Mamelodi Sundowns won the league on instinct. There was hard work, long hours and obsessive planning to compete on all fronts in a gruelling season that had two CAF Champions League outings, along with the domestic league, squeezed into one long season.
But one of the defining moments in Sundowns’ road to claiming a record ninth league title in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) era was down to coach Pitso Mosimane’s sharp instinct.
The Brazilians were dealt a huge blow just before halftime when playmaker Gaston Sirino signalled to the bench that he couldn’t continue. For what felt like an eternity, the ball refused to go out, with the Uruguayan walking gingerly while Free State Stars held a knife to Sundowns’ throat. During that eternity, Sundowns’ technical team was discussing who would replace Sirino.
Mosimane unilaterally went for Phakamani Mahlambi. Five minutes after coming on, the 21-year-old scored the goal that helped the Brazilians retain the Absa Premiership for the first time under the 2016 CAF Coach of the Year. Mosimane didn’t celebrate that goal. He stood there with shock written all over his face and his hands on his head. The Brazilians’ bench and Goble Park in Bethlehem erupted in wild celebration. Mosimane remained motionless, his stare blank. Tiyani Mabunda brought him back to reality with a loving embrace.
“I have a long way with Phaka,” Mosimane said as he explained why he looked shocked and nervous after Mahlambi’s goal. “I need to teach him a lot of things. The other thing is that we were arguing on the bench. Before I make a substitution, I engage. Any substitution I make, I engage my assistants. We were arguing who should come on. I started by saying that maybe we should push Thapelo [Morena] up and bring on Anele [Ngcongca] so that we don’t lose the speed, because I saw that the match was a lot open.
“The other coach agreed with me on that and the other said this and that, but at the end I didn’t say who I was going to bring on. I just told [goalkeeper coach] Wendell [Robinson] what to write on the paper. I said put Phakamani. Normally we save him for the last few minutes, you know the story.”
‘We argue a lot’
Mosimane continued, “I said, ‘I don’t know, I feel Phakamani.’ Sometimes when we talk like this, we seem like geniuses or that we know a little bit more. It’s an instinct. It’s a gut feeling. The coaches always tell me that normally the gut feeling is the one. ‘We don’t want to argue with you [when it comes to your gut feeling]’. But they argue with me [on other decisions]. We argue a lot.
“[Assistant coach] Manqoba [Mngqithi] says, ‘No, don’t put this one, but put this one,’ and Wendell agrees with him. But sometimes I overrule them, sometimes I listen to them. We have won when I have listened to them. So, no man is an island. No one can do it alone. The coaches that want to do it alone don’t succeed. And when you say we must put this one, I ask, ‘Why?’ You must justify and you must make sense.”
Making sense of how Sundowns reclaimed the championship is difficult. They shouldn’t have. They were far from their best. They collected the least number of points, 59, compared with the other three seasons Mosimane led them to championship glory. They also scored the least number of goals, 40, in a season under “Jingles”.
Sundowns had to juggle a hectic schedule that saw them at one point return from Rabat in Morocco after taking on Wydad Casablanca in the semifinal of the Champions League, only to immediately drive to Thohoyandou to face Black Leopards in their slaughterhouse.
Mosimane vs the PSL
Defying those odds is what excites Mosimane about this league triumph. But what spoiled it for him was his war of words with the PSL on the Wayne Arendse matter. The PSL dragged its feet in punishing Sundowns for fielding Arendse against Bidvest Wits in October last year.
The rules stipulate that any changes made in the starting XI, after the team sheet has been submitted, must come from those who are on the bench, while those on the stands can only start on the bench. Arendse went from the stands straight into the starting XI to replace Morena, who was injured during warm-up. Sundowns were only punished in April, slapped with a monetary fine instead of having a point docked.
Their saving grace was that they consulted the match commissioner, who erroneously gave them the green light. The PSL’s disciplinary committee was scathing towards the PSL in its ruling. The governing body reacted by appealing the sentence, pushing for Wits to be given three points and handed a 3-0 win.
The handling of the matter and the war of words between Mosimane and the PSL dampened the mood around the finale, with Sundowns going into the last match uncertain of the outcome. The only thing they knew was that they needed to beat Stars. Even if they were docked a point after the victory, they would still be league champions.
“It’s bittersweet with all the drama that we have had in this title race,” Mosimane said. “There were a lot of people who were swearing at me and all that. As I have told you, I have made enemies. It is okay. It was for the good of football. I have to protect my work because I work very hard. So when I think that where I have put my energy and time, and I am short-changed, I don’t compromise there, I fight. It’s like when you have to protect your family. These boys are my family.”
Mosimane’s real family has paid a heavy price for Sundowns’ success. The 54-year-old doesn’t spend much time with them because of his obsessive nature and the thoroughness of his preparation. In April last year, Mosimane’s wife was hijacked outside their home in Johannesburg while he was leading his team to a win over Golden Arrows in Pretoria. That incident hit Mosimane hard. He even talked about taking a sabbatical because he believed that maybe it wouldn’t have happened had he been around.
Crazy working hours
To prepare for just one match, Mosimane watches his opponent’s past three matches before dissecting them and coming up with a strategy. He does that before he reads the report of the club’s three analysts – Goolam Valodia and Mario Masha analyse their opponents, while Musi Matlaba looks at Sundowns. The trio then submit reports to Mosimane along with the players, who each have to write a report on how they played in their most recent game, how they plan to improve in the upcoming match and how they will get the better of the player they will come up against.
Mosimane reads all of these reports after he has done his own analysis so that, should there be something missing, he can raise it. This sees Mosimane and his technical team exchange emails as late as 1am and their day starting as early as 3am.
And then there is Kabelo Rangoaga, the club’s fitness trainer, who is the brains behind Sundowns’ players being able to cope with their extensive workload. That’s why Sundowns president Patrice Motsepe was full of praise for not only Mosimane but also the club’s entire technical team.
“Pitso is black, he is African, he is South African and is one of us,” Motsepe said. “You’ve got to feel a sense of unique pride. A few years ago, he said that he might go on a sabbatical, and we have to think about that because this job is stressful. I am proud of Pitso because he works very, very hard along with Manqoba.
“This is a South African, African and black technical team. That must give encouragement to many of our people, not just boys and men but girls and women as well, to say that here are some of our own from the townships and rural areas doing well. We have a duty to all our people, black or white. But we also have a unique obligation to the communities and societies where we come from.
“We must also take into account the history of this country. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that the role, respect, acknowledgement and success of African and black achievement is fulfilled. That’s important. I thank Pitso and I am very proud of him.”
A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens doesn’t know his Mamelodi Sundowns from his Free State Stars, nor would he be able to differentiate Pretoria from Bethlehem because of the not-so-small matter of him dying before they were established. But his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, perfectly described what happened at Goble Park on the last day of the premiership season. While Sundowns were chasing the championship, Ea Lla Koto were fighting to save their lives.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” Dickens wrote in arguably the most famous opening in literature.
Sundowns’ “season of light” ended with them lifting the league while Stars’ “season of darkness” ended with their players sprawled on the pitch, dejected at being relegated to the first division. They didn’t even have much time to mourn as ecstatic Sundowns’ fans stormed the pitch.
Everything about that match made it feel like Sundowns were at home. Their fans came in their thousands, which resulted in a delayed kickoff. They entered the stadium by any means necessary, some forced their way and others jumped over the wall. When they were inside, they used everything at their disposal to get a good view of history in the making.
They sat in trees, others perched on the roof of a neighbouring building, a group sat on the advertising board bearing the stadium’s name and a handful found a place to barely sit on the floodlight poles. That chaotic sitting arrangement looked like a masterpiece when they were at full voice, singing ha ene pula ya medipi, calling for the soothing rain that pours nonstop.
That rain didn’t come. If it had, it would have masked Stars’ tears and made it difficult for coach Nikola Kavazović to have a soothing smoke before admitting that he felt “like shit” at seeing his team relegated to the first division. That rain wouldn’t have dampened the spirits of the Sundowns supporters. They partied the night away and even tried to storm the changing room when Sundowns’ players retreated to it after their victory lap.
Sundowns’ big cheque
“Everybody likes to say that Sundowns are supposed to win the league because they have a big cheque,” Mosimane said. “Sundowns had a big cheque before I came here, but there were seven years of drought. The cheque was there, probably that time the cheque was bigger than the one I have … What’s important is that when players are recruited, they must know why they are coming here and what they are going to do.
“They must know that football isn’t about playing football alone, they must know that it’s about winning trophies and making history. [Hlompho] Kekana and Denis Onyango have six league titles, just like [Daine] Klate. Not everybody can do that. It means you must be consistent for eight years to win six titles.
“We want the boys to be millionaires. We want the boys to make money. We want the boys to change their parents’ lives. That’s what is important to us. We sell the right story. Don’t sell a myth, that we are a big club and the supporters are so many following the club. That story doesn’t work anymore.”