Sport

LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

Mamelodi Sundowns are feeling the effects of competing on all fronts

Mamelodi Sundowns are feeling the effects of competing on all fronts
Thapelo Morena of Mamelodi Sundowns and Mashweu Mphahlele of Moroka Swallows during their DStv Premiership match at Dobsonville Stadium in Soweto on 15 April 2024. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Winning consistently is not easy, especially when there is a constant expectation to do so. Which is what Mamelodi Sundowns face owing to the precedent they have set domestically.

With each passing Premier Soccer League (PSL) season for the past decade or so there has been increasing pressure on Mamelodi Sundowns to consistently perform.

After all, the Tshwane side has more financial muscle than a large number of teams in the DStv Premiership combined. For the most part, Masandawana – owned by the Motsepe family – have lived up to the expectations that come with their large spending every season.

Sundowns will imminently win a seventh Premiership crown in a row. During this dominant run the record South African champions have also picked up the odd domestic knockout cup. In 2023, the Tshwane heavyweights made more history by clinching the inaugural African Football League.

One title has remained largely out of reach though for Masandawana during their era of sustained domestic superiority: the Caf Champions League.  

It is an accolade that a large number of South African soccer supporters use as a barometer of success, specifically for Sundowns, as SuperSport United head coach Gavin Hunt once pointed out.

Sundowns

Mamelodi Sundowns team before their DStv Premiership match against Moroka Swallows at Dobsonville Stadium in Soweto on 15 April 2024. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

“They should be judged in the Champions League. They should be in the semifinal and final every year and that’s where you should judge them. Because the gap is so much bigger than everybody in the league,” he said.

Thus far Sundowns have won just one Champions League, in 2016 under Pitso Mosimane. Currently they are in the semifinals of the competition for the second year on the spin – for the first time in the club’s history.

They have arrived at this point while remaining unbeaten in the league. In fact, over and above being unbeaten in a record 22 Premiership games across the 2023/24 campaign, the last time Sundowns tasted defeat in domestic league action was in September 2022, when they were downed by neighbours SuperSport.

Give credit

Despite the demands of playing games every few days due to their Champions League commitments, the players have managed to mostly maintain the level of quality that is demanded at Sundowns.  

“I have to give credit to the players because we’ve got a good group of players who are great to work with.

They understand the responsibility and the magnitude of the task of representing Mamelodi Sundowns, and that’s the most important thing,” Sundowns head coach Rulani Mokwena said recently on his players’ mental fortitude in spite of games coming one after the other.

“Without that and whatever techniques you have as a coach, it becomes very difficult if the players are not receptive and understanding the goal and the need for motivation to try and win every game. Which is the responsibility they carry.”

Sundowns Rulani Mokwena

Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena reacts during the team’s DStv Premiership match against Sekhukhune United at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on 23 April 2024. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

With the season nearing completion, fatigue has evidently crept into the Sundowns camp. Over the past month of soccer their displays have been less silky smooth, in complete contrast to the style of play they are known for.

Their recent results have been littered with hard-fought victories and draws. Last week the team lost 1-0 to Tunisian outfit Espérance in the Champions League semis. Then a completely different squad of players grinded out a 2-1 win against Sekhukhune United yesterday (23 April).

Again, Mokwena had nothing but good things to say about his team, which he admitted has shown some lethargy in recent weeks.   

“What we did [versus Sekhukhune] was nothing short of a miracle. Because without our strong mentality and character, we don’t win this game. Especially when you think about what happened in our last league match against Moroka Swallows [where we drew 2-2],” the Sundowns coach said.

Sundowns

Mamelodi Sundowns players celebrate after the African Football League final against Wydad AC at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on 12 November 2023. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

“And people can say [we have the privilege of] rotation. But you’re rotating with players that also had a trip to Tunisia. [It was] 11 hours to go there and 11 hours to come back. You are rotating with players that were on the bench, some were in the grandstands in Tunisia.

“When I say fatigue, I mean fatigue in that sense. You could see it towards the end [of the game against Sekhukhune], where the players were suffering a little bit. But we dug deep and I’m very proud,” the 37-year-old said.

The Sundowns coach expressed his belief that Sundowns are still an exceptional team, regardless of their recent displays, which included a lucky escape on penalties versus Tanzania’s Yanga in the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa need its own Bayer Leverkusen to halt Sundowns streak

“I know we are still a good team. And a difficult patch does not change that in my mind,” he said. 

Mokwena added that he believes he and this current group of players will win the African title soon enough. He cited Manchester City and Pep Guardiola as an example of the pressure that Sundowns face every season to win the Champions League.

“Is it going to be easy? No, it’s not going to be easy. Is it going to be win after win all the time? No, it’s not. Is it going to be pretty football where we play well all the time? No… But we will get there… It’s a process.”

Masandawana will tackle Espérance at Loftus Versfeld on Friday, 26 April, when they will look to overturn the first-leg deficit and reach their second Champions League final. DM

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