MASANDAWANA'S RISE IN AFRICAN FOOTBALLAuthor: Thomas KwenaiteThe famed South African “Brazilians”, as Mamelodi Sundowns are fondly known, are ranked as the third-best club in the continent behind the Egyptian duo of Al Ahly and Zamalek who are ranked first and second respectively. Of course, we know that in South Africa, Sundowns are the cream of the crop. Footballdatabase, a global company that gathers the data of every club’s performance both internationally and domestically, has been unable to publicly release their data due to the outbreak of Covid-19 until the last week of August 2021.

In the company’s recent findings, Mamelodi Sundowns were ranked notably higher than Africa’s Congolese giants, TP Mazembe, Morocco’s Raja Casablanca, and Wydad Casablanca. They have achieved this honourable milestone, not because of their looks or jersey colours, but because the team has earned a seat at the highly revered African table of top performers.

This is indeed a remarkable achievement for Sundowns who for many years were considered the bridesmaid of South African football. The Brazilians have made gigantic strides to ensure that through sheer hard work, sweat, blood, determination coupled with a burning desire to conquer the continent, Masandawana is now occupying a space where they have always wanted to be - a club that is always in the conversation of champions league contenders.
Gone are the days when the CAF Champions League was regarded as a gruelling, less glamorous competition. Since Bafana Ba Style won it in 2016, every local player not only wishes to participate in the continental championship, but they aim to win it and have the gold star proudly displayed on their jersey.

It all started in 1994, two years after South African clubs were allowed back into the international family of football playing nations, following a self-imposed exile lasting 27-years, when Mamelodi Sundowns first tasted international competition.

After coming up against Lesotho champions Arsenal, disposing of them 5-1 on aggregate, The Brazilians faced AS Vita of the Democratic Republic of Congo but lost 2-1 in Kinshasa. Even though they won the second leg match 3-2 to tie the contest at 4-4, they were eliminated on the away goal rule.

Their next venture into the competition was during 1999, where they faced Malawi champions Telecom Wanderers and easily brushed them aside 5-1 on aggregate to advance to the next round where they were pitted against Reunion Islanders Saint Louissienne.

But it was clear that Mamelodi Sundowns had not mastered the art of overcoming their opponents in African competitions. The trick, they were to learn in later years, was to ensure that you do not concede when playing at home, and in addition, strive to score even when playing away.
With very little experience in African competitions, everybody assumed that it would be a walk in the park. But the Islanders held Masandawana to a 1-1 draw at home and still, Downs were confident that they would prevail in the second leg away.

It was not to be as an Alain Amougou led Louissienne and stunned the proud “Brazilians” 4-2 to advance 5-3 on aggregate. A day after the shocking defeat, the Islanders offered Mamelodi Sundowns R1-m for the services of Joel “Fire” Masilela, an obscene amount of money for a player during those days. The move never materialised.

Mamelodi Sundowns truly struggled during those early days, but they re-grouped and finally in 2001, appeared to have it all worked out when they went all the way to the final. The team had the deadly dreadlocked striker Simba Marumo leading the line, Bennet Mnguni calling the shots in the midfield, while Matthew Booth marshalled the defence and Brian Baloyi kept goals, however, they unexpectedly succumbed 4-1 to Al Ahly in the final.

For the next 14 years, the Brazilians were to qualify for the Champions League, but somehow appeared to stumble when on the verge of advancing to the group stages and would be eliminated; but it all came together during 2016 when every piece of the jigsaw puzzle finally fell snugly into place.

In an incredible run of form, Bafana Ba Style eliminated Zambia’s Zesco United 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals during that magical 2016 campaign. They met Zamalek in the final and scored a sensational 3-1 aggregate victory to snatch the elusive crown and ended up being voted “African Club of the Year!”

In addition, goalkeeper Denis Onyango walked away with the African based “Player of the Year” award for his outstanding performance. Subsequently, Mamelodi Sundowns proceeded to defeat TP Mazembe for the African Super Cup and in good measure, qualified for the FIFA Club World Championship in Japan.

“It's a dream that is inspired by the ambition of the Club President, who supports us in saying he wants the club to be the best, not just in South Africa, but across the African continent,” said co-head coach Rulani Mokwena during 2020, following yet another disappointing elimination at the hands of perennial nemesis Al Ahly.

“But it wouldn't be anything without the magnitude of the loyal supporters who dream the same dream, speak the same language and have the same desire to support a club they want to see as the best in Africa. Mine is just to continue to serve and play my part in pursuing the dream of continental success,” added Mokwena.

Mamelodi Sundowns have become a nightmare to many opposition teams. The players have toughened up and the challenges of flying all over the continent, spending time at the airport whilst trying to catch connecting flights and celebrating Christmas in foreign lands, simply shows how the group has matured into a tight-knitted professional outfit.

The 2016 exploits in Africa have gained the Brazilians massive support across the continent, with supporters branches in neighbouring Eswatini, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and in North Africa as the Yellow Nation keeps growing.

The Brazilians have assembled quite a formidable squad, bringing in quality players to augment an already star-studded side that last year was brilliantly spearheaded by Namibian goal scorer Peter Shalulile; and anchored by the “rock solid” defensive partnership of Rushine de Reuck and Musa Lebusa.

Aubrey Modiba has brought a new dimension of attacking play on the wing, while Haashim Domingo and Mothobi Mvala have raised their hands as possible replacements to fill the gap in the midfield left by the injured Lebohang Maboe. Attacking wizards, Themba Zwane and Gaston Sirino, will certainly play an important part in the Brazilian’s African campaign. It goes without saying that every season presents the hope that this current group of players will emulate the glory achieved by the class of 2016.
As the club prepares for another crusade across Africa, the question on everyone’s mind is “will this be the year that Mamelodi Sundowns secures a second CAF star?”

The answer to this, as it is with any question posed to members of the Yellow Nation, will always be affirmative, “of course, The Sky is The Limit!”