Sunday, 23 October 2016

HOW PITSO CONQUERED AFRICA: the sheer joy of an African Champions League triumph after 11 years

IT wasn’t easy. It wasn’t perfect. But it was effective. Mamelodi Sundowns entered the gates of hell at the other end of Africa and came away beaten but triumphant to win the African Champions League 3-1 on aggregate.

And yes, they endured missiles (even during the warm-up), lasers and fireworks in front of an estimated 75,000 at the Borg el Arab stadium 25km outside Alexandria. The lamentable Confederation of African football, based 200km away in Cairo, did nothing about it. But all that was expected.

What wasn’t predicted was two awful challenges on Masandawana’s Ugandan goalkeeper Dennis Onyango, voted the best stopper in the PSL last season.

Midway through the first half, Onyango was unable to carry on and Wayne Sandilands, the 33-year-old former Bafana Bafana custodian was ushered on. It was a recipe for disaster… but a 1-0 defeat when you’ve won 3-0 at home can hardly be described as that.

And so it was that 7,617 days after Orlando Pirates were crowned South Africa’s only African Champions League winners in 1995, there were scenes all over the continent as Pitso Mosimane became the only South African coach to conquer Africa.

Sandilands may take a bit of flak for the long-range only goal of the night… he got a hand to Ohawuchi's 64th minute shot but couldn't keep it out. Otherwise his experience showed, he was untroubled on crosses and two shots. There were two big saves off the line in the last 10 minutes.

But even if one of those had gone in, Sundowns would have won it. Khama Billiat and Anthony Laffor came close to that emphatic away goal which would have killed off Egyptian civilisation as thoroughly as the Romans once did.

New heroes have been crowned since Pitso’s men joined the rest of South Africa’s sorry bunch in crashing out of Africa. The defeat against AS Vita in the Champions League and Medeama in the Confederations Cup was forgotten when Sundowns were allowed back for the group stages after the Congolese were found to have fielded an unregistered player. 

The 26th side to win the African Champions League trophy might have entered through the back door, but once they were thrown in to the group stages, they were unstoppable, despite having to cancel off-season holidays at the last minute and re-arrange their schedule.

They beat mighty Zamalek three times out of four in the latter stages, and the last one on Sunday night didn’t matter. They went north with Colombian offensive fulcrum Leonardo Castro a long-term injury victim, but new stars have emerged, names which must be written in Sundowns stone.

Tiyani Mabunda is my favourite, hard as nails, a born leader, late to stardom at 28. And local product Percy Tau, who looked like he’d slipped out of contention until the African crusade.

Keagan Dolly, who took so long to arrive after the big move from Ajax Cape Town, worked his socks off, Kharma Billiat… well we all know how good he is.

But spare a thought for Asavela Mbekile and Bangaly Soumahoro, hardly household names, but both saved the ball off the line in the dying minutes to silence the Borg el Arab Stadium on Saturday night.

The Egyptians really thought they had a chance, even at 0-3 down. The crazy chairman Mortada Mansour said Sundowns had used muti in Tshwane, the coach Moamen Soliman said he’d resign if the White Knights didn’t produce the miracle. And away he goes, just like his predecessor Mohamed Helmi did in July when Sundowns beat them.

Keagan Dolly and Khama Billiat emerged afterwards to talk about “hard work” and “dserving to win”. Billiat confessed: “It hasn’t been a pleasant journey but we are CHAMPIONS.”

And as if to emphasise their point, two squabbling Egyptian officials were seen in the background, pushing and shoving violently. Africa isn’t for cissies. But Pitso Mosimane is no cissy.



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