CHAMPIONS Sundowns ride their luck to glory

By Robson Sharuko

HARARE-A GRAND masterplan, which has been three years in the making, finally bore fruit for Mamelodi Sundowns under the lights of the Borg El Arab Stadium in the Egyptian city of Alexandria on Sunday night as the Brazilians completed a fairy-tale campaign, written in the stars, to be crowned champions of African club football.

The Brazilians, with a playing staff that has a Southern African flair, held their nerve with a disciplined defensive show to preserve their impressive 3-0 first leg lead, losing only 0-1 in Alexandria at the hands of five-time African champions Zamalek, to become only the second South African club to win the continent’s premier inter-club tournament.

Sundowns had beaten Zamalek home and away, in their group battles, and arrived in Alexandria for the final showdown as odds-on favourites to lift the trophy after having outclassed the Egyptians in the first leg in Pretoria with a three-goal blitz and, crucially, without conceding a goal in that fixture.

And they showed impressive defensive muscle in Alexandria to limit the damage to just a single goal loss, while also creating some fine chances for themselves, to become African champions for the first time in their history.

Sundowns are only the second South African side to be crowned champions of Africa, 21 years after Orlando Pirates triumphed in the same competition after defying the odds to beat Ivorian giants ASEC Mimosas 1-0 in Abidjan in 1995, having been held to a 2-2 draw at home in Johannesburg.

The Brazilians, who have won two of the last three South African league titles under former national team coach Pitso Mosimane, have been planning for this African onslaught for the past three years through a programme that sought to toughen their players’ mentality, especially when playing away from home on the continent.

In the past three years, Sundowns have toured Zimbabwe, Ghana and Zambia, for their pre-season preparations, with Mosimane saying the adventures were important to toughen the mentality of players who are used to the comforts of playing on the lush football fields of South Africa and have, until now, found it difficult to cope when playing away from home.

“Some of these players have not participated in Africa before, and this trip is to give them an idea of what to expect,” Mosimane told reporters after his team played three matches during a five-day tour of Zimbabwe in 2013.

Sundowns beat Highlanders 1-0, thrashed CAPS United 4-1 and then settled for a goalless draw against Dynamos.

The Brazilians then toured Ghana and, only last year, they were in Zambia on a programme that was meant to ensure their players familiarise themselves with playing on the continent.

“We are doing our homework and we’ve also held our pre-season camps in Zimbabwe in the past two years and we are quite familiar with the environment,” Mosimane said ahead of a preliminary round battle against Chicken Inn in Bulawayo.

Robbed of the services of the inspirational Khama Billiat, through injury, Sundowns were outplayed by Chicken Inn at Barbourfields but limited the damage to just one goal and, in the second leg in Pretoria, with the Zimbabwean winger back in their line-up, they roared back to win 2-0, scoring a last-gasp penalty for the victory.

They then held AC Leopards 1-1 in Brazzaville and beat their Congolese rivals 2-0 in Pretoria to qualify for the second round where they, once again, limited the damage in Kinshasa to just a one-goal defeat against a strong AS Vita but, with the Congolese giants scoring in a 1-2 defeat in Pretoria, Sundowns were eliminated on the away goals rule.

Relegated to the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup, Sundowns crashed out in the first play-off round after losing 0-2 in Ghana to Medeama SC, ensuring their 3-1 first leg victory became academic on the away goals rule.

However, AS Vita were punished for having fielded an ineligible player, during a first round tie against Tanzanian side Mafunzo, and their expulsion saw Sundowns being reinstated in the CAF Champions League where, given a new lease of life, the South African side grabbed it with both hands.

They won in Algeria, beating ES Setif 2-0 in their first group game marred by violence, with the home team’s fans running riot following the loss, forcing CAF to disqualify the Algerians from the tournament and also nullify the result of the match.

But Sundowns continued to show remarkable spirit, away from home, as they beat Zamalek 2-1 in Egypt, with Billiat on target, before losing to former African champions Enyimba in Nigeria when their place in the semi-finals had already been secured.

The Brazilians were outplayed in the first leg of their semi-final by ZESCO United in Zambia but, once again, they limited the damage to just the deficit of a single goal, thanks to Billiat’s priceless late goal, and in Pretoria they ran away 2-0 winners to book their place in the final for a date against Zamalek.

A 3-0 first leg victory at home virtually ended the contest, but with Zamalek having thrashed Moroccan side Wydad Casablanca 4-0 in Cairo in their semi-final battle, there were fears Sundowns could be ripped apart in Alexandria but their indomitable spirit, built over three years of pre-season tours in African states, saw them repel the Egyptian side’s blitzkrieg and limit the damage to just one goal.

South African President Jacob Zuma led his country as it celebrated Sundowns’ triumph.

“It is indeed a glorious moment in South Africa and we congratulate Mamelodi Sundowns players, technical team and its entire management for representing us very well in this historically difficult continental championship and earned South Africa another star,” President Zuma said in a statement published on the official website of the country’s Presidency.

“We are extremely proud of Sundowns for their remarkable achievement and we firmly believe that this excellent performance will take South Africa to higher levels in the international football fraternity.”

Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula even gave a rousing speech in the dressing room after Sundowns won the CAF Champions League after arriving in Alexandria as part of a high-powered delegation that also included Bafana Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba. “When we go back home, we have made history and I am proud to be part of this history and to be here,” said Mbalula in a video recorded as he hailed Sundowns as a “bunch of winners”.