Motsepe’s Success with Sundowns Inspires Hope That the Sun Will Rise on African Football’s Horizon
In the realm of elite South African club football, Mamelodi Sundowns have always been a relevant, formidable force.
Even so, the club has obviously peaked under owner Patrice Motsepe, standing tall — heads, shoulders and trophies — above any other side in Mzansi.
Its major rivals, Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, now appear dwarfed, as they watch Sundowns reel in silverware with remarkable ease and regularity.
The last golden spell Sundowns had enjoyed, pre-Motsepe, stretched from the late nineties to early noughties, when the club won three league titles on the bounce.
Success was achieved, too, in cup competitions, the greatest of which could have come in the 2001 CAF Champions League final, but for a rather chastening loss to Egypt’s Al Ahly.
Then came, surprisingly, the slump: a lengthy barren run that saw Masandawana crave trophies yet find none — until, in 2004, Motsepe took the wheel.
He had arrived at the club a year earlier, partnering the Tsichlas family as the slightly bigger shareholder (51%), but it was after doubling his stake that Motsepe’s impact grew.
Under his guidance, the club sought to retrace its steps back to those years of plenty that had begun to seem so distant. Sundowns fans, indeed, had every reason to be uber-confident that their thirst would be quenched.
Motsepe, aged 42 at the time, was one of their own — from Tshwane, where Sundowns are based — and pretty rich (not Forbes-worthy rich yet, though; that would come much later).
Here was a son of the land, a self-made man who had raked in a fortune from his mining interests, and who clearly knew how to drive a business towards great gains!
By the end of his fourth year at the helm, the grand fulfilment of those hopes already seemed underway. Sundowns had ended their drought and then some, winning two consecutive league titles and topping it with Nedbank Cup glory.
And then, in 2012, Motsepe recruited Pitso Mosimane — the 11th substantive coach of his reign.
Mosimane, in a previous life as a footballer, had had two stints at Sundowns. Now, though, he needed the club just as much as it needed him. Mosimane’s last job, at the helm of Bafana Bafana, hadn’t ended very well, after his team misinterpreted the rules and settled for a draw in their final Afcon 2012 qualifier, at home to a Sierra Leone national team they could otherwise easily have beaten to seal a ticket for the finals.
That shared desire to shake off the misery of their recent past, and to move on to bigger things, eventually propelled both Mosimane and Sundowns to dizzying heights.
By September 2020, when they parted ways, that marriage had established Sundowns as the land’s dominant force — winning five of eight league seasons, along with four domestic cups — and ushered Mosimane into the pantheon of elite South African coaches.
It would be his ticket to a stint with Ahly, Africa’s most successful club, where he won the CAF Champions League within months — but not before he had steered Sundowns to that same feat, four years prior.
Thus far in the ongoing Champions League campaign, Sundowns appear to have the appetite to savour that triumph once more. They’ve picked maximum points in the group stage and already qualified for the knockout phase, with a couple of games to spare.
In the league, too, Sundowns remain perfect, shaping up nicely to defend the DStv Premiership title — winning it, in doing so, for a record fourth season in a row — and are currently top of the league, comfortably; across all competitions, in fact, they haven’t lost in their last 25 games.
And that’s the version of Sundowns – marble, marvelous and majestic — that Motsepe, in becoming president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), has left behind. The great hope is that the African game — now brick, burnt and brittle — would be made of such fine stuff, too, by the end of Motsepe’s tenure (whether it lasts all of one term, two or three).
If running a club, and succeeding at it, is hard enough — Motsepe should know, of course, having done so for almost two decades and spending nearly half of that period trying to get the right formula — the 59-year-old would find the waters of African football even harder to navigate.
His impact would have to be felt by every club on the continent — from those as big as Sundowns to much, much smaller ones — as well as on the global stage.
“The plan is for an African team to win the World Cup. We (CAF) want in the next four years an African country to win the World Cup,” Motsepe, following his election a week ago, said.
“At the World Cup, we must win and be respected. All African teams must compete and do well globally. We can succeed, and we will succeed.”
That promise, if Motsepe’s fortunes with Sundowns are anything to go by, is worth clinging to.