Winning AFL for Sundowns Rulani Mokwena showed he has a nose for gold
The Brazilians did it the hard way as they lost 2-1 in Casablanca but turned it around to win 2-0 in front of a raucous Loftus crowd
When he arrived for his post-match press conference at Loftus on Sunday, Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena didn’t realise he had a small piece of glitter from the post-match confetti on his nose.
It was not surprising because he had just finished wild celebrations with his players after they were crowned inaugural African Football League (AFL) champions with a 3-2 aggregate win over bitter rivals Wydad Casablanca.
The Brazilians did it the hard way as they lost 2-1 in Casablanca, but turned it around to win 2-0 in front of a raucous Loftus crowd that included Fifa president Gianni Infantino and his Confederation of African Football (Caf) counterpart Patrice Motsepe.
Motsepe, the owner of Sundowns who has stood aside from running the club during his Caf tenure while son Tlhopie Motsepe has taken over as president, declined to celebrate to demonstrate impartiality. He would surely have felt a well of pride watching his team win the inaugural edition of the mega-wealthy, Saudi Arabia-backed tournament that was his and Infantino's brainchild and which has the potential to revolutionise the finances of African football.
Sundowns' win significantly boosted 36-year-old Mokwena’s reputation as one of the brightest coaches on the continent as Downs pocketed the R74m prize money.
All the action in 2 minutes from the AFL 2023 final 2nd leg between Mamelodi Sundowns and Wydad Athletic Casablanca.
To many, that small piece of glitter may have been insignificant, but it seemed a small symbol in some ways. It mirrored the glittering performance Sundowns put on the field to beat the strong Wydad side. Wydad, part of a Moroccan football structure that produces a national team that became Africa's first World Cup semi-finalists in Qatar in December, have often been the stumbling block in the quarter or semifinals to Sundowns adding another star on their badge after their 2016 Caf Champions League victory. Mokwena's team were as polished and classy, with flashes of brilliance, eliminating 11-time Champions League winners Al Ahly in the AFL semis.
Against Wydad at Loftus, using their years of Champions League experience and intimate knowledge of aggressive North African teams, Sundowns staged a performance for the ages to convincingly beat one of the best teams on the continent. In a sparkling performance, the Brazilians absorbed early pressure from Wydad and went on to score two unanswered goals by Peter Shalulile and Aubrey Modiba either side of the break.
Against Wydad at Loftus, using their years of Champions League experience and intimate knowledge of aggressive North African teams, Sundowns staged a performance for the ages to convincingly beat one of the best teams on the continent.
Wydad, who lost to Al Ahly in the Champions League final last season after edging Downs on away goals thanks to a last-gasp Mothobi Mvala own goal, have vast experience and pedigree in continental football. They won the Champions League in 2017 and 2021-2022. They know how to win high-stakes matches, but they hit a brick wall in the Pretoria heat.
In more ways than one, Sundowns gave Wydad a bitter taste of their own medicine as they resorted to time-wasting tactics during the closing stages with players easily going to ground and taking too long to restart dead balls. After the match, Sundowns defender Mosa Lebusa admitted such tactics are not their style, but they had to play the match situation and manage the game to their advantage. It displayed how streetwise Downs' many campaigns past the Champions League group stages have made them.
Even the ball boys came to the party as they played their part in breaking the attacking momentum of Wydad by sometimes delaying bringing the ball back into play. Wydad's players did not take kindly to Sundowns’ antics, but they conveniently forgot they were the ones who employed time-wasting tactics at the start of the game when they had the lead and the match situation favoured them.
Wydad came into the game with a plan of stopping Sundowns from finding their rhythm by not allowing Themba Zwane, Marcelo Allende, Aubrey Modiba and Teboho Mokoena time on the ball. Sundowns recovered from being stifled by the Moroccans' claustrophobic defence and opened the scoring in the critical phase of additional time before the break by Shalulile. Modiba produced a moment of magic to dink the ball past Wydad goalkeeper Youssef El Motie seven minutes back from the change rooms.
It was a team performance by Sundowns with players such as Ronwen Williams, Mothobi Mvala, Khuliso Mudau, Allende, Mokoena, Modiba, Zwane and Shalulile standing out. Sundowns also got the better of reputable Angolan side Petro Atlético in the quarters before seeing off Al Ahly. They earned the AFL trophy against classy opposition who would have been keyed up not just for the prize money, but in the quest to stamp their authority and pedigree on Caf's new competition, as they had on its older ones.
Now Sundowns have conquered AFL, next on the menu is the holy grail of the Champions League where they will be under pressure to return to the final for the first time since 2016. As wild celebrations continued in the change rooms on Sunday, Mokwena, in the press conference room, promised his players will return to training and focus on the remainder of the campaign where they are still involved in three competitions.
In their in-tray, Sundowns still have the DStv Premiership, Nedbank Cup and the Champions League, the last of which, Mokwena knows better than anyone a club of Downs' stature must win again.
For now, just like that sparkling glitter on Mokwena’s nose, the Brazilians are basking in the glory with which they have illuminated African football.
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