Mamelodi Sundowns’ mental and physical strength will be pushed to the limits this month, with the Chloorkop-based club expected to play five crucial matches in a short space of time!
First they travel to DR Congo for their Champions League second round first leg clash on Sunday. Then they travel back home on Monday before they visit Polokwane City for their crucial league encounter two days later. They then host Jomo Cosmos on Sunday and there’s also their Nedbank Cup encounter, and finally they host AS Vita Club in the return leg towards the end of the month.
With the Telkom Knockout already in the bag, the Brazilians’ league lead has been narrowed to just four points by Bidvest Wits, with the two teams still scheduled to meet for their second leg encounter in the penultimate game of the season. The club’s head coach, Pitso Mosimane, has gone on record complaining about the tight schedule and, while some may think he’s making excuses in case his team drops the ball under pressure and fails to deliver on the promising treble dream, you need to look back in time to see why Pitso’s complaints in fact make sense.
Roger de Sa was in a similar position in 2013 and went on to reach two domestic cup finals – the MTN8 and Telkom Knockout – losing both to Allan Freese’s Platinum Stars. He also lost in the final of the CAF Champions League, which led to him being regarded as a coach who knows how to only reach cup finals, but not necessarily win them. However, if only people knew what Roger and his team went through to get as far as they did in all of these simultaneously run competitions and the amount of time Pirates spent on the road switching their attention between them, they may take a different view. Having to adopt different approaches, challenges and goals with a limited squad can be taxing for anyone. While the club was credited for taking these CAF competitions seriously, very little credit went to Roger for not prioritising any competition over the other, despite all the challenges.
Look at Orlando Pirates and the dire consequences of their heavy involvement in the continental competitions over the last three seasons. Their players had no proper pre-season and their domestic league run has suffered heavily. Long-term injuries to key players like Oupa Manyisa and Siyabonga Sangweni, for instance, could likely have been avoided if their involvement had been better managed but, because of the hectic schedule, Eric Tinkler has had no choice but to rely on his tried-and-tested performers. Unfortunately the players were left to bear the brunt of their lack of rest and a number of injuries were incurred as fatigue set in. Pirates looked exhausted for a long time and will surely be looking forward to having a proper off-season in May, a positive aspect resulting from their failure to secure a place in this year’s continental competitions.
The fact that the crucial stages of the continental competitions coincide with the Nedbank Cup and the last quarter of the league run-in means most teams will prioritise the domestic competitions. Two seasons ago, Kaizer Chiefs sent assistant coach Doctor Khumalo with 13 players to play Asec Mimosa because they had little time to prepare for the Nedbank Cup final and the tight league title race with Mamelodi Sundowns after playing in Ivory Coast. The move was heavily criticised as it was believed they were not taking the continental tournament seriously but, upon reflection, can you really blame Chiefs for doing that? They went on to win the Nedbank Cup and narrowly lost the league race to Sundowns by just two points, at a far lesser expense compared to what they would have incurred should they have prioritised the Champions League.
Gavin Hunt and Wits have seemingly taken a leaf out of Chiefs’ book by prioritising the league and Nedbank Cup, hence their early exit in the Confederation Cup. To think the league title-chasing and Nedbank Cup quarterfinalists were booted out of the CAF competition by unfancied Tanzania’s Azam FC is further proof that if you aim to do well on the domestic front, you should forget about taking CAF competitions seriously. The Students lost 3-0 at home before going 4-3 down in the return leg of the first round. To put things into perspective, Wits have only lost two out of 12 home league games so far this season, with only Mpumalanga Black Aces and Kaizer Chiefs having successfully raided the Bidvest Wits Stadium. Do you really believe that Wits gave their very best effort yet lost a game to relative minnows in their home stadium where they have dominated all season? It seems highly unlikely…
While CAF competitions are good for our football, teams can’t be left to do it on their own. We have to prioritise those who represent the country in these competitions as their continued participation will benefit not only the respective clubs, but the country’s football as well. Bafana Bafana will benefit hugely from the continental experience and struggles against countries like Mauretania and Gambia would be a thing of the past if our players were exposed to enough of these African countries and dominated them.
For South Africa to go back to 1996’s success, we need to dominate the continent and show serious commitment to the CAF competitions. We have to postpone domestic league or cup games in order to give our continental representatives enough time to prepare if we have to. It is really unfair to expect our teams to have a serious go at these competitions when we don’t offer them enough support. As long as we continue not to support our teams taking part in these competitions, we will remain just another former African footballing giant and continue to boast about our last AFCON success which happened 20 years ago! We need to support Sundowns by all means, as they are our only hope of success on the continent this year. Coach Pitso, all the best to you and your charges for Sunday, sir!