Downs on the up: How Pitso has revolutionised SA football
Sundowns are changing the game in South Africa, raising the bar like Chiefs did in the 1970s and 1980s
Mamelodi Sundowns are not just winning titles and cups, they are changing the game in the Premier Soccer League.
Downs, crowned Absa Premiership champions for the third time in five years with their 3-1 victory against Ajax Cape Town at Lucas Moripe Stadium on Saturday, have set the bar higher than any team in the PSL era.
Their broader ambition beyond South Africa’s borders and coach Pitso Mosimane’s internationally-influenced tactical approach and science-based periodisation and regeneration strategies make their “The Sky is the Limit” tagline seem more mantra than slogan.
Downs now firmly operate in two spheres more than any PSL club. Orlando Pirates come closest and will emulate their Pretoria neighbours soon in successfully juggling continental and domestic ambitions if their first season under Milutin Sredojevic is anything to go by.Pirates might only have won one trophy since 2012 – the 2014 Nedbank Cup. But they have reached two continental finals, in the 2013 CAF Champions League (ACL) and 2015 CAF Confederation Cup. There have been times Bucs have lost their way, most notably with last season’s 11th-placed PSL hiatus.
But what Sundowns are showing, and Pirates are no doubt set to follow, and Kaizer Chiefs are at present failing in, is that if you set the bar as high as trying to win the Champions League, as Downs did in 2016, then a spinoff of the quality assembled and experience gained will be domestic success.
Sundowns are changing the game in South Africa, raising the bar like Chiefs did in the 1970s and 1980s.
Patrice Motsepe’s billions, finally coupled with a coach capable of harnessing them in Mosimane, and the ambition of both to operate in higher strata in the ACL and Fifa Club World Cup, with league titles in South Africa a conduit to that, have been a potent recipe for success.
Sundowns followed their 2016 ACL title with a quarterfinal exit last year, and are back in the group stage this year, sights set on another victory.PSL clubs are watching and learning. They see the Brazilians’ modern movement and tactical approach that is influenced right now by Barcelona, Manchester City, Napoli and Atletico Madrid. They note the regeneration programmes – fitness trainer Kabelo “KB” Rangoaga is trained by Dutch periodisation guru Raymond Verheijen – that see Sundowns capable of remaining competitive on the three fronts of continental competition, domestic league and domestic cups.
Clubs who have no immediate continental ambitions, such as this season’s top-five contending Free State Stars and the ultimate surprise package, Nedbank Cup finalists Maritzburg United, are gaining ground domestically.
Some, like relegation-threatened big clubs Ajax Cape Town and SuperSport United, have been caught napping.
Asked if Sundowns are changing the game in SA, Mosimane, said: “I would not like to blow our own trumpet. But I will say – which team can play at the same tempo, every three days? Transits, long flights, come back, one day’s rest, play.“Just look at the games we’ve played. We were under so much pressure from [second-placed] Pirates.
“But, these guys – Hlompho Kekana, Tiyani Mabunda – four years [on the road in the Champions League]. It’s five-and-a-half years, in fact, with me now.
“And every day, no rest, and you have to win the match. Not many teams can keep it the way we have kept it.
“The boys need a rest now. I need a rest.”
The hectic schedule will take its toll. Last season, playing 55 games, Downs conceded the PSL title to Bidvest Wits. This season, playing 41, they won it back.
Mosimane, as he has lost Bongani Zungu and Keagan Dolly to Europe, has brought through Sibusiso Vilakazi, Themba Zwane and this season’s favourite for PSL player of the season, Percy Tau.As more stars move on – Khama Billiat will not renew his contract in June – January signings Gaston Sirino and Jeremy Brockie will be expected to step up.
Downs’ continued success, though, does seem dependent in its current form on the continued services of Mosimane.
It is interesting to hear Mosimane say he “needs a rest”. He has ambitions to return to Bafana Bafana at some stage, and put right a period that went pear-shaped in 2012. And while the coach stressed he was serious, and would be consulting his family on a sabbatical from football, it is hard to know when to take what he says as fact.
His warning came alongside an epic sulk over the past few weeks at supposed punting by SuperSport 4’s TV analysts of Maritzburg boss Fadlu Davids for coach of the season. Although, it seems those pundits were only suggesting Davids as a candidate.At one level, though, Mosimane has that ongoing outburst all wrong. He should take it as the ultimate compliment that Davids is being touted.
Because without Sundowns setting the tone by playing the spectacular modern football, with its roots in the best South African traditions, that they have for the past five years, there seems far less likely a chance that there would have been a Maritzburg United charge under a 36-year-old South African coach.
Davids, also schooled by Verheijen, emulates much of Downs’ regeneration strategy with a super-fit young team. Maritzburg might play the counter-attack to Sundowns’ high-press, which Mosimane has also at times scorned at, but their devastating movement in attack certainly looks Sundowns-influenced. They, too, have an eye on international trends.
So let’s hope Mosimane’s threat to take a break is at some level grandstanding.
Because right now Downs’s coach is the most influential factor in a slow emergence from a decade-long slump in South African football. And he does not need to be going anywhere – except, perhaps at some stage, to Bafana – to jeopardise that.