Saturday, 29 October 2016

DON'T PANIC. Focus on Mamelodi Sundowns, the champions of Africa. Not the Soweto derby

TURKISH DELIGHT: Komphela and Ertugral
IT didn't take long for the balloon to burst. Less than a week after Mamelodi Sundowns were crowned champions of Africa, we find ourselves asking: just how good is South African football?

From the ultimate high of Masandawana winning the African Champions League 3-1 on aggregate in Egypt, the Soweto Derby six days later brought us down to earth with a bump at a near-full FNB Stadium on Saturday. Bafana's home clash with Senegal may well be the next hammer blow, though we pray for World Cup qualification fervently.

Saturday saw yet another 0-0 Drawby, another display of inept finishing, another 90mins of curious refereeing from Victor Gomes. The giants of the PSL somehow managed to overcome the self-glorifying hype to grind our optimism in to the dust with a series of wayward shots from distance, long balls out of defence, poor touches and terrible tackles.

It got all the razzmatazz of course. While the commentators at SABC and SuperSport didn’t bother to travel to Alexandria for the Champions League final and the touch-screen was switched off, the Soweto Derby got it all.

While Sundowns fans had to wait TWO DAYS to hear from the first South African EVER to win the African Champions League, we had Steve Komphela, Muhsin Etrugral and dozens more talking utter nonsense at length on Saturday evening.

KaboYellow fans might have been confused seeing failed Bafana Bafana coach Ephraim “Shaky” Mashaba talking about “football intelligence” after their side had conquered Africa, while not hearing from Pitso Mosimane. SuperSport made an utter nonsense of the biggest night for South African football in 20 years.

But listening to the commentators (between SuperSport suffering yet another series of broadcast glitches), the analysts, the coaches and the players, you’d have thought the Soweto Derby was a scintillating display of attacking football, far more important than any crusade for continental conquest.

Admittedly there were chances at the FNB Stadium. Early on, Thabo Rakhale had no intention of challenging Itumeleng Khune one-on-one, he prefers showboating. Pule Epstein’s volley just before half-time nearly hit Uranus. And the REAL chance of a goal, when Bernard Morrison was pulled down by Lorenzo Gordinho with 10 minutes left, saw Victor Gomes, for the first time since Jesus was a lad, fail to give a penalty when it looked deserved.

Sizwe Mabena told us “this game had everything” while Komphela and Etrugral announced they were “delighted” with the “passion” while blathering on about a point won rather than 2 points squandered. Neither of them gambled with a second striker, preferring instead to stick to the old Soweto Derby adage: “We cannot lose” rather than “We must win”.

We were treated to a few seconds of Komphela and Etrugral talking Turkish, which probably made more sense than most of what we heard on Saturday afternoon. With temperatures rising to 36 degrees, what did we expect from a 3.30pm kick-off during a heat-wave?

Then we could talk about Sundowns being forced to kick-off at 6pm on their grand return against Polokwane City in the Telkom KO on Thursday. Ridiculous from the PSL and SuperSport. No crowd, no fanfare, no nothing.

But hey, how can I be so negative when the CHAMPIONS OF AFRICA are off to Japan for the World Club Cup next month? Let’s just forget the Soweto Derby. And look forward (hopefully) to Masandawana v Real Madrid in a final which could be worth R80m to Pitso's squad.

And… relax.

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.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK: The ONLY man who can stop Sundowns becoming champions of Africa on Sunday

THAT'S FINAL: Gambian referee Bakary Gassama, 37
ONLY one man can stop Mamelodi Sundowns from being crowned champions of Africa in  Egypt on Sunday. He’s a Gambian with a silver whistle called Bakary Papa Gassama.

Currently considered CAF’s finest referee, Mr Gassama also refereed last year’s African Champions League final 2nd leg and is lined up for the crunch clash between Nigeria and Algeria 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium in Uyo on November 12.

He refereed at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and was the man in the middle for the 2015 African Nations Cup final between Ghana and the Ivory Coast in Bata‚ Equatorial Guinea.

In short, he’s the best there is, a judgement confirmed by the Confederation of African Football when he was named the continent’s best referee at the annual CAF awards last year.

When you go to Alexandria’s Borg el Arab Stadium with a 3-0 lead, as Pitso Mosimane’s Masandawana do on Sunday, a strong, unimpeachable referee is a MUST.

With Jean Claude Birumushahu of Burundi and Marwa Range of Kenya running the lines, Mosimane knows exactly what to expect.

As the KaboYellow heroes headed to Egypt, Mosimane said: “We’ve checked the referees – to see how they deal with pressure. We realise that some of the fouls the referees will deal with differently in Egypt.  I’m not talking about cheating.

There are other dangers awaiting Sundowns, who have crushed everything in their path after re-entering the tournament via the backdoor after AS Vita - who knocked them out before the group stages - were disqualified for playing an ineligible player.

Mosimane grins: “The 12th player (a capacity 40,000 crowd who were largely allowed in to the Lucas Masterpieces Moripe Stadium for half-price if they wore Sundowns colours on Saturday) played a very big part. And in Egypt it will play a very big part.

“But they understand that there will be lasers in Egypt. I told them, ‘We’ve been there with Bafana – there were lasers, nothing happened. So let’s go and play.”

And then there’s the latest twist in the modern game. Electronic death threats: “There have been messages sent via social media, to all the players - whoever has got an Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter account, all of them. They have received death threats.

“But you know those things are OK. It’s mind games. The match is eleven versus eleven on the pitch.

“The players have laughed about it. I said, ‘OK that's good. Because if they don’t talk about it maybe it could affect them’.

With Colombian striker Leonardo Castro still injured, Pitso is unlikely to make many changes to his side on Sunday night. He said on Saturday: “If we play like this nobody in the African continent can live with us.”

With a decent referee it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment. And with one eye on Zamalek’s near-failure to qualify from the semi-finals despite a four goal lead, let’s be honest. If you can’t defend a 3-0 advantage, you don’t deserve to be continental champions.

The star is loading. It's been loading since Orlando Pirates did the job in 1996. And nobody is better-qualified than Mosimane to bring it home.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Conquering Africa the Pitso way: Sundowns travel to Egypt with stars in their eyes

Pitso Mosimane, Mamelodi Sundowns

Saturday was a good day to be South African. A week after Bafana Bafana and the Springboks had let down the nation, after a week where Thuli Madonsela, angry students and cunning politicians had left us reeling, the Lucas Masterpieces Moripe Stadium in Atteridgeville provided more than a little solace.

The first leg of the African Champions League final was not expected to be a massive triumph, a glorious goal-fest. Pitso Mosimane was supposed to ensure his mighty Mamelodi Sundowns did not concede at home against Egyptian giants Zamalek. Nobody expected THREE GOALS from Masandawana. Even in my guise as the White Sangoma I only predicted a 2-0 win, and that felt optimistic.

But surpassing all expectations, Sundowns put the Egyptians, for all their continental pedigree, to the sword. Like the Sphinx, the White Knights had their noses throughly put out of joint.

The first goal, coming after 31 minutes of KaboYellow domination, was an absolute beauty. Hlompho Kekana, one of FOUR South African nominees for the CAF African-based player of the year, did the assisting with a wonderful ball to put the Liberian through.

But it was the wonderfully named Anthony Snoti Laffor, first brought to South Africa by Jomo Sono 11 years ago, who did the finishing. The 31-year-old, for so long an afterthought in the Sundowns strike force, simply rammed the ball home to lift a near-full stadium in to yellow mellow.

With Cuthbert Malajile gone to BidvestWits and his replacement Sibusiso Vilakazi not eligible for Champions League selection, Laffor has grabbed his chances with both hands before and after the ankle injury picked up by Colombian Leo Castro.

Laffor’s strike was followed by Tebogo Langerman’s speculative cross dropping in to the net over El-Shenawy’s desperate grasp before half-time. Few would claim it was shot, but they all count and 2-0 at the break was the least Sundowns deserved for their dominance.

Seconds in to the second half, Percy Tau saw his effort across the face of goal deflected home for a crucial own-goal.

And that was it. Zamalek, awful in the heat and altitude, looked completely unprepared. Their coach complained afterwards about Mosimane moving the kick-off to 3pm when they are used to playing in the evenings.

But that’s the point of continental football: make the away trip as grim as you can. Zamalek produced some sort of fight back in the second half, knowing an away goal could change the complexion completely.

But even the highly-rated Basem Morsy couldn’t manage it, shackled as he was by Wayne Arendse, who might have pulled the 24-year-old out of his pocket at the final whistle, such was his iron grip on the Egyptian striker.

Pitso, who laughed afterwards when he was asked if he'd take a job in Egypt, was in top form: "Toe-to-toe we are strong. We'll play the same way in Egypt. They can't deal with it. Nobody on the continent can deal with us when we play like this. But we must keep our feet on the ground.

“I don't like the celebrations happening today today but it's a one-off. The players must enjoy it. We are copying Orlando Pirates, they are the best team in South Africa, we are just behind them.”

Looking at the colourful KaboYellow concrete bowl, where the atmosphere was humming, he grinned:  "We've never had this. The crowd. The yellow. It's okay for players to enjoy it. When Sundowns plays like this, not easy for any team.

"I've been in football for long. We have the advantage, we scored the goals but IT'S NOT OVER.”

Beg to differ Pitso. No away goal conceded. Three scored. Zamalek need a miracle of dodgy referees, lasers and riots to get close. Or Gavin Hunt of course!

Saturday, 8 October 2016

SHAKY'S DROOPY DRAWS: The Bafana Bafana verdict... and a word for Dean Furman

FURMIDABLE: Dean Furman scored Bafana's goal
"It was a silly goal to give away. But there is no need to cry over spilt milk. Overall, I think we had things under control after surviving an early onslaught early in the first half. But having grown in confidence, I think we could have scored a famous away win" Ephraim "Shakes" Mashaba

IT takes a special talent to let three vital World Cup points slip when you’re 1-0 up in Burkina Faso after the home team have missed two penalties. But South Africa’s Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba has that ability. Never doubt it.

Remember AFCON 2015 when Bafana Bafana were ahead in all three games but came away with one point? Yup, Mashaba’s got a knack for this sort of thing.

On Saturday in Ouagadougou, Shaky - who should never have survived after his awful AFCON 2017 qualifying failure - and our comparatively blessed Bafana Bafana were struggling. No plan, nothing wide, Keagan Dolly lost in a bizarre tactical quagmire and Eleazar Rodgers desperately trying to make his presence felt on his own up front.

It was not a great night for South Africa. An hour before kick-off the nation’s once-feared rugby Springboks had lost 57-15 to New Zealand’s All Blacks, conceding nine tries and scoring none.

We hoped for better from Mashaba’s much-maligned Bafana Bafana and when the ageless custodian Itumeleng Khune saved an unwarranted early penalty from Jonathan Pitroipa, hope sprung eternal.

SHAKY: Mashaba after the draw in Ougoudougou
But in truth, Burkina Faso, with a dodgy referee, are a tough nut to crack at home. With Senegal and the Capo Verde Islanders to come, anything less than a draw would have been disastrous with only the five CAF group WINNERS qualifying for Russia’s 2018 World Cup.

Rodgers, in for the curiously absent Tokelo Rantie, had a couple of chances. So did Mamelodi Sundowns African Champions League finalist Hlompho Kekana. At the back, with Rivaldo Coetzee injured, Tower Mathoho - after the death of his brother - looked out of sorts, his handball offering the Burkinabians hope from the spot.

By half-time, the former Chelsea, Rangers, Oldham Athletic and Doncaster Rovers midfielder Dean Furman - who left for Britain from Cape Town as a nursery school kid - was subjected to widespread nastiness from South Africans on social media. The only pale outfielder picked by Mashaba was being castigated for failing to pull his weight in a midfield that was visibly struggling.

At half-time, I felt the need to point out Furman was doing the job in the midfield, unlike some in the Bafana team - and that he has been our most consistent performer over the past four years, despite being dropped from the squad regularly since Gordon Igesund’s departure for no apparent reason.

And when the SuperSport United midfielder popped up to score what should have been the winner it was a moment which lifted our Rainbow Nation - Furman and I often exchange messages when times are hard. He has never been less than wholehearted in his approach, on and off the field.

It should have, could have, been the victorious icing on a very poorly constructed cake.

But with a win looming Oupa Manyisa, the Orlando Pirates captain who has done little for the Buccaneers since returning from injury. missed an easy chance to make it 2-0 and then gave away ANOTHER penalty after coming on for Dolly.

The second penalty was clear-cut, Mathoho’s first half handball had been marginal. Manyisa's tackle in the box was that of a rank amateur given the situation. But the experienced Alain Traore sent his spot kick so far over the bar you might have glimpsed it over Gauteng had the first rains of summer not crept over the horizon.

But still, somehow, in those final seconds, there was time for Bouna Diawara to produce an injury-time equaliser, dashing South Africa’s hopes of opening their World Cup campaign with a win for the first time since Stuart Baxter was in charge over a decade ago.

With SAFA president Danny Jordaan threatening Mashaba’s job security after the 1-1 draw against Mauritania last month, the word is that Shaky will go if he doesn’t get four points in his opening two World Cup qualifiers.

That means he has to beat a substantial Senegal side at home on November 7. The intervening clash against Ghana this week is meaningless, though Shaky loves a friendly win.

Okay, we’re told locusts, bees, visa problems and Rantie’s ungrateful no-show didn’t help Bafana this week. 

But given Mashaba’s inability to hold on to a lead, his lack of tactical acumen, bizarre selection process and clueless substitutions, surely Jordaan, who failed to beat a man called Athol in the NMB mayoral race, must act. The nation deserves better.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

THE HUNT IS ON: MTN8 final triumph is just the start of Bidvest's master plan for Wits

JUST BEGINNING: Hunt and Joffe
“Philosophically if you don’t have getting bigger in your DNA, then you need to quit. If you stop growing you’re actually going backwards” BRIAN JOFFE, CEO, BIDVEST

FOUR years ago, the directors at BidVest made a ground-breaking decision to lift their football club Wits University out of the doldrums. The board, which included Brian Joffe and Cyril Ramaphosa. two of South Africa’s most powerful men, had had enough of mid-table mediocrity. 

On Saturday night we saw that project begin to blossom, with BidVest Wits crushing African Champions League finalists Mamelodi Sundowns 3-0 in the MTN final at Mbombela. Did I say crushing? Masandawana hardly had a sniff of th R8m winners’ cheque.

The background? For years, millionaire Joffe had put up with the banter from Irvin Khoza and Kaizer Motaung at football gatherings. Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs had shared the PSL title between them from 2011 to 2013, Bidvest’s Clever Boys weren’t even in the picture.

No-nonsense Joffe isn’t used to being second-best. The son of a South African dad and a Lithuanian mum, he bought a pet-food business for R49,000 in 1978. With his wife driving the forklift and moving the pallets of dog-food cans, the company grew… and he sold if for R1m two years later.

And so the Magician of Melrose Arch began his rise… and rise. With his company last year breaking through R200 BILLION in sales, he can afford to indulge his footballing fantasy. I have no idea how much has been spent, but it’s not peanuts.

There will be talk of white privilege, obviously. Ironic really when his football club translates, literally, as Whites University. But this is football. It’s about the race, not race.

The background? Today’s Clever Boys emerged from a student club established by the SRC long before the days of #feesmustfall in 1921.

Half a century later, Wits University took their place in the top flight of South African football in 1975, where Manchester United goalkeeper Gary Bailey and Tottenham Hotspur centre-back Richard Gough were among the big names.

During those formative years, trophies did come the way of the students: the Nedbank Cup in 1978 and 2010 (Wits’ last trophy); the Telkom KO in 1985 and 1995 and the MTN8 in 1984 and 1995.

But in truth, Wits were never big-hitters. They have NEVER won the PSL, their best finish coming in 2003 when they came third under Roger de Sa.

So four years ago, with ANC big-hitter Ramaphosa as his chairman, Joffe launched the big push for his football team, now officially known as Bidvest Wits with little or no connection to the university, apart from their tiny three-sided home ground at Milpark (now the Bidvest Stadium).

Vitally, Joffe and pals grabbed CEO Jose Ferreira from SuperSport United, who had won the PSL title three years in succession under a certain Gavin Hunt. Spaniard Jose Antonio Habas took the club in to contention after the bizarre departure of De Sa, who ended up at Orlando Pirates.

But patience is not a Joffe virtue. Habas was cruelly sent home to run the youth teams at Atletico Madrid and Clive Barker, older than Brian, took over for six months, ending a creditable fourth, Wits’ best finish since 2004. But The Dog was never a long-term option.

And then, on the 28th of May, 2013, Ferreira managed to extract Hunt from his old club SuperSport FC. Serious rebuilding began, huge sums were spent, often on veterans like Zimbabwe’s Benjamin and Namibia Henrico Botes.

Last season, Hunt’s Wits finished second behind Mamelodi Sundowns, where Patrice Motsepe is perhaps the only man spending more than Joffe on football. Pitso Mosimane’s men won with a record 71 points with Hunt 14 points behind.

But on Saturday night, at a soggy Mbombela, Mosimane’s Masandawana were finally cut down to size. With KaboYellow headed in to the African Champions League final against Egypt’s Zamalek, perhaps the mighty Downs were distracted. Pitso claimed the pitch suited Wits. And it did rain a bit.

But from where I sit, Wits have come of age. After three years of investment - not always as cunning as Joffe’s Bidvest itself - Gavin Hunt has built himself a side capable of winning the PSL at last. Third in his first season, 2nd last season, there is a logical progression.

Daine Klate, 31, added the MTN8 title to the
FIVE PSL championships and SEVEN cups he
has already won in 12 seasons of PSL action
Saturday’s night’s lucrative 3-0 win, spearheaded by two goals from 31-year-old Daine Klate, formerly of SuperSport United and Orlando Pirates, was a masterpiece in the art of catching the opposition by surprise.

Pitso droned on about “Wits deserved it” and how many times he had won the MTN8 but in truth Hunt - often linked with the Bafana Bafana job - had done more than just win a final.

“I’ve been here a few years now, I’ll do it my way, your way, the Frank Sinatra way. But we’re getting there. This is just the beginning.”

Hunt is not a big man, but he is a force to be reckoned with, face to face or bench to bench. Just the beginning? No argument here.