Though long retired from playing, Pitso “Jingles” Mosimane hardly had a beard back in 2001 and the fat content in his body was miniscule. His was a typical football story of a former star trying to break into coaching. Only he was not typical.
Whereas many an ex-star took it for granted that their success on the field would automatically translate to glory on the bench, Jingles knew it would take more than simply telling his players about his success with Jomo Cosmos, Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates, or boasting of his time in Greece, to succeed as a coach.
The fire in his flat belly burned just as hot then as it does now in his 56-year-old protruding tummy, which threatens to send the buttons on his crisp white shirt scattering as we sit down for the interview at his house on the eve of his departure for Egypt.
That he is now the coach of Al Ahly is neither through chance nor luck. Since he replaced Bruce Grobbelaar to become caretaker coach of a SuperSport United side floundering on the brink of relegation in the middle of 2001, Mosimane has dreamed big.
During an interview at the SuperSport offices in Randburg long before he won his first trophy in 2004, Mosimane let me in on his ambitions. “Of course, I want to win trophies. Why coach if you don’t dream of titles? But I want more than that. I want to coach in Africa. I want to experience football on the continent. And even if it means I start with a club in Swaziland, that would be fine.”
It was an answer from left field. After all, then – and to a large extent now – local coaches only wanted to coach the traditional big two or, for the more ambitious ones, the national team.
Jingles, though, dreamed differently. That he turned the hitherto unheralded SuperSport into local cup specialists and championship contenders, who even had a good run in continental competitions, should be common knowledge. Ditto for the fact that Mosimane coached Bafana Bafana.
The road to Club of the Century
It was while he was the national team coach that Patrice Motsepe began making overtures.
During a lunchtime interview in Sandton at the time, the Mamelodi Sundowns president came into the restaurant we were at for a chat. He directed his parting words at me: “Talk to him, man. You’re his friend. Convince him to come join Sundowns.”
“Would you go?” I asked.
He chuckled again and tucked into his meal.
In almost eight years at Sundowns, Mosimane has established himself as one of the continent’s foremost coaches. And his appointment as coach of Africa’s foremost club is not a fluke. The man has earned his spurs.
Granted, he was helped by the fact that he worked for a club with means. This much he admitted during our recent interview. “Of course, the president made his resources available for us, and without that we would not have achieved this.”
But he worked his socks off to ensure that success. Those who have worked with him speak of how he often called them late at night or in the early hours of the morning for a discussion about a play that went wrong in a match or a result that didn’t go their way.
Sundowns players analyse their play, the team’s game and the opposition individually, because they dare not be found wanting in discussions with the coach. Once, Mosimane told me how he sometimes envies many of his Premier Soccer League (PSL) counterparts, particularly the ones from Europe.
“These guys are on holiday. They spend time at the malls or in restaurants. Some are at golf courses most of the time. That’s the life, hey. I wish I had that. But I cannot. I have got to work. Who is going to find out about our next opposition in the preliminary round of the [CAF] Champions League if I don’t do the research myself?”
It is for that reason that there are no less than four DStv decoders in his house, most of which are low on memory, filled as they are with recordings of matches from all over the continent as well as lots of basketball matches and documentaries. He loves basketball, does Mosimane.
“I’m a big fan of Phil Jackson. The man is a legend. I’d love to be at that level some day. But it takes hard work, hey. You don’t just wake up and get there,” he said in an interview a few years ago.
We were in his study then, and the bookshelf could easily have been that of a top public library, it was that full. He gifted me one of the books, Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings.
That he admires the legendary coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers confirms that he dreams big.
And as he opened up about his move to Ahly, he spoke of how he wishes to see the likes of his protégé Rhulani Mokwena making it big in Europe.
“I always tell Rhulani that they are the generation of local coaches to go to Europe. And how does Rhulani go to Europe? Pitso must go to Egypt and show that we can take on the big jobs. Of course, it is difficult. I was talking to [former Manchester United striker] Dwight Yorke the other time when we were analysts together and he was saying how difficult it is for them [black coaches] to enter that space [the English Premier League]. But [white] guys who didn’t even play get the chance. Look, it has taken over 100 years for Ahly to hire a black coach. But those of us who get these chances, if you win games, that might help [open the doors for others].”
Entering the lion’s den
Of all the reactions to Mosimane’s appointment as coach of Al Ahly, perhaps the most telling was a tweet by an Egyptian-American by the name of Hosam Gabr. “You guys gotta be proud he’s the first African coach outside Egypt to take charge,” @SamGabr14 tweeted.
Granted, a section of Sundowns fans expressed disappointment and anger at Mosimane for having ditched their club like a hot potato. This, after all, was a man who had just led them to a third successive domestic championship title, a fifth in his tenure and 10th overall for the Brazilians since the advent of the PSL.
That he had also just signed a four-year extension to his deal would have made his sudden departure that much more difficult to bear for Masandawana.
But there can be no denying that Jingles’ move is a moment of which to be proud, and not only for the South African football fraternity but for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. For the huge institution that is the 103-year-old African Club of the Century to pick a coach from this region to revive their fortunes says to black coaches that there is nothing to stop them from dreaming big. Surely, if Pitso can make that huge step up, so can they.
There was a second part to Gabr’s tweet, though. One that essentially sums up best the kind of cauldron in which Jingles now finds himself: “I believe if he doesn’t win the Champions League in one month, he will be back.”
A bit exaggerated, perhaps, for surely Ahly would not judge Mosimane’s abilities in a mere three matches, would they? The Red Devils are in the Champions League semifinal, where they will face off against Mosimane’s big rivals, Wydad Casablanca of Morocco, in a two-leg clash next month for a spot in the final against either Zamalek – Ahly’s sworn enemies in Cairo – or Raja Casablanca.
Do I hear South Africans say Chippa United in reference to the premiership club from the Eastern Cape whose boss is renowned for his trigger-happiness?
Granted, Ahly have signed Mosimane for the main purpose that he leads them to continental glory following an uncharacteristic seven-year dry spell since their last victory over Orlando Pirates in 2013. But while failure to win the Champions League will put the former Bafana Bafana coach on the back foot in a big way, Ahly chairperson Mahmoud El Khatib is a football man – a legendary Ahly star from the 1970s and 1980s – and would most likely exercise some patience with his new coach.
Not that Mosimane is unaware of what he has gotten himself into. “This is like coaching [Real] Madrid or Barca in Europe. It’s like coaching Flamengo or Santos, or River Plate or Boca Juniors in South America. It is as huge as that. So you say to yourself, let me go there.
“Of course, you know the risks are big in those big clubs. If you look at the record of the team itself, you won’t be going easily because coaches don’t last in that space. But I could say the same thing about when I came to Mamelodi Sundowns. The lifespan of coaches at Sundowns was not even a year; it was about eight to nine months before I came in. And I said to myself, do I want to go to that environment? But look what came out – almost eight years came out. So, it’s either you go there and believe you can succeed.
“I don’t go to a space where I don’t think it can work out. I believe it will work out because I’ve played against Zamalek, I’ve played against Al Ahly. And not once. Those are the dominant teams that win the league in that space. So, what else should I be afraid of in that space? And they are competing against Wydad that I’ve played against, I think, 10 times.”
He always has been a can-do guy, Pitso Mosimane. And while it really is a cauldron into which he has dived, if ever there is a local coach who can make a success of his two-year contract with the continent’s biggest club, it is Mosimane.