the legacy of North African football it is now Intimately tied to his own. Victory next weekend will earn Al Ahly title number 10; or in local parlance El Ashra — inspired by Madrid’s La Decima.

As novel as the final dynamic is, the sight of Mosimane will be sickenly familiar to Chiefs. His most successful period back home ran adjacent to some of the Soweto Giants’ most painful. Labouring under a six-year trophy drought that belies the club’s stature, the famous team from Soweto was forced to watch as their Mamelodi rivals hoarded both talent and silverware. Even his parting gift, tellingly, was to snatch the domestic league from their desperate clutches in the last 30 minutes of the 2020 season.

Chiefs have endured a peculiar year since his departure. To rectify the final-day disappointment, Gavin Hunt —  another of South Africa’s elite coaches —  was appointed manager. But what in theory was a dream marriage quickly turned to divorce following pathetic domestic form. 

What he had managed to do, however, was hang around in the Champions League. Scot Stuart Baxter, upon returning to helm his former club, finished the job. Something about the competition was calling this season.

“To be honest I’d like to know what happened in that story,” Mosimane says of Chiefs’ continental journey. “It’s very awkward, I’ve never seen something like this. One day you’re good, six months later you’re completely different; and you have the same players. 

“Kaizer Chiefs are in the final because they play a different type of football, especially away. They can hold on, they are strong with set pieces, they have good height.” 

With historical prestige now in his corner, the pressure is on Mosimane to solve the underdog’s enigma. In doing so he will deny his homeland what would be a momentous accomplishment.

When he first entered his new Cairo palace, The Continent wrote of his appointment: “It would seem the fate of South African, Egyptian and African pride intersect in a manner never before seen on the football pitch.” Never has that sentiment been more accurate than this weekend.

This story first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. To subscribe, send a WhatsApp/Signal message to +27 73 805 6068.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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