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Young and hungry for success — Rulani Mokwena an avid scholar of the beautiful game and life

Young and hungry for success — Rulani Mokwena an avid scholar of the beautiful game and life
Rulani Mokwena during the Mamelodi Sundowns media open day at Chloorkop on 4 October, 2023 in Midrand. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena shares the secrets to his success as a coach, how he embraces what are meant to be derogatory comparisons to Pep Guardiola, and the Pitso Mosimane influence.

In life, there are people who respond to questions merely for the sake of having something to say. Whether it is of substance or not, it matters not. 

However, many who have interacted with Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena — in formal or informal setups — will vehemently vouch that the 36-year-old is no such person. Every word that eloquently tumbles out of his mouth is measured, considered and backed by tons of internal knowledge.

Mokwena has always been open about his love for learning, which has instilled a dogged pursuit of knowledge in him. A trait that sometimes paints him as being someone who is overly obsessive with regard to minor details.

Being a perfectionist, as Mokwena undoubtedly is, has its pros. If he was not so detail-orientated and tough on himself, there is a very high chance that he would not be coaching one of the biggest clubs on the African continent at just 36 years.

Due to the standards that the team has set for itself over the last decade in particular — handing the reins to Mokwena alone, exactly a year ago this month, was a risk for Masandawana’s hierarchy. So far it is a gamble that has mostly paid off.

Prior to assuming his sole role in October 2022, Mokwena was part of the “three musketeers” alongside Steve Komphela and Manqoba Mngqithi. The three co-coaches lived up to their nickname when they clinched a domestic treble in the 2021/2022 season.

A few months after that though, Mokwena assumed the role of sole head coach. Mngqithi is now his assistant, while Komphela has spread his wings to join Swallows as a head coach.

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena celebrates during the DStv Premiership match between Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns at Orlando Stadium on September 20, 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Unbeatable

Since then, Mokwena has guided Sundowns to a DStv Premiership title, a first Caf Champions League semifinal in three seasons, as well as the recent MTN8 final which they lost to Orlando Pirates.

The team has also won their first eight Premiership games so far this season. Stretching their unbeaten record in the domestic league to a record 32. Mokwena has overseen 28 of those league games as head coach.

These are the pros of being a perfectionist. Nevertheless, there are cons too. 

For example, Mokwena — whose uncle Jomo Sono is a South African soccer legend — hardly has a social life. He spends his time trying to improve his craft with the hope that he can become one of the greatest.

Being so obsessed with details can also result in rigidness and not wanting to move away from things that have worked for you in the past. However, Mokwena is open to change.            

“One of the most important things as you develop as a coach is to question your beliefs… You see it with the best coaches in the world. Coaches such as Thomas Tuchel and Pep Guardiola, who are constantly evolving,” Mokwena told The Athletic’s Tifo Football Podcast.

“Society is constantly evolving. And because society is constantly evolving, the things within society are evolving too. Fashion. Technology. And football. So, my understanding as a coach is that I don’t have a fixed way of doing things. I constantly question my outlook on football,” the 36-year-old added.

“Part of that is a huge requirement in terms of the hours I invest in terms of watching a lot of football. Not only my team or the opposition. You’ll find me watching teams in Lesotho and Botswana. The USA. Of course, the English Premier League.”

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena during the DStv Premiership match between Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns at Orlando Stadium on 20 September 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Humble beginnings 

The Soweto-born mentor — who began his career as a youth coach — was handed his big coaching break by the legendary Pitso Mosimane, one of the most influential African coaches of all time.

After some impressive displays as a coach in the junior ranks, Mosimane roped in Mokwena as one of his assistants back in 2014.

“He afforded me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity… I’m appreciative of the opportunity he gave me,” Mokwena told the Tifo Football Podcast.

“From the learnings and outcomes that came out from my time working with him, the number one was how he balanced winning with real intensity and a certain style of play that he’s always been loyal towards. Plus, his man management. Which is second to none.”

He would branch out three years after that big break. Mokwena joined Pirates as Milutin Sredojević’s assistant. He spent two years in the position before being appointed as interim coach in 2019, when the Serbian coach suddenly resigned.

In 2020, he returned “home” to Sundowns. A few months before Mosimane departed for a historic move to Al Ahly. Since then, he has grown from strength to strength.

Rulani Mokwena, Sundowns

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena and Cassius Mailula during the CAF Champions League match against Wydad Athletic Club at Loftus Stadium on 20 May, 2023 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

In that time, some of his mannerisms have grown to resemble Guardiola, the Manchester City manager. Resulting in opposition supporters referring to him as “Pep Lite”. In essence, a diluted version of Guardiola.

Mokwena has no qualms with this comparison. He considers Guardiola, alongside Jose Mourinho, as one of his biggest managerial influences.       

“If you look at music, some of the greatest artists speak fondly about some of the musicians that they look up to,” shared Mokwena.

“For example, Usher speaks about how he looked up to Michael Jackson and how he derived his dance moves from the famous moonwalk — which is synonymous with Michael Jackson. This is also true in business. In politics. A lot of successful people have had the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants,” added the tactician.

“Not to get too technical, but all of us have mirror neurons. It happens that the more you watch someone and the more you spend time with someone, you end up picking up certain mannerisms from that person that you admire. That’s a scientific fact.”

That he will be one of the coaching greats may not be a scientific fact. Nonetheless, on his current trajectory, he is well placed to join the likes of Gavin Hunt and Gordon Igesund as one of the greatest South African coaches of all time.

If he grows even more he may well surpass Mosimane as the greatest South African coach. DM  

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