By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – MAMELODI Sundowns are on the verge of completing the CAF Champions League’s greatest fairy-tale – from being plucked from the dumps of a humiliating Confederations Cup defeat to being crowned champions of Africa in the same year – if they can hold their nerve in Egypt this weekend.
The Brazilians need to defend a comprehensive 3-0 lead, against a Zamalek side they beat home and away in their CAF Champions League group battles – to become the first South African side to win Africa’s flagship inter-club football tournament in more than two decades.
Orlando Pirates are the only South African side to be crowned champions of Africa, when they won the old CAF African Cup of Club Champions in 1995, but Sundowns now have one hand on the rebranded CAF Champions League trophy after their sensational destruction of Zamalek in the first leg of the final in Pretoria last Saturday.
It was the third time, in the CAF Champions League this year, that Sundowns have defeated Zamalek after beating the five-time African champions 2-1 in Egypt and 1-0 in Pretoria in their group meetings.
Remarkably, Sundowns should have long lost interest in this CAF Champions League tournament after they were outplayed and knocked out by AS Vita in the second round, only for the Congolese giants to be disqualified for having fielded an ineligible player in a first round triumph over Mafunzo of Tanzania.
Sundowns, who dropped into the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup after their loss to AS Vita, then failed to defend a 3-1 first leg victory over Ghanaian lightweights Medeama SC to lose 0-2 in Ghana and crash out of the tournament.
Now, a team that even failed to negotiate a play-off battle in the CAF Confederation Cup could be crowned winners of the CAF Champions League in the same year, after Sundowns were provided a lifeline in the wake of AS Vita’s expulsion.
This has never happened before in the history of CAF inter-club tournaments.
And it appears both fate and history are working in Sundowns’ favour as only one side, Mouloudia Alger of Algeria in 1976, managed to overcome a three-goal first-leg deficit in the final.
“I’ve been in football too long to take anything for granted. We should remember that Zamalek scored four goals at home against Wydad Casablanca of Morocco in the semi-finals,” said Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane, whose side became the first South African club to win the home leg in the CAF Champions League final.
The last time the Brazilians reached the final of the CAF Champions League, in 2001, they were held to a 1-1 draw in the first leg in Pretoria by the other Egyptian giants, Al Ahly, with the Cairo side comfortably winning 3-0 in Cairo to win the title.
Six years earlier, Pirates were held to a 2-2 draw by Ivorian giants ASEC Mimosas in the first leg of the final before the Soweto giants sprang a surprise to win 1-0 in Abidjan and secure the title.
Fans packed the 30,000-seater stadium in Pretoria, in a rare show of support for the Brazilians in a country where the CAF inter-club matches don’t get the same spectator patronage like the local derbies, and they were treated to a three-goal feast as Sundowns made their mark and now just need to avoid a mauling in Alexandria to become champions of Africa.
“What you did to the team yesterday was simply amazing! Thank you for the support Masandawana! 90 minutes of football await,” the club said on its Twitter account.
South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said Sundowns were flying the national flag in a country where its representative football teams, including Bafana Bafana, haven’t provided, of late, the dividend one would expect from the massive funding that goes into the sport.
“Mamelodi Sundowns’ win was not just for the football club but for South Africa. They flew our flag high and represented us with distinction,” Mbalula said in a statement.
“As nation of patriots, South Africans watched the people of the city of Tshwane attend the match in their numbers showing maximum support,” he added.
Former Sundowns captain, Dutchman Alje Schut, also took to Twitter to salute his club.
“Wow! Incredible result! So proud of your achievements,” he gushed.
Sundowns, owned by billionaire mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, have always eyed success in the CAF Champions League as the ultimate triumph and, after their heroics in Pretoria on Saturday, only a meltdown in Alexandria this weekend will see them fail in this adventure in which fate has also played a very big part.