Sundowns stand together: petty fights a no-no in tough soccer world

“What is most important is to have leadership in that group of coaches, because if you entertain petty issues and stupid fights, you won’t see the light”.

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This statement by Manqoba Mngqithi probably played an enormous role in Mamelodi Sundowns’ success this season, and it probably had even more impact after an alleged fight between Mngqihti and his co-head coach, Rulani Mokwena.

The two are believed to have had a fall out after a DStv Premiership game against Royal AM last December, which Sundowns won 3-2 but nearly let slip. 

Having worked together for two seasons now, however, the pair certainly didn’t show any signs of a problem going forward, and instead led the team to a domestic treble, winning the Premiership, the Nedbank Cup and the MTN8. 

At the start of their tenure, post the Pitso Mosimane era, Mokwena and Mngqithi’s appointment was not met with warm embraces and the arrival of Steve Komphela – whose official title is a senior coach – did not help either. People suggested that too many cooks could spoil the trophy-winning broth created by Mosimane. 

But two seasons later, with four trophies in their cabinet, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego”, as the trio are often referred to, are certainly having the last say.  

“It is very difficult for any other team to compete with a team like ours that has so many capable coaches. In other environments, debates about players are not between coaches but they are between the coach and the boss of the club,” adds Mngqithi. 

“At Sundowns, the chairman, Thlopie Motsepe, gives us the authority to make key decisions and we discuss the finer details of each game.

“Those finer details, at the end of the day, do make us look better than others because we dig a little bit deeper. Sometimes we spend more than an hour just to come up with the starting line-up because we never want to leave any stone unturned.”

When they were appointed in October 2020, the fine print was bold and clear that Mngqithi’s voice would be more prevalent, should any disagreements arise. But given his background – to this day, Mngqithi has never imposed himself as the leader of the technical team and he also describes this as a recipe for success.  

“I got a very good induction, because …  before I got qualified as a coach. I worked at Maritzburg City. They were playing in the ABC Motsepe League and in that team we had a technical director, Thabo Dladla. Reggie Shelembe was the head coach, I was the first assistant coach and Thami Mahlanze was the second assistant and Mhlanga Madondo was the team manager, but he was also a Level 2 coach.

“I got used to a culture of very objective and critical debates when it comes to what we want to achieve and how we would want the team to play.

“And those who know Maritzburg City will tell you what kind of a team we had. In all of the teams that I have coached, I worked with more than one assistant, because I know how important it is to have more brains around the team,” he said.

No one has been more annoyed than Mokwena about the notion that the duo are riding on the success of their predecessor, Mosimane, who transformed Sundowns into the monster that it is today after inheriting the club at 14th spot on the log in 2012. 

To be fair, the two mentors brought in a couple of new players and imposed their own imprint on the team’s style of play. Mokwena always shied away from addressing questions about riding on the success of Mosimane. However, his partner is not too good at avoiding the issue.  

“I never like going to that space because it is a negative space and I am a positive person. I always give room for people to be pessimistic because it is in our nature. We always have a lot of ‘we shall see’ situations instead of saying ‘we need to support this thing’. If you are doing well in a short period of time, people say ‘ey, usethwele lo’, (a sacrifice for supernatural powers) ‘he’s got a snake’, and all sorts of things. They will never say a person is working very hard,” said Mngqithi.

Meanwhile, Downs might have bagged the DStv Premiership, the Nedbank Cup and MTN8, but their failure to at least collect silver medals at this season’s Caf Champions League will always be an elephant in the room. But as good as they are, the football gods will not always be on their side, Mokwena reckons.

“The reality is that we don’t have a God-given right to win any trophy, we have to earn it and those are the lessons. We know that we should have been in the (Champions League) semifinals. The season that we had should have been the one that allowed us to fulfil the ambitions of the club,” said Mokwena, who takes time away from the pressure of Masandawana and distresses by working on his kasi project, amatuer side Black Poison.  

“The squad that won it in 2016, (they) won it after three or four attempts. you build the experience of playing in that competition. the demands are extremely severe.”

“The game does not allow you to sleep and if you sleep it will find someone else that is obsessed with it ,then it will move with that person. One day I am with Sundowns and one day I am at Black Poison. When I watch a game abroad, I might not want to test what I saw in that game with Sundowns. 

“I have to go to Poison and try it there. I work on it, refine it and once I am satisfied I bring it to Sundowns then people say ‘this one is obsessed with football, he is crazy’ and blah blah blah. But football is in that space where it does not care about your emotions. At the end of the day, there are no secrets in football.”

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