Sunday, 18 December 2016

AN UPLIFTING CHRISTMAS TALE: the Mahlambi brothers show giving has no limits

OUT FOR TEN MONTHS: Phakamani Mahlambi
IT'S Christmas. The time for giving. But what do you do when your little brother needs... a sparkling new hamstring?

Bidvest Wits teenager Phakamani exploded on our screens this time last season, scoring goals for fun and appearing to be, for all the hype, akin to our own Cristiano Ronaldo. Five goals and two assists in half a season. Incredible.

What was it Gavin Hunt said? “Phaks could beat you in a telephone box. He’s a real talent. He’s as good as Benni McCarthy at 18.”

But just when the Rio 2016 Olympics were beckoning, Mahlambi was struck down by a serious hamstring injury. No, not your everyday twang of the hammie, a serous rupture of the Anterior Cruciate Ligament against now-relegated AmaTuks on February 19.

The golden youngster slipped off our radar. For nearly ten months, all we heard was “needs surgery”, “long-term injury”, “extensive rehabilitation”… there was even talk of a career prematurely ended.

Though he still won the club’s Young Player of the Season award, it appeared another shooting star had fallen from the roof of the planetarium next to Wits University’s Milpark Stadium.

But no. On Saturday, against the luckless Free State Stars who are unlikely to feature in any pantheon of celestial objects soon, the star was reborn.

Coach Gavin Hunt, after seeing his side go second in the PSL with a 3-1 win, said: “I've seen Phakamani struggling with this injury every day for nearly ten months months. That’s a long time for a youngster to be out.

“The doctors said I shouldn’t play him. The physios said he wasn’t ready. But I thought bugger it, he must play tonight"

The rest is history. Phakamani, still just 19, marked his comeback with two goals. In one appearance he scored more than any Kaizer Chiefs striker this season.

The predictable Man of the Match award was claimed and the true Christmas Tale was finally revealed.

Phakamani confirmed what we first heard in June. He was back - with his brother’s hamstring replacing the one he tore. An incredible tale of sacrifice and family togetherness.

Mahlambi immediately summoned his brother and gave him the Man of the Match Trophy, saying: “They wanted to take something from a tendon to repair the hamstring.

“But that might have slowed my pace. Then my brother Mthobisi said 'No, take mine'. He is my hero, my everything.

"Today, both my parents are unemployed, half my salary goes to my family and I'm helping to build them a new home.”

The generous donor Mthobisi stepped up to the microphone with his brother’s silverware: “I’d like to thank my brother, the management, my family, everyone.

“We share blood, we share everything, it's such a great moment for me. I don't worry much about my hamstring. It's from my heart”

It’s been a long half-season. Banana Bafana failed to reach AFCON 2017 and Shakes Mashaba is suspended. Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates are struggling in mid-table. Mamelodi Sundowns were crowned champions of Africa but lost badly twice at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan.

The Mahlambi brothers give us a  brief festive opportunity to celebrate the season of giving and forgiving. Forget the bitching about referees, knife-wielding thugs at Kaizer Chiefs games and falling attendances.

Soon, the PSL will break for Christmas. And they’ll stay away (barring late fixtures changes) until deep in to February.

Which should give us all a chance to reflect on the the elder Mahlambi, the brother who gave up a hamstring for the sake of his family. Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

IT'S THE ENDO THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT: Sundowns dreams shot down in Japan

AT FAULT: Mamelodi Sundowns Ugandan
goalkeeper Denis Onyango
FOR a delirious 45 minutes on Saturday, KaboYellow fans had every right to believe they were headed to a glorious final against mighty Real Madrid at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. Then came 45 minutes of heartbreak, a second half exposing all that is wrong with South Africa football.

The first half at the Suita City stadium was a dream. Percy Tau was rampant, Khama Billiat had a couple of chances - one from all of four yards on the slide - and Pitso Mosimane looked secure in his Champions of Africa castle with the big back door.

Hitoshi Sogahata was the villain of the piece for Sundowns, who had NINE shots to Kashima’s NIL in those fantastic first 45 minutes. Bizarrely, FIFA had captioned the scoreline “ZSC” for Masandawana (obviously they thought Egyptians Zamalek had made it!) and didn’t correct in to “SUN” until the 2nd half… and by then, the fantasy was fading.

Sogahata, who has played all his life at the Antlers, is a mature 37, he’s played four times for Japan since 1998 but 462 times for his club. Three great saves kept Sundowns goalless, and then there was THAT miss from the usually lethal Zimbabwean Billiat, who put Tau’s excellent cross wide from inside the small box.

MISTAKE! Sundowns were dubbed "ZSC"
throughout the first half by FIFA
At half-time, optimism was sweeping the nation. With the game on SABC thanks to StarSat’s last-minute climb-down on exclusive coverage, the social networks were buzzing. Pitso was a genius. Tau was a lion, Dolly was more popular than Barbie. Onyango hadn't been tested in goal.

But from the first touch of the second half, the Antlers showed the value of a good team talk, and a touch of tactical acumen.

With their wing-backs tucking in, the midfield was reclaimed by the Japanese, Pitso might have seen it before me but he didn’t react. Not until THE ENDO OF THE WORLD, with Yasushi Endo picking up a Mu Kawasaki cross and beating Sundowns’ keeper Denis Onyango.

When I say it beat him, it wasn’t a pretty sight. The Uganda player of the year and PSL goalkeeper of the season made a hash of the close-range shot, it wriggled out from underneath his writhing body and was actually put in by his own hand/head reflex movement.

Shocking, particularly with Sogahata producing a near-perfect 90 minutes at the other end.

CORRECTED! But Sundowns went in to
 a serious decline in the second half
But there was worse to come. Pitso finally threw on Zwane, but it was already too late. Then came Liberian striker Antoine Laffour when Sundowns appeared to finally realise they had to score to survive.

But there was no great urgency. No radical change of shape. The Antlers had Sundowns by the horns. In a dramatic reverse of the first half, Sundowns barely mustered a threat on goal.

And when Kanazaki added a goal of his own with the Downs defense all over the place, the sinking feeling became titanic. All the shortcomings of South African football had been ruthlessly exposed. Poor finishing, late changes, lack of fitness, tired defending and we’ll have to say it again POOR FINISHING.

We got the usual afterwards from Pitso Mosimane, whose PSL and African champions are starting to develop a habit of inconsistency in recent weeks.  

Clearly unhappy, the post-match interview was mercifully short: “We played very well against a very good team. Obviously you could see our finishing was not very good in the first half. They took their chances and we didn’t.

“Disappointed? What do you mean? It’s football. We are professionals. For us it’s a very good learning curve. They passed very well.

“We are learning, we did well, we just couldn’t finish.”

And captain Hlompho Kekana, who simply disappeared in the second half, basically respected his coach: “If we’d taken one of the chances we’d created, the game would've changed. We must take lesson out of this game.”

Lessons? Learning curves? No. The FIFA Club World Cup doesn’t come along regularly for South African football. We needed clinical finishing, decisive substitutions, a solid goalkeeper.

But hey, at least they got to Japan. They play Korea's Jeonbuk on Wednesday morning in a 5th/6th play-off game that could earn the players plenty to add to their African Champions League bonus.

FIFA are offering  $1.5m for fifth and $1m for sixth. So the difference is $500,000. R7.5m. Nearly as much as Cape Town City FC won for their Telkom KO victory against SuperSport United on Saturday.

The Antlers go on to play Nacional from Colombia, with Real Madrid likely to be their final opponents. Sundowns didn’t even get close to Cristiano Ronaldo. It's enough to make a weepy nation howl.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

THE LITTLE LION: Percy Tau heads to Japan on top of the world

CHAMPIONS OF AFRICA: Percy Tau (front right) can't quite believe it!
THE PERCY TAU PHENOMENON IS REAL. There was a time, not a year ago, when the only thing the little lion at Mamelodi Sundowns had in common with Lionel Messi was his diminutive stature.

But with Leonardo Castro suffering that long-term ankle injury, Tau returned to the regular starting line-up during Pitso Mosimane’s fabulous “back-door” African Champions League triumph and he has NEVER looked back.

He was the little lad sitting looking bemused during the celebrations in Egypt after KaboYellow were crowned continental kings. He no longer had to bring a cushion to matches for a long stint on the bench. He was a major part of a phenomenal success.

It was all too much for the 22-year-old who only got his matriculation certificate last year.

Vital goals in Africa have been followed by great goals in domestic competition. His second goal on Saturday against Free State Stars was a thing over wonder, nearly as spectacular as THAT last-gasp overhead equaliser from Baroka’s Oscarine Masuluke against Orlando Pirates.

Tau picked up the ball near the halfway line, cut a swathe through the falling Stars defence and put it through the legs of a defender and the goalkeeper to make it 4-1 to Sundowns on a day of serious confidence-building.

On Monday, Sundowns flew off to Japan for the FIFA Club World Cup with their heads held high. The shock defeat against Cape Town City on Wednesday was forgotten. Sundowns can go top of the PSL if they win all their games in hand.

Real Madrid and the rest of the world’s continental champions await them in Japan but Percy has an old head on those young shoulders. After yet another Man of the Match award, he said: “We did well, I just try to do what I know. The focus is on my football, nothing else.

”Yes, I do miss chances, but I’m happy to score two today.”

Coach Mosimane is nearly breathless in his praise: “Our boys, sometimes they can be naughty. We could have scored more. Percy at the moment is unbelievable. He’s scoring goals, and he’s growing, growing all the time.”

With Castro back in the starting eleven for the first time, Tau maintains his spot next to the CBD as the team heads for Japan. It gives Sundowns a lovely, free-running spirit to have Castro, Khama Billiat and Keagan Dolly up there with Tau.

Up to this point, general consensus indicated Tau, an academy product born in what was once known as Witbank, was way behind Dolly in the array of young South Africans who could break in to the top five leagues in Europe.

For years I questioned Dolly’s exclusion from the Bafana Bafana senior set-up. The same can be said for Tau, who never caught Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba’s agent-jaundiced eye with the national squad.

But with Dolly’s road to Olympiacos in Greece blocked by stubborn Sundowns officials insisting the R10m buy-out clause in his contract was “a mistake” it could be Tau, “lion” in English, will be the man to poach in Japan.

He has the talent. He has the personality. He has the touch. South Africa longs for a player other than Sunderland’s elderly Steve Pienaar playing in Europe’s “Big Five” leagues. For our young lion Percy Tau, as Sundowns fans say, the Sky is the Limit!