Daily Maverick 168

Pitso Mosimane’s big move north

Photo: Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane celebrates after winning the African Champions League (CAF) Final second leg soccer match between Zamalek and Sundowns Casablanca at Borg Al Arab stadium in Alexandria

What exactly did Egypt’s biggest club Al Ahly see in the South African coach that they broke with a century’s history to head-hunt him?

Pitso Mosimane is the first non-Egyptian African coach to lead Cairo giants Al Ahly in their illustrious 113-year history. Al Ahly, who recently fired Swiss coach René Weiler, have until now only employed coaches from Egypt or Europe.

That they looked south for a coach, from a country that is hardly a force in continental club football, means they saw something extraordinary in the 56-year-old Mosimane. But what is it exactly that made them break with a century-old tradition?

At a recent media briefing, Al Ahly president Mahmoud El Khatib mentioned the coach’s character as one of the reasons they went for him. Though he may be viewed as brash and arrogant by some, Mosimane, who played in Greece during the late 1980s and early 1990s, has the temperament that’s missing in South African football. To the Egyptians, football and religion are pursued with a passion that borders on radicalism. It is often a matter of life or even death.

The Cairo giants hold the records for CAF Champions League titles — eight —and CAF Super Cup trophies — six.

Their fiercest rivals in continental football are Zamalek, from the other side of town, and TP Mazembe, from Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The momentous nature of Mosimane’s move was underlined by a congratulatory message from President Cyril Ramaphosa. The president emphasised the political significance of Mosimane’s appointment, saying it would strengthen the bonds of friendship between the two countries at opposite ends of the continent.

Previously South African coaches Trott Moloto, Mlungisi Ngubane, Shakes Mashaba and most recently Thabo Senong have all coached outside the borders of Mzansi.

Moloto took up a post with Tanzanian giants Simba in 2005. Ngubane coached the Brave Warriors, Namibia’s national team, in 1998, and Mashaba guided the fortunes of Eswatini in 2008.

Senong, who previously coached the South African national under-20 team, is currently coach of Lesotho’s senior national team, Likuena.

Although the South African league, largely due to multimillion-rand sponsorship, has been an importer of players and coaches from across the continent since the 1970s, it has not done as well in exporting its talent in the other direction.

Sundowns midfielder Phakamani Mahlambi became the first South African to play in the Egyptian Premier League in 2017 before moving back to the Tshwane outfit last year.

Pitso moves closer to dream European job

Mosimane’s move to Egypt is crucial in several ways. Al Ahly is no ordinary club. And Egypt is a continental football powerhouse; its teams enjoy proximity, and lots of exposure, to the top European leagues, far more so than their South African peers. The Pharaohs, the country’s senior national team, are 51st in the latest Fifa rankings,  20 spots higher than Bafana Bafana. Although some may not read too much into the Fifa rankings, they are an important barometer of a nation’s football pedigree.

Mosimane is an ambitious go-getter who appears to be driven by the slogan of his former club, “the sky’s the limit”. After coaching Sundowns to five league titles and victories in the CAF Champions League and Super Cup, it was time to move on and take up a bigger challenge.

Until Mosimane led Sundowns to the continental title in 2016, South Africa, despite having one of the richest leagues in the world, had gone 15 years without continental glory.

Orlando Pirates was the first local club to win the CAF Champions League, in 1995, during what was probably the country’s golden era of football. Kaizer Chiefs followed with victory in the African Cup Winners’ Cup in 2001.

In SA, club football in the rest of Africa is generally viewed as an insignificant, financially consuming inconvenience that interferes with the domestic programme.

But in Egypt, continental club football is everything. And that fits well with Mosimane’s vision. During his tenure with Sundowns, Mosimane always expressed a burning desire to become a force in continental football.

Joining Al Ahly presents him with an opportunity to conquer Africa once more. If he succeeds, it will no doubt reflect positively on South African football and may open doors for other talented local coaches to test their skills beyond our borders. 

Fanatical support

When Al Ahly takes on cross-town rivals Zamalek, the city of Cairo, home to more than 20 million people, comes to a virtual standstill. In the streets, fans fight each other, burn vehicles, and chase police and security guards. Dozens of lives have been lost in violence related to football matches. In the last ugly incident of fan violence, more than 70 people died in a stampede during an Al Ahly game.

Egyptians follow and play the game with heart, mind, body and soul. There is no middle ground. Unlike in South Africa, where rival fans sit and sing together during derbies, in Egypt it’s different. You are either Al Ahly or Zamalek. Not both.

This is perhaps a characteristic that has made them a force to be reckoned with in African football both at club and international level. They may not be the most talented side, but their strict adherence to tactical discipline and their mental strength have given them the edge over more glamorous opposition from southern Africa and west Africa.

This is one of the reasons Al Ahly went for Mosimane. In encounters against them, Mosimane has shown the Egyptians and their Tunisian rivals that he is not easily intimidated. He has managed to transfer this energy and character to his Sundowns teams over the years.

It can be argued that, although South African teams are talented and superior in skill, they very often lack the mental strength that has propelled Sundowns into becoming a force on the continent.

Mosimane has instilled a steely mental resolve and professional approach in his players that has helped them to deal easily with the mind games for which the north Africans are notorious.

Mosimane has been called a South African Bill Shankly, the Liverpool manager whose passion for the game and his beloved Reds — along with his colourful and controversial quotes and his will to win — were legendary. Shankly was not content with just being the best. He wanted to be the very best of the best.

“If you are first, you are first. If you are second, you are nothing,” Shankly once said. Mosimane, too, abhors defeat and sometimes his comments after a loss border on unsporting behaviour.

Although the Egyptians are passionate about the game, Mosimane would do well to watch what he says there lest he be viewed by a somewhat conservative, fanatic public as an arrogant, disrespectful foreigner.

Mosimane’s time has come. What remains to be seen is whether he is the right man to take Al Ahly to the next level, as he declared he was after his rousing welcome in Cairo.

If he succeeds at Al Ahly, that will no doubt be a huge gain and boost for South African football, especially for local coaches. Is his departure good riddance? Not a chance. DM168


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