Mamelodi Sundowns, the South African giants, do look like they have settled rather comfortably at the table of the continent’s elite clubs, but Masandawana must have felt odd in the company they kept over the weekend, among the last four of the 2020/21 Nedbank Cup.
The three other clubs, certainly, had far less dazzle about them. Two, Tshakhuma FC and Chippa United, are among the three lowest-ranked teams in South Africa’s first tier this season; the third, Pretoria Callies, is only the 31st best club on the country’s football pyramid — and that’s 31/32.
By the time both games — Sundowns v Tshakhuma, Callies v Chippa — had ended, the best and worst of those semi-finalists had fallen, leaving the two clubs battling to retain their top-flight statuses with just about a third of the DStv Premiership season to go.
Callies’ elimination on Saturday was no shock, of course; the surprise, even though they’d made it this far, was that they only lost 1-0. But the real shock came a day later, when Sundowns and Tshakhuma — 27 points and worlds apart — contested the final ticket.
This, given how swimmingly Sundowns’ season had gone thus far, was supposed to be a stroll. They hadn’t lost all season until the trip to Algerian club CR Belouizdad on April 9, for their last game of this season’s CAF Champions League — by which time the Tshwane outfit had long sealed passage to the knockout rounds.
Tshakhuma, whom Sundowns had beaten 3-1 just three days prior, weren’t supposed to be a problem. Yet that’s just what they proved, pushing back and holding off Sundowns’ marauding band of yellow, and eventually dragging them onto the tightrope of a shoot-out.
The first ten kicks, five apiece, were perfect… until Sundowns blinked with their sixth, missed by captain Hlompho Kekana. Tshakhuma’s Thembisani Nevhulamba scored theirs, and ‘Downs were downed, setting up the unlikeliest of cup finals.
Sundowns would quickly brush this off, and with other targets still within reach they’ll march on. The remainder of their pursuit of a record fourth consecutive league title could soon become a procession, and they’re looking good in the Champions League despite the recent blip.
For Chippa and Tshakhuma, well, they’d have so much more — so much better — to look forward to than the prospect of a messy relegation dogfight that, by the way, includes a potentially decisive clash on the penultimate matchday of the league season.
It doesn’t quite make up for the senior national team missing next year’s Africa Cup of Nations, but South Africans would find the May 8 final a compelling — if not, necessarily, an exciting — watch.
Who’d have thought?
Yaw Frimpong — Ink & Kicks