African Champions League: South African football will be the winner in Casablanca, says Stuart Baxter

African Champions League: South African football will be the winner in Casablanca, says Stuart Baxter
Kaizer Chiefs coach Stuart Baxter has been tasked with ending Amakhosi's silverware drought but he is off to a rocky start. (Photo: Ahmed Hasan / Gallo Images)

It’s a great occasion for Chiefs, and the opposition team – Al Ahly – is led by SA coach Pitso Mosimane.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Whichever way things turn out in Casablanca, Stuart Baxter is right to suggest South African football will be the winner as Kaizer Chiefs clash with Al Ahly to decide the African Champions League title.

It should provide a pleasing distraction amid this week’s looting and carnage with sport so often able to provide relief in times of distress, even if temporarily, especially if Chiefs do “the impossible” and win the African Champions League for the first time.

“It’s a marvellous occasion for Kaizer Chiefs and, I have to say too, it’s an unbelievable achievement for South Africa,” Baxter, the new Chiefs coach, told DM168 in his only interview before departing for Morocco this week.

“You’ve got Kaizer Chiefs on the one side and Al Ahly, led by South Africans, on the other. Let’s not forget, it’s a real South African event and I think that’s something that football in South Africa must be proud of.”

Certainly, the hiring of Pitso Mosimane to take charge of the continent’s most successful club was a massive breakthrough for black coaches, who for years complained of marginalisation and being ignored.

Most black club owners have been the least liberal in offering opportunity, still regularly appointing flaky Latins or opportunistic Europeans with little pedigree, save for the fact that they are foreign.

Subtle racism is as prevalent elsewhere in the African game as it is in South Africa and so it was bold of the Cairo club to look south and appoint a black African coach for the first time in more than a century of the club’s history. Mosimane, cognisant of being a role model, has not disappointed.

The fact he is still going strong at Ahly, where former Platinum Stars and SuperSport United coach Cavin Johnson serves as his assistant and he has a number of his old Sundowns staff on board too, is an achievement on its own.

There is little latitude in the Arab football world for failure, no matter the odds, but Mosimane has kept going, slowly ticking off one task after the other since taking over, and has already amassed an impressive trophy haul.

He arrived in Egypt last October to coach the side ahead of the conclusion of last season’s Champions League and quickly ensured another trophy for his new club – a record extending ninth in the continent’s top club competition.

He then completed the domestic league and cup double, took Ahly to the bronze medal at the Club World Cup in Qatar and in recent months has won the African Super Cup.

Ordinarily that sort of return would buy years of tenure, but Mosimane knows all too well the insatiable appetite for success that the Arab world’s favourite club enjoys and that any loss to the unfancied Chiefs tomorrow could see a hastily purchased one-way ticket back home to Johannesburg.

He is nervous of what he and Ahly go up against, and said as much last week: “With my former club I know what I’m getting but Chiefs are unpredictable,” he said in a reference to easily eliminating Mamelodi Sundowns in the quarter-finals in May.

Chiefs’ managed progress to the final, and the most prestigious game in their 51-year history, comes on the back of a miserable domestic season.

That they have got so far in the Champions League despite proving unable to beat the likes of Baroka FC, Black Leopards and Maritzburg United, speaks to the strength of the South African league, but much more importantly injects life back into a brand that was beginning to fray at the edges.

There remains no doubt Chiefs are still the country’s best supported club but new, younger fans make the choice of who they are going to support from the ranks of winners, rather than by their father’s persuasion, and Chiefs have lost a lot of traction after six seasons without a single trophy.

Al Ahly coach Pitso Mosimane during the CAF Champions League quarterfinal at Lucas Moripe Stadium on 22 May 2021 in Pretoria. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

This domestic campaign was their worst, yet they are in the final of the continent’s biggest club competition.

Chiefs spent the last months floundering around uncharted waters in the nether regions of the standings before a final flurry allowed them a top eight finish. But, for the first time, they lost more league games than they won and ended with a negative goal difference.

How they managed to  progress to the Champions League decider is a puzzle, although the fact they did not concede a single home goal in seven games is an immediate pointer.

Yet watching the ball whizz agonisingly close to their net on numerous occasions in the semi-final, second leg stalemate with Wydad Casablanca at Soccer City strengthens the mystery.

It is an obvious question to ask captain Bernard Parker: “Are you guys as astounded as the rest of us that you have got this far in the Champions League after such a rubbish season at home?”

“I wouldn’t say it is a surprise, it was more of a mental issue. Domestically things didn’t go well and then it became very tough to dig yourself out of the ground. Doing well on the continent was very motivational and we’ve looked to keep it that way,” was his reply.

Baxter, who has now got a work permit and will sit on the bench after engineering the semi-final success over Wydad from the stands, offers a realistic preview.

“I think we’ve got a decent chance because we are in a final. But certainly we are the underdogs. They will be devastated if they don’t beat us, I’m sure.

“But our players certainly think that there is a scenario where we can beat them and we are not beaten before the game has started. We are hoping we are going to give a very, very good account of ourselves and just be better than they think we are.”

The mental aspect might be the key. “They are an efficient outfit and they are used to winning,” Baxter adds.

“That’s probably their biggest weapon … they are used to winning, they believe they will win games when they go into them, both in the league and on the continent.

“We’ve got to make sure that they don’t build on that by feeling more and more comfortable as the game goes on, and we’ve got to hurt them more than they think we are going to hurt them and sort of be an affront to their manhood, so to speak.”

The ball-kicking, though, is best reserved for the pitch, where Ahly bring a hybrid of Mosimane’s preference for the possession game with the pace and directness so long characteristic of top north African teams.

Their top striker also looks in peak form. Mohamed Sherif scored twice in the Egyptian league on Sunday and now has a tally of eight from his last seven games.

But the threats to Chiefs will come from multiple fronts and are going to be hard to resist.

Should AmaKhosi, however, be able to engineer another shock, people will be back on the streets again – this time, for all the right reasons. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores until 24 July 2021. From 31 July 2021, DM168 will be available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores.


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