Sport

TWO COACH RACE

Rulani Mokwena and José Riveiro have shown quality as PSL standout coaches in recent seasons

Rulani Mokwena and José Riveiro have shown quality as PSL standout coaches in recent seasons
Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena has said he feels undervalued despite his squad’s enviable success. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

South Africa’s soccer top flight has some outstanding coaches. Not least Steve Barker of Stellenbosch and Lehlohonolo Seema of Sekhukhune United. However, the last two seasons have belonged to Rulani Mokwena and José Riveiro, who will face off in the Nedbank Cup final on 1 June.

In sports, consistency is king. Or queen. Either way, when a sports entity is consistent, the probability of success is much higher. The chances of ruling over your opponents increase. Even then, of course, triumph is not guaranteed.

From a South African soccer context, there are no coaches that have been as consistent as Mamelodi Sundowns mentor Rulani Mokwena and his Orlando Pirates counterpart José Riveiro over the last two seasons. However, their consistency takes on contrasting guises.

Mokwena magic

On one end of the spectrum is Mokwena and his Sundowns side that tyrannically rules over the DStv Premiership. A recent 5-1 hammering of Kaizer Chiefs in the league secured a record-extending seventh league title on the trot for the Tshwane giants.

The victory took their overall tally in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) era to 14 league titles, almost double that of Chiefs and Pirates combined. The Soweto sides have just four league trophies apiece since the inception of the PSL in 1996.

Rulani Mokwena

Mamelodi Sundowns Coach Rulani Mokwena and Denis Onyango of Mamelodi Sundowns. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Even more impressive is that Masandawana are on the brink of rewriting history by becoming the first South African side to clinch the league without suffering a single defeat in a South African league campaign. If they manage to navigate their remaining six league matches successfully, they will set this impressive new record.

Yet Mokwena recently spoke about how he feels undervalued. The 37-year-old has been at the helm as sole head coach of Sundowns since October 2022.

He was placed in that position after the Masandawana hierarchy opted to dismantle the three-man coaching team he was part of alongside Manqoba Mngqithi and Steve Komphela. Mokwena now leads the pack on his own.

In that year and a half that he has been in charge, the Brazilians are yet to taste defeat in the league. That’s comfortably over 30 games of draws being the worst result for Masandawana in the Premiership. Not that they aim not to lose when they head into games. It’s always to dominate their opponents and walk away with victory.

For example, their unbeaten run in the league this season features 19 wins and five draws. Still, Mokwena — who has masterminded this success — is not feeling the love.

The coach said he sacrifices so much to ensure Sundowns maintain their success and incredible dominance in the league.

“I can’t sleep. Because the moment I sleep is the moment people will beat us. The only thing I know is to continue what we are doing, with performances and results,” Mokwena stated.

Rulani Mokwena

Tashreeq Matthews of Mamelodi Sundowns and coach Rulani Mokwena at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa. 2 May 2024. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Owing to the foundation laid by Pitso Mosimane over a number of years at Sundowns, as well as the fact that the Tshwane side has a chequebook thicker than a hardback Harry Potter novel, opposition fans often discredit Mokwena’s achievements with Masandawana.

In their eyes, anyone can coach the South African champions to regular victory and there is nothing special about the Soweto-born coach. Mokwena also has to contend with Masandawana supporters who see the league as a guaranteed trophy before the season even starts.

Their barometer for their club’s success is based on whether they win the Caf Champions League. Of course, they have only won this once, eight years ago under Mosimane – with Mokwena as one of the assistant coaches. Since then, it remains elusive.

Even the fact that Mokwena guided Sundowns to victory in the inaugural African Football League (AFL) has not earned him the respect he feels he deserves for his achievements at Chloorkop.

Granted, the AFL is decades away from being as prestigious as the Champions League. However, Sundowns still had to navigate past the crème-de-la-crème of African soccer to claim the first edition of the tournament in 2023, including beating Moroccan side Wydad Casablanca 3-2 in the final.

Peter Shalulile

Peter Shalulile of Sundowns and Qobolwakhe Sibande of Stellenbosch FC during the Nedbank Cup semi-final at Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch. 5 May 2024. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

In pursuit of a treble

Now the club is in the Nedbank Cup for 2024. If they win this, the Brazilians will seal an impressive treble this season.

It’s still not good enough though. It is the Champions League that is most significant, as Mokwena pointed out after his team beat Steve Barker’s Stellenbosch 2-1 to reach a second Nedbank Cup decider in three seasons.

“Someone tried to console me and said to me, ‘you’ve got a double already. You’ve got the AFL and you’ve got the league title. So why are you still reeling [from your Champions League exit]?’

But I must say to you, I feel like I’ve let the club down, I feel like I’ve let the supporters down. I feel like I’ve let this group down,” Mokwena told journalists.

Jose Riveiro

Orlando Pirates coach Jose Riveiro. (Photo: Shaun Roy/Gallo Images)

Spanish guitar

Then there is Spanish Pirates coach Riveiro, who has affectionately been dubbed ‘the Spanish guitar’ by his team’s faithful.

When the 48-year-old was announced as the new mentor of the Buccaneers in mid-2022, brows furrowed. South Africans had no idea who he was and what Pirates had seen in him. Or even how they had seen him and deemed him good enough for the club.

After all, Riveiro had spent most of his senior coaching career in Finland and had not won any major silverware. So, what would he do at the mighty Pirates?

Amidst all the noise surrounding his arrival, he answered emphatically: with results.

By the time his first season in South African football came to a conclusion, he had collected the two domestic knockout trophies on offer at the time, clinching the MTN8 and Nedbank Cup.

When the 2023/2024 campaign commenced, Pirates and Riveiro defended their MTN8 title. Now, after dancing deftly around Chippa United with a 3-1 win in the Nedbank Cup semis — they can retain that trophy as well.

More impressive is the fact that since Riveiro climbed aboard th Sea Robbers’ ship almost two seasons ago, they have reached four finals. With three wins. A win in the Cup final versus Sundowns will maintain their 100% win record in deciders.

The only blemish of Riveiro’s tenure and his growing reputation as a “cup specialist” came when Pirates were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the newly launched Carling Knockout Cup competition.

Even then, Riveiro was somehow able to redeem himself as he was voted for by fans to coach the All-Star team against winners of the Knockout — Stellenbosch. Riveiro and his All-Stars edged Stellies 2-1 in the exhibition game in January 2024.

Sirgio Kammies of Chippa United and Tshegofatso Mabasa of Orlando Pirates

Sirgio Kammies of Chippa United and Tshegofatso Mabasa of Orlando Pirates during the Nedbank Cup semifinal at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Gqeberha. 4 May 2024. (Photo: Richard Huggard/Gallo Images)

Now if only he could turn his form in Cups to something similar in the league, he may just leave South Africa as one of the best coaches to ever grace its shores. Nevertheless, he has already made his mark.

Prior to Riveiro’s arrival, Pirates had only won one major trophy in six years. Now they have an opportunity to make it four titles in two seasons. His contribution has been immense. And he is cognisant of this.

“We were on the other side not so long ago. We know how difficult it is to win games in these cups — not even the league. The cup is more difficult,” Riveiro said.

He and Mokwena will have an opportunity to show off their tactical brilliance come the Nedbank Cup final on 1 June in Mbombela.

The fixture is a repeat of the MTN8 final from earlier this season, in which Pirates emerged 3-1 victors on penalties after the teams failed to break each other down during normal play. DM

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