By Robson Sharuko
HARARE–KHAMA Billiat’s quest for greatness enters a defining period on Saturday when Mamelodi Sundowns host Egyptian giants Zamalek in the first leg of the 2016 CAF Champions League final amid fears the South Africans’ challenge could wilt under the burden of fatigue accumulated from 15 months of non-stop football.
The 26-year-old high-flying Zimbabwe international forward has been the leading light in Sundowns’ battle to become champions of Africa, for the first time in the club’s history, just four months after being crowned champions of South Africa for the second time in three seasons.
Billiat was voted Footballer of the Season in South Africa, after his dominant displays inspired the Brazilians to success in the league, and has also played a very huge role in inspiring Sundowns to their first appearance in the CAF Champions League final in 15 years.
The Pretoria side are hoping to get it right, this time around, after they crashed to a heavy 1-4 aggregate loss in the final of the 2001 CAF Champions League where they, ironically, met another Egyptian giant, Al Ahly, who have won the tournament eight times.
Al Ahly, who set a benchmark for success in African football in 2005 as they went for 46 games in the Egyptian Premier League, Cup and Super Cup and in the CAF Champions League, without defeat, are Zamalek’s biggest rivals.
Sundowns have already beaten Zamalek in the two group matches they played against each other in the CAF Champions League this year, with Billiat scoring the winning goal in a 2-1 victory in Cairo, but things have changed since then and the Egyptians – who scored seven goals in their semi-final showdown against Wydad Casablanca of Morocco – will start the final as slight favourites.
After all, they will host the decisive second leg at home at the famed Cairo International Stadium on October 23 and the club chairman, Mortada Mansour, wants the country’s authorities to allow them to let in a capacity 100,000 crowd for the showdown against Sundowns.
Large crowds have only been allowed at few football matches in Egypt since 72 Al Ahly fans died in violent disturbances in Port Said four years ago and there were only 5,000 fans at the Petrosport Stadium when Zamalek hosted Sundowns in their 2016 CAF Champions League group game this year.
“I held talks with Egyptian presidency officials,” Mansour told the Egyptian media. “I talked with them to allow for 100,000 fans – they assured me they will discuss that with the Ministry of Interior.”
Last year, 22 Zamalek fans died when they clashed with police in Cairo following violent disturbances in a league match against city rivals ENPPI.
Two months ago, Sundowns would have been odds-on favourites to win the contest but there are fears that the Pretoria side, who have been playing non-stop football since August last year, are beginning to feel the effects of burn-out from a very long season.
They suffered a humbling 0-3 defeat in the MTN8 Cup final at the hands of Bidvest Wits recently with their star players, like Billiat, barely coming to the party.
Former South African international striker, Phil Masinga, who also played for Sundowns during a very successful career that also took him to Europe, says he fears for the Brazilians.
“I feel sorry for them because most of the players they haven’t rested. They have to keep on playing because of the Champions League and somewhere somehow it is going to catch up with them,” Masinga told Goal.com.
“I mean, it’s exactly what’s happened with Pirates. I don’t blame (Eric) Tinkler for the run Pirates had last season in the league.
“The problem with our football is the calendar. We have copied the European calendar without thinking about what’s going to happen in our own continent with our own calendar.
“Now players are getting less rest and then they have to go and perform. These people are not machines, they are not cars that you have to start and function with oil.
“I think Sundowns will feel it hard along the way.”
Billiat has been a key member of the Warriors in their successful adventure in the 2017 Nations Cup qualifiers, while his partner in attack, Keegan Dolly, also played for South Africa at the Olympic Games in Brazil.
Another member of that attack, Colombian striker Leonardo Castro, has already succumbed to the challenges of a very long season after being ruled out of the CAF Champions League final matches because of an ankle injury.
But there is defiance in the Sundowns’ camp.
“The team is in high spirits after a successful season,” Billiat told CAF’s official website.
“We are eager to make history by becoming the second South African team to win the CAF Champions League after Orlando Pirates.
“But sure, it will not be easy.”
And, should Sundowns win the CAF Champions League, it will provide another headache for Warriors coach Callisto Pasuwa who badly needs a fresh Billiat to lead his team’s attack at the 2017 Nations Cup finals in Gabon next January.
A victory over Zamalek will see Sundowns playing in the FIFA Club World Cup in December this year and this means Billiat, who was rested by Pasuwa from the Warriors’ final Nations Cup qualifier in Guinea, will not have a break and will have been playing non-stop football for 18 months by the time the African football festival gets underway.
Billiat’s handlers are hoping that their man impresses in the CAF Champions League final and, hopefully, in the FIFA Club World Cup and then the 2017 Nations Cup finals for him to showcase his talent to a global audience of possible suitors as they angle to take him to Europe either in January next year or in August.