When Katlego Mphela crossed the great Tshwane bridge in the winter of 2008, he had dreams of striking it rich, not only off the football pitch, but also on it.
But, like most of his Mamelodi Sundowns teammates, Mphela today has a healthy bank balance, lives a life of more comforts than he was exposed to during his days at SuperSport United, yet has little to show in terms of winners’ medals.
Tomorrow, Mphela and his teammates get another chance to make amends and win some silverware, which would be a first for most at Chloorkop, when they take on SuperSport in the Tshwane derby Nedbank Cup final (Orlando Stadium, 3pm).
“It’s very big for us … our chance to win something. I’ve been here for a long time and I haven’t won anything. The club, too, havn’t won a trophy for a while. How many years has it been?” Mphela said this week.
It would be difficult for the Bafana Bafana marksman to recall precisely when last Sundowns clinched silverware – “was it 2005 or 2006”? he speculated – but should tomorrow’s attempt against SuperSport end in failure, it would mean the Brazilians have gone four straight seasons without a trophy – they won the Nedbank Cup in 2008, just before Mphela signed with them.
In Mphela’s own words, failure would be catastrophic, a shaming disappointment that would trigger more ridicule for Patrice Motsepe, the billionaire Sundowns owner who so generously bankrolls the club.
“With the quality that we have, the players we sign every year and the money that the president (Motsepe) spends, we really ought to be winning things. The president has been good to us, splashing money to ensure the team get what they want. The fans have also been supportive this season. We need to do it for them,” he said.
It is true that aside from an incident at Loftus Versfeld last year, where they were angered by decisions of match officials, Sundowns fans have generally been tolerant this season. For the first time, the season will end without any invective directed towards the technical team, headed by Johan Neeskens, who has become the first man since Motsepe took over in 2003 to survive an entire season.
Neeskens’s regime, according to Mphela, survived due to the type of football Sundowns have played and, even though the Dutchman fell short of the championship, he won over the club’s fans and board alike.
“He’s done enough to deserve another chance. We have played beautiful football all year. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t win the league but that can’t be the coach’s fault. He did his job,” Mphela said of his coach.
The collapse in the title race towards the final stretch remains a sore point for the man nicknamed “Killer”, who still has nightmares about how his club threw away what looked a healthy lead to finish fourth on the standings.
“It was strange how we lost the league. Even now I still can’t believe that we lost it like that. I mean, we were seven points clear of (Orlando) Pirates but we didn’t even finish second. I really can’t say what went wrong because we played the same way we did in the first round.
“We lost games that we should have won with ease and we also ran out of luck. But there’s no doubt that since I got here, this was the best team we had … very committed, very talented when compared to previous years. Yet we still couldn’t win it.”
This is why Mphela views tomorrow’s match as “very big”.
SuperSport, too, want to avoid a second barren season in a row and this is their first cup final appearance under Gavin Hunt. It would hurt Mphela if he were to see his ex-United teammates celebrate what would be their fourth trophy since his departure, while he is still searching for his first at Sundowns.
Moreover, according to him, it would shatter the entire dressing room given how they lost out on the league championship. “This thing that we haven’t won anything for a while is not good. If you look around the team, almost everybody is affected. It is a fact that we’ve been here and haven’t won silverware and I can see it is starting to affect us negatively. We had thought this was the year to change that, but now the league is gone. And we know we should have won it hands down. We can’t lose out on another cup,” said the 27-year-old.
Mphela conceded he had had a terrible season by his standards. After a promising start when he led the scorers’ charts, he could only finish on 10 league goals. Injury woes did not help either, as he was reduced to a bit-part player by Neeskens in the second half of the campaign.
“I had my ups and downs this season. I struggled with injuries and I lost form as a result. I started 14 or 15 games, scoring 10 goals, and that’s not a bad record. But I know that I didn’t perform well.
“I should have been up there with Siyabonga Nomvethe (the league’s top scorer with 20 goals). He opened up a huge gap and I’m the one who shouldn’t have allowed him to be so far away from us. I should have pushed him – a 10-goal gap is way too much. I know my ability and yes, I’m really disappointed that I didn’t perform to expectations this season.”
His lukewarm form has led to speculation around Mphela’s future, with suggestions that Neeskens could put him on the list of unwanted players as early as this winter. Yet Mphela professed to being “happy” at Chloorkop.
“No one has spoken to me about that possibility (of leaving). I’m here and I’m happy. The club have treated me well and I wouldn’t think of leaving. It’s not fair to question my commitment to this club. But if they don’t want me and I get a good offer, sure, I would look at it.”