It was October 2011. Just over a year on from having the biggest football party on their doorstep and making history by becoming the first African country to host a FIFA World Cup, Pitso Mosimane’s South Africa were going into the final round of qualifiers for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.
A shock 2-1 defeat in Niger the month before had meant that a win was needed at home to Sierra Leone to guarantee a spot in the finals. The issue was that South Africa didn’t know that they needed a win. Mosimane set his side up for a draw as the South African FA were under the illusion that goal difference would be used to separate them and Niger at the top of the group, not head to head.
What ended up happening was a national embarrassment.
At the same time, Egypt comfortably beat Niger 3-0 which swung the goal difference between Niger and South Africa at the top of Group G but not the head to head so a draw wasn’t going to be enough for South Africa. They needed a win against Sierra Leone, except for some reason, nobody seemed to know that.
The game dragged on as players wasted time and slowed the game down thinking that they would qualify with a 0-0 draw and as the final whistle went in Nelspruit there were celebrations as according to everyone inside the Mbombela Stadium, The Bafana Bafana had reached their first AFCON Finals since 2008, except they hadn’t.
Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
When the news eventually filtered through, the fallout as expected was severe. The South African FA tried to file an unsuccessful complaint claiming that goal difference should’ve been used instead of head to head as it is “the traditional way of determining” and after six more friendlies and a 1-1 draw against Ethiopia in the opening qualifier for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Mosimane was sacked.
It was inevitable and a huge blow to the momentum that had been built up from the World Cup in 2010. Mosimane had continued what Carlos Alberto Parreira had built on from those iconic results against France and Mexico in the summer of 2010 by doing what he thought was enough to reach a major tournament. It wasn’t a great side or a refereeing decision that cost his job in the end but an admin error that had big consequences.
There was another way for Mosimane to restore his career post that incident though. He had been involved with the domestic side of the South African game with SuperSport United for six years before he became involved with the national side in 2006 and that’s where he had to head back to. He’d lead SuperSport to two consecutive second-place finishes in the early 2000s and after almost a full year away from management, Mosimane became the new manager of Mamelodi Sundowns in December 2012.
They hadn’t won a trophy since 2008 and had just sacked Johan Neeskeens. It was a huge opportunity for Mosimane, this was one of South Africa’s biggest clubs that had won five league titles and had reached the final of the CAF Champions League in 2001 but was underperforming. The potential for the club was huge with mining billionaire Patrice Motsepe being the majority shareholder.
Neeskens had some notable success as head coach such as beating Powerlines 24-0 (yes 24) in the Nedbank Cup (the main domestic cup competition) but parted company after a string of poor results had left Sundowns second from bottom with two wins in 12. Mosimane asked for time to change the fortunes around of the club and stated that ‘You can’t just come with a big broom and sweep.’
In his first half-season in charge, he led Sundowns to a respectable 10th place finish and only lost three games in the 17 he was in charge for. It was still Sundowns’ joint-worst finish ever in the Premiership but Mosimane had steadied the ship out.
The 2013 summer transfer window had also given Sundowns a chance to try and add some more quality to their side. Current Rangers midfielder Bongani Zungu joined from the University of Pretoria’s side in a swap deal with defenders Buhle Mkhwanazi and Siyabonga Ngubane going the other way, Zimbabwean winger Khama Billitat had signed from Ajax Cape Town who was also joined by fellow countryman Cuthbert Malajila from Maritzburg United and Togo international Dové Womé.
Mosimane also had to cut player salaries after the erratic spending under Neeskens. He’d put his side in a much healthier position from when he took over the club the previous December. The results reflected that. A 3-1 win away to Bloemfontein Celtic on the opening day followed by a six-game unbeaten run that included a 7-1 home win over AmaZulu had put Sundowns top of the league. The experienced players in the squad such as Surprise Moriri, Hlompho Kekana, and Alje Schut alongside the likes of Womé and Kwanda Mngonyama who were 22 and 19 that season were causing a lot of issues for the rest of the Premiership.
But as expected, reigning champions Kaizer Chiefs led by Scottish journeyman manager Stuart Baxter, were desperate to hold onto their title and by February were 13 points clear of Sundowns at the top of the table. Chiefs had marquee South African internationals in their squad such as Itumeleng Khune and Siphiwe Tshabalala and nine consecutive wins had given them a good shot at being champions again.
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images
After the AmaZulu game, Sundowns only picked up three wins in eight, a 1-0 home defeat to Chiefs in late January didn’t exactly give them the upper hand going into the last stretch of the season. Injuries had played their part alongside Chiefs being very resilient in their title defense.
The title was pretty much a given at this stage for Baxter’s Chiefs and it looked like Mosimane’s Sundowns would have to settle for no trophies again. A quarter-final defeat to Orlando Pirates in the Nedbank Cup in April meant that the league was the only real chance of any silverware.
A game in the league between the two sides in February was do-or-die for Sundowns’ league title hopes. The lead that Chiefs had at the top had been cut to 11 points and Sundowns had two games in hand, six points from those would cut the gap to five and keep a title challenge alive.
It was a tight, edgy match as expected. Sundowns had chances in the first half but didn’t seize on them and then halfway through the second half, there was a turning point in the title race. Teko Modise had the ball played into him 30 yards from goal with four Sundowns players inside the Pirates box to find.
He thought about trying to score himself before turning and playing the ball into the path of Kekana who ran onto the pass and struck it with his laces as hard as he possibly could. It flew into the top right-hand corner and gave Sundowns the lead and the win on the night.
It was a nervy last 20 minutes. Kermit Erasmus missed a sitter for Pirates in the last minute of stoppage time, hitting the post inside the six-yard box. Sundowns however managed to hold onto their lead and had just about done enough to come away with the three points. Crucially, the result put the pressure back onto Chiefs who saw Sundowns breathing down their necks again.
Mosimane’s side only lost two more games that season and went on an incredible run of 10 straight league wins to take the title race to the wire. The 30-game short format of the Premiership meant that Sundowns couldn’t afford to drop points, a tricky away fixture at Soccer City Stadium against Chiefs on Matchday 26 would have a big say in the title.
Sundowns had now managed to plug the gap to just three points with four games to play. Chiefs still had a game in hand two weeks after this against Bidvest Wits and a win would pretty much hand them the title. The pressure wasn’t on Chiefs as a draw would still give them the upper hand. It seemed like it was heading that way as well, the game was a 0-0 stalemate going into the final third of the match.
Tefu Mashamaite had hit the crossbar with a header halfway through the second half for Chiefs but that was as close as anyone came to breaking the deadlock. But with 15 minutes to play, Modise sent in a cross aimed for Billiat which missed everyone and ended up in the back of the Chiefs net. It was a poor goal to concede for Chiefs and it put Sundowns right back in the title race as the game ended 1-0 to the away side.
All of a sudden, the game in hand that Chiefs had was now huge. Mosimane had guided his side to be level on points at the top of the table with five games to play. Goal difference was the only thing separating the two sides heading into the climax of the season. Chiefs dropped points again the following week, losing 1-0 at home to Mpumalanga Black Aces and crucially were held 0-0 by Wits in their game in hand.
Another draw against Free State Stars had given Sundowns the upper hand. Mosimane carefully led his side to three consecutive 1-0 wins over Bloemfontein Celtic, Mpumalanga Black Aces and Moroka Swallows to put his side three points clear with two games to play.
A 3-0 win against local rivals SuperSport United in the Tshwane derby on the penultimate day of the season secured the title. Modise scored a gorgeous chip 35 yards from goal to make it two on the night which added to the party atmosphere created inside the packed Loftus Versfeld Stadium. The seven-year drought had ended and Mosimane had played a big part in that. He’d changed the club from being one that was in serious danger of being relegated to one that was the best in South Africa in just over a season and a half.
Photo: Steve Haag/M&G
That title win set the groundwork for more success with Sundowns and after another league title in 2016, Mosimane went one better and took his side to Continental glory. The CAF Champions League is traditionally dominated by North African sides. Before 2016 only one other South African side had won the competition, and Egyptian sides had won the Champions League 14 times followed by five for Moroccon sides and four for Tunisians. Even though Mosimane had built a great squad in the years he was at Sundowns, African glory was something to dream of.
A 2-2 defeat on away goals in the second round to Congolese side Vita Club had sent Sundowns out of the competition. It was another defeat for Sundowns from a Congolese side after their exit from the 2015 edition to TP Mazembe in the first round.
African football is never straightforward or without controversy, however. The 2018/19 Champions League final second leg was abandoned and they never replayed it, declaring the winner from only the first leg. The 2016 edition had similar controversial incidents. (most do.) Sundowns were allowed back into the competition despite losing over two legs due to Vita Club fielding an ineligible player in their preliminary round tie against Mafunzo of Zanzibar.
In order to be reinstated back into the Champions League, Sundowns had to play a tie against Ghanian side Medeama in the CAF Confederation Cup. (Africa’s equivalent to the Europa League.) A 3-3 away goals win was enough to reinstate Sundowns back into the Champions League and after finishing top of a tough group that included Zamalek, Enyimba, and E.S Setif, who at the time had nine Champions league titles between them, Sundowns had set up a tie with Zambian side Zesco United in the semi-finals.
All of a sudden, Sundowns were in touching distance of the final. A 2-1 defeat in the first leg away in Zambia wasn’t ideal but a 1-0 win at home would put them in with a chance of winning their first-ever Champions League title. The Levy Mwanawasa Stadium pitch was dry and overall was in a poor state and Zesco could’ve easily have scored more than two goals. Billiat’s goal for Sundowns on 87 minutes had given them that vital away goal and a 2-0 win at home had put Sundowns into the final. Goals from Anthony Laffor and Percy Tau had set up a two-legged final with Egyptian giants Zamalek, a side that Sundowns had beaten twice already in the group stage.
Zamalek had nearly come close to complete humiliation in the semi-final. Leading 4-0 from the first leg against Wydad Casablanca, they lost the second leg 5-2 away and almost threw away a great chance to proceed to the final in front of the intimidating ‘winners’ Ultra group that Wyad possess. They did however have far more experience in this situation than Sundowns with five Champions League titles to their name and one African Cup Winners’ Cup and the benefit of playing away first.
Sundowns chose to play the first leg at the Lucas Masterpieces Moripe Stadium instead of the Mbombela and the running track around the pitch combined with the beaming sunlight and big floodlights gave the tie the ambiance of a classic African football spectacle.
Mosimane had to go out and set his side up to score goals. A 0-0 draw or 1-0 defeat would leave the tie in a bad place for his side going to the second leg in Egypt. They only went and scored three. Anthony Laffour set the tone with a great turn through the Zamalek defence and a strike into the bottom right-hand corner to give Sundowns the lead on half an hour, Tebego Langerman made it two 10 minutes later, with a goal similar to Madise’s against Kaiser Chiefs in 2014.
His cross looped over the entire defence and Ahmed El-Shennawy in the Zamalek goal. And then just inside the second half, Percy Tau’s shot was deflected off Eslam Gamal and past El-Shennawy to make it three. Sundowns had put themselves in a great position going back to Egypt.
A 1-0 defeat in Alexandria sealed Mosimane and Sundowns’ first Champions League title. As expected, Zamalek threw everything they could to find three goals but in the end, the deficit from the first leg was too much for them.
Photo: Ibrahim Ramadan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Pitso Mosimane and Sundowns had achieved something extraordinary. The man who was in charge of the national team during one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of South African football had not only turned his team league winners, but champions of Africa and eventually one of the best sides South Africa has seen.
During Mosimane’s tenure at Sundowns, they’d eventually win five league titles and two Nedbank Cups. He left Sundowns in 2020 to join Egypt’s most successful club Al Ahly where he won his second Champions League title and Al Ahly’s ninth after beating Zamalek, again.
By: James Young
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Mike Hewitt – FIFA