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‘Mourinho’ targets continental glory with Sundowns

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Rhulani Mokwena is a suave 36-year-old South African who grew up dreaming of being a lawyer, but now lays down the law at Mamelodi Sundowns, the dominant football club in the country.

Rhulani Mokwena is a suave 36-year-old South African who grew up dreaming of being a lawyer, but now lays down the law at Mamelodi Sundowns, the dominant football club in the country.

Sundowns are away to goal-shy but defensively strong Chabab Belouizdad of Algeria in a quarter-final first leg on Saturday, with the return match seven days later.

“We want to win the CAF Champions League regularly,” says Mokwena about a competition that north African clubs have dominated with 10 titles in the past 12 seasons.

Football is embedded in the Mokwena family — his father, Julius, played for crowd-pullers Orlando Pirates and he is a nephew of Jomo Sono, a South African great of the 1970s.

Mokwena has been likened to Jose Mourinho, one of the great modern-era coaches, in that both have been successful despite never playing at a senior level.

 

“That is quite a compliment, but I have a long road to travel before coming close to matching Jose,” Mokwena tells AFP.

“Jose, Pep (Guardiola), Jurgen (Klopp) and Carlo (Ancelotti) are the managers South African coaches look up to.”

Modest Mokwena seemed embarrassed when reminded that Sundowns went on a 24-match unbeaten run after he became head coach last October.

He began the 2022-2023 season as junior partner to co-head coach Manqoba Mngqithi, but a three-goal drubbing from Pirates in a knockout competition had major repercussions.

Mngqithi was demoted to “senior coach” and Mokwena became head coach, entrusted with the highest paid but most demanding club job in South Africa.

Coaches do not disclose salaries, but it has been widely reported that Mokwena earns about one million rand ($55,000/50,000 euros) a month.

Sundowns are owned by one of the wealthiest South Africans, Patrice Motsepe, who was chosen as president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) by acclamation in 2021.

Becoming the African football supremo meant Motsepe had to resign as Sundowns’ chairman, and his eldest son, Thlopie, took over.

– Coaching reshuffle –

The coaching reshuffle initially worried some Sundowns supporters as Mokwena had previously been Pirates’ caretaker boss and won just four of 14 matches.

Those fears quickly vanished as Sundowns won their first five matches under him, scoring 14 goals and not conceding.

His unbeaten run included South African Premiership, South African FA Cup and CAF Champions League matches, and led to the league title with seven matches to spare, a record.

After becoming champions, however, Sundowns slumped, drawing three consecutive league matches, then losing to mid-table Stellenbosch in an FA Cup quarter-final.

“We do not want to become familiar with losing,” said Mokwena after a defeat that could have been avoided as both Stellenbosch goals stemmed from careless passes.

“Sundowns are the gold standard of South African club football. We are by far the best team in the country,” said the coach.

Gavin Hunt, a four-time title-winning Premiership coach, says Sundowns must be judged by their Champions League results.

Rhulani Mokwena is a suave 36-year-old South African who grew up dreaming of being a lawyer, but now lays down the law at Mamelodi Sundowns, the dominant football club in the country.

Rhulani Mokwena is a suave 36-year-old South African who grew up dreaming of being a lawyer, but now lays down the law at Mamelodi Sundowns, the dominant football club in the country.

“They should be in the semi-finals or final every year because they are far ahead of everyone in South Africa.”

Sundowns beat Egyptian club Zamalek in the 2016 final, but since quarter-finals were introduced the following year they have progressed past the last-eight stage only once in five attempts.

An impressive 5-2 win over record 10-time African champions Al Ahly of Egypt this season helped Sundowns win Group B and book a sixth quarter-finals appearance in seven seasons.

“Belouizdad are very good,” says Mokwena of a side that impressed against former champions in the mini-league stage, beating Zamalek in Cairo and holding Esperance in Tunis.

Sundowns are a mix of local and foreign stars, with prolific Namibian scorer Peter Shalulile voted the best player in South Africa for the past two seasons.

Recently signed Chilean attacker Marcelo Allende consistently impresses while academy product Cassius Mailula has been a revelation, scoring 14 goals in all competitions.

AFP

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