Sundowns’ never-ending football season could break all records
By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – African club champions Mamelodi Sundowns’ never-ending marathon season – which has been ongoing for 22 months and has seen them cover more than 137 328 kilometres and gobble about 195 hours flying time around the continent and right to the edges of Asia – could break records for a football club should the South African giants’ success story continue this year.
The Pretoria club powered to their first CAF Champions League title last year are now attempting to become the first club, since Egyptian powerhouse Al Ahly won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 and will get their group campaign underway this weekend against St George of Ethiopia.
With the six CAF Champions’ League group games set for the next eight weeks, up to the end of next month, it means Sundowns – who normally would have been off-season around that time – will, once again, be in the thick of action in their quest for greatness.
Coach Pitso Mosimane and his men missed their traditional off-season last year when they were reinstated in the CAF Champions League, following the disqualification of Congolese giants AS Vita from the tournament, for having used an ineligible player in an earlier round against Tanzanian side Mafunzo.
Sundowns had lost to AS Vita, in a second round battle, but that defeat was nullified when the Kinshasa side were expelled from the tournament, with the South Africans being given a lifeline, which they used fully as they went on to become champions of the continent.
A campaign, pregnant with off-the-field drama, fittingly started in chaos in Algeria when Sundowns shocked their hosts, ES Setif, in their first group game and the Algerian fans could not take the defeat and rioted at the end of the match.
ES Setif were subsequently expelled from the tournament and what as initially a four-team group was left to just the three clubs – Sundowns, Zamalek of Egypt and Enyimba of Nigeria – to battle out for the two tickets into the semi-finals.
Sundowns beat five-time champions Zamalek home-and-away in their group battles and when they defeated two-time champions Enyimba in Pretoria, they qualified for the semi-finals, effectively rendering their final game in Nigeria, which they lost, largely academic.
Victory over Zambian side Zesco United in the semi-finals saw Sundowns take on Zamalek, in the final, and a 3-0 victory in the first leg in Pretoria effectively sealed the contest and a 0-1 loss in Alexandria could not stop them from being crowned champions for the first time in their history.
To get that far, Sundowns had travelled to and from Bulawayo, when they took on Chicken Inn in the preliminary round of the tournament, then defeated AC Leopards of Congo-Brazzaville in the first round before their date against AS Vita which they won via the boardroom.
An appearance in the group stages meant Sundowns had further trips to Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria and, after booking their semi-final place, they made further trips to Zambia and back again to Egypt for their final battle against Zamalek.
By the time they were crowned African champions last year, they had been playing non-stop football for 18 months and their success also brought the extra burden of playing in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan and also the CAF Super Cup against CAF Confederation Cup winners TP Mazembe.
And, while other South African clubs will enjoy an off-season break soon, Sundowns will still be in the trenches, battling to defend their CAF Champions League crown, and have trips to Ethiopia, Tunisia and back to Kinshasa again.
In the event they succeed, and go all the way to the final, it would also mean Sundowns would have played non-stop football for 28 months and, considering the distance they have covered in their campaign, it could be a world record for a top football side.
But their coach Motsimane continues to present a brave face amid questions if his men, who have had a never-ending season, could be suffering from fatigue.
Star player Khama Billiat, who also carried the burden of playing for his country at the 2017 CAF Nations Cup finals in Gabon, has appeared – in some matches – to be a pale shadow of the footballer who terrorized defences last year.
“At this point in time it is not about fatigue; there is no fatigue, it is all in the mind,” he told SuperSport recently.
“Yes, you feel it in the body, but I told them, ‘We play . . . what is this thing that you are tired because we come from Kinshasa and all that?’.
“If we think we want to be champions we must grind it and not listen to what people are saying. We are not tired.”
But Mosimane also has concerns over how CAF arrange the Champions League matches.
“CAF has taken over the time to play and dates to play,” she told Kick.Off. “I like that when they do that but I want them to be consistent.
“The North Africans must also be told when to play because we are also told when to play. This thing is new now, now we are told when to play. Since when are we told? Why not send letters to say what time you’re going to play and where you’re going to play?
“So they told us where we’re going to play and what time we’re going to play.
Somewhere, somehow it doesn’t suit us because there is the period of Ramadan and they put all the Arab teams late at 9/10 o’clock.
“We are playing Esperance at 9, we’re playing Esperance late here. Why? Because it’s the period of Ramadan, they are fasting. But why do you determine what time we have to play here?
“So there we are. Maybe Ahmad must come out. He is (CAF) president now, it’s not (Issa) Hayatou.”