Johannesburg (AFP) – A Robin Hood-like figure triggered the momentum that has taken South African side Mamelodi Sundowns to a maiden FIFA Club World Cup appearance in Japan this weekend.
The Pretoria club tackle host-nation representatives Kashima Antlers Sunday with a semi-final date against Colombian outfit Atletico Nacional at stake.
Sundowns secured a place at the annual competition for continental champions by beating Zamalek of Egypt to win the CAF Champions League a first time.
But the seeds for the African success were planted three decades ago when Zola Mahobe bought an unknown, unsuccessful club based in Pretoria township Mamelodi.
Although then a man of modest means, he was determined to shake up a South African football scene dominated by Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.
Suddenly, money was no object as he lured stars to Sundowns, rewarding them with above-average salaries and German sedans.
He rebelled against a trend of hiring white coaches by wooing former Pirates star Stanley ‘Screamer Tshabalala’ from an unfashionable club.
Sundowns became renowned for “shoeshine and piano” football, a possession-based style modelled on international giants Brazil.
Mahobe was rewarded for an investment running into millions of dollars with league and cup trophies until the source of his wealth was exposed.
With the help of his lover, Snowy Moshoeshoe, had been defrauding a major bank for several years to fund Sundowns before being caught.
Moshoeshoe was jailed while Mahobe fled to neighbouring Botswana, where he was arrested nearly a year later, brought back to South Africa and jailed.
Both were freed well before their sentences ended.
When Mahobe died three years ago, many South Africans likened him to Robin Hood, an English outlaw during the middle ages who robbed the rich and gave to the poor.
His contribution to the rise of Sundowns was acknowledged by club owner and mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, a dollar billionaire.
“We will be eternally grateful to Zola,” he said, “because he laid the foundations for the developement and success of Sundowns.”
Motsepe, who bought the club in 2003, and a more recent arrival, coach Pitso Mosimane, are credited with taking Sundowns to the next level.
“We hired big-name coaches from all over the world, but it took a South African, Pitso, to bring us the CAF Champions League,” said Motsepe.
Sundowns boast the strongest squad among the 16 South African top-flight clubs and it has a strong international flavour.
Ugandan Dennis Onyango and Zambia 2012 Africa Cup of Nations winner Kennedy Mweene are among three goalkeepers in the 23-man Club World Cup squad.
The nine defenders include Ivorian Bangaly Soumahoro and Brazilian Ricardo Nascimento, and Liberian Anthony Laffor was among seven midfielders chosen.
Zimbabwean Khama Billiat and Colombian Leonardo Castro are two of the four strikers.
But it is a South African attacker, Percy Tau, who has drawn the most praise lately from the hard-to-please Mosimane.
“Percy has been unbelievable, he is growing from strength to strength. My main worry about him was a lack of goals and now he has scored three in three games.”
Tau began this year as a second-division footballer, but quickly established himself as a quick, skilful creator and taker of scoring opportunities when promoted.
The starting line-up against Kashima is likely to include nine second-leg starters against Zamalek, a match Sundowns lost 1-0 in October after building a three-goal advantage at home.
Then suspended centre-back Wayne Arendse should replace Soumahoro and Thapelo Morena is likely to get the nod at right-back over Asavela Mbekile.
Mosimane has dismissed media talk of Sundowns qualifying for the final against title favourites Real Madrid of Spain.
“Our aim is to finish third,” he stressed. “We set out to win every game, but there has to be an element of realism when setting goals.”
Mosimane expects Kashima to be a typical Japanese side — hard working with excellent technique.
“Japanese development programmes are much better than those in South Africa. They have invested a lot of money.
“We feel like students entering a new class — excited and eager to learn. We have nothing to lose, we aim to enjoy ourselves while giving our best.”
200+ Channels With Sports & News
- Starting price: $33/mo. for fubo Latino Package
- Watch Premier League, World Cup, Euro 2024 & more
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
- Price: $9.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $13.99/mo.)
- Features Bundesliga, LaLiga, Championship, & more
175 Premier League Games & PL TV
- Starting price: $4.99/mo. for Peacock Premium
- Watch 175 exclusive EPL games per season