It was mid-September when Mamelodi Sundowns owner Patrice Motsepe summoned Manqoba Mngqithi for a meeting. “He wanted me to come to Joburg immediately,” says Mngqithi. “I had no idea what to expect. I was asking myself what is happening?”
But when Mngqithi was offered the chance to take over from Pitso Mosimane as coach of the reigning DStv Premiership champions, he was “not that surprised”, he says. “I was only surprised that the coach had gone. I did not even see it coming. I never expected any negative things to happen at that time.”
It was off-season, after the belated completion of the 2019-2020 season owing to Covid-19’s impact, and Sundowns were basking in the glory of coming from a substantial way behind to take the league title from Kaizer Chiefs and then crown their campaign with Nedbank Cup success. Abruptly, Mosimane quit to move to Egypt and Mngqithi was told he would be the new coach, or more accurately, the more senior member of a co-coaching partnership with Rhulani Mokwena.
“It was a real privilege to take over the team, but I do not want to create the impression that I was waiting in the wings for this opportunity,” says Mngqithi. “If it had taken another two or three years to get the job, I wouldn’t have felt bad. Coming here has always been about learning and about becoming a better coach.”
The club statement that announced the appointment made it clear that “in case of dispute” the 50-year-old former schoolmaster from Howick would have the final say and not his ambitious young partner. Barely a week later, a third appointment came as even more of a surprise: Steve Komphela would vacate the head coaching position at Lamontville Golden Arrows and join the pair as “senior coach”, which is officially a rung down in the Sundowns hierarchy but in reality another equal.
Football has had few successful coaching partnerships, though Sundowns can point to taking the league title in 2006 with Miguel Gamondi and Neil Tovey as co-coaches in the early days of Motsepe’s ownership of the club. But in most people’s books, three cooks standing over the stove and boiling the broth defy the game’s conventional wisdom and would seem a recipe for disaster.
Few – if any – pundits would have believed it workable. Yet as the 2020-2021 season draws to a close, Sundowns are as dominant as ever, with Mosimane’s departure hardly causing a ripple. AmaZulu might have added some excitement to the race, but Sundowns were always in control. The Brazilians look set to lift the title for a fourth season in a row and they are also in contention for the CAF Champions League, with a mouth-watering quarterfinal tie against Mosimane and the Cairo giants Al Ahly to come in May.
The Komphela revelation
With Sundowns having long debunked the doubters who felt that coaching partnerships would prove their ruin this season, Mngqithi insists he supported the idea of working with Mokwena “from the very beginning”.
“I wanted a healthy environment that would allow us to continue with the work without any issues over power and all that. To be honest, Rhulani would not have had a problem to work under me, and part of me would also not have that problem either.
“I want Rhulani to grow. I have an ambition to see him succeed as a coach. Very few young South African coaches are as passionate as he is. It’s a breath of fresh air to see a young man who devotes himself to the game in the way he does.”
But adding Komphela could have been interpreted as doubting the new coaching duo and therefore calling in another “steady hand” to oversee matters. “That reaction was there and it was a reaction I expected,” says Mngqithi.
Then he drops a bombshell. “I can tell you with all the confidence in the world, I brought Steve. I am the one who went to Rhulani to say the assignment we have is very big and we need someone who has personality and experience to assist us, and I think Steve is the right guy for the job.
“Coach Rhulani asked, ‘[Are] you serious?’ I had met Steve on coaching courses but never worked with him. But I was convinced he’s the right specimen. Rhulani said, ‘If you think so, why not?’”
This also meant no one would be forced on the pair unexpectedly. “The president might bring someone to join the two of us and we would then have to adjust to understand him … and we didn’t have time, we needed to hit the ground running immediately,” says Mngqithi.
Mngqithi is a quiet character away from the pitch, a learned man with excellent football instincts who backs himself to work out a tactical plan for any opposition. But he is not necessarily a “man-manager”, someone who puts an arm around a player and takes him aside for a heart-to-heart.
Similarly, Mokwena has an excellent football brain and can analyse a game like few in the country. But he is younger than some members of the squad and therefore not suited either to be a father figure in the technical team. Komphela, though, is perfect for that role. Experienced, well respected and a fountain of wisdom away from the pitch, he is exactly the type of person to counsel players wisely. And of course, he has a sharp football brain to boot.
Added to that, when one is preparing for matches every three days, as Sundowns have had to do during this campaign, there is much detail that can get lost when the burden falls on just one – or even two – sets of shoulders. That’s why Mngqithi and Mokwena took the idea to Motsepe.
“At first, he was puzzled. He asked, ‘Are you sure?’ But I told him one thing I know is that we need a big personality in the squad. He said, ‘If you say so, I trust you.’”
Komphela and Mngqithi had joked years before that if one of them got a major coaching job, he’d take the other along. “He wanted me to go with him to Chiefs when he was appointed, but I already had a commitment with Sundowns.”
Now it was Mngqithi’s turn to solicit Komphela. “I called him and said it’s that time. ‘Time for what?’ he laughed. But he was receptive to the idea straight away.”
How the trio works
There was no need to draw parameters or set boundaries, says Mngqithi, and there is no set division of the coaching labour. “The game needs much more detail. Each facet of football has an impact on the next. All the time, you have to find the balance and you need people to help focus on all those details.”
It requires harmony as the trio plot each path that Sundowns take. “We sit together most of the time, we discuss, we all watch the games and we agree most of the time. Sometimes we disagree and that’s normal and it’s fair.
“The good thing is that we share the same football concepts and we have the desire to dominate [the game], which is very unusual. Usually in a trio of coaches, there would be one with a little fear. Maybe thinking that if it is an away game, we defend and look to counterattack, for example. No, no. We have very clear principles in our tactical agreements – we want to dominate the field, every area of the pitch. We don’t want to assume the position of underdogs. That sort of mentality we don’t want our players to absorb.”
Mngqithi says he first likes to hear the views of all around before making a decision as the official head of the trio. “Most times there is no reason to clash, because what they are thinking is what I’m thinking. Honestly speaking, we are on the same wavelength 85% to 95% of time.”
Team selection is rarely a debate, too. “There are never more than two or three players where we might have a difference of opinion.”
Mngqithi says he always believed it would go smoothly. “I’m confident of my leadership qualities and my capacity. That’s why I don’t make too much noise.
“But also, without a shadow of a doubt, I don’t think I would have chosen any other persons. The ones I’m working with are very good. There are too many teams destroyed by the people working around it. The only thing that would make us fail, believe me, is egos, selfishness and a lack of vision. People with selfish interests don’t see the bigger picture.
“You are never going to get anywhere when you worry about petty issues [such as] coach Manqoba is doing too many of the interviews, or such trifles. Those things don’t put a medal around your neck. But if your focus is on the bigger picture, you’ll succeed. The more we are selfless, the more we are not egocentric, the more we are not looking to be impressionists, the better our chances.
“What are you going to do with all the glory yourself, especially when you are working with very good people that know what they are doing, that are adding great value?”