So this isn’t a prediction. Let’s call it an observation. In the next five years we will have a Southern African derby in the final of the Caf Champions League. We almost had that in 2016 but Mamelodi Sundowns and Zesco United of Zambia met in the semi-finals before the Brazilians became only the second team from the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (Cosafa) to lift the continent’s premier club competition.
Orlando Pirates were the first team from the region to conquer the continent when they became African champions in 1995.
Those two titles, along with Bafana Bafana’s 1996 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) success and Zambia’s 2012 Afcon triumph, are the only major prizes that the region can boast about. We are way behind North and West Africa who dominate club and international football on the continent. But the expansion of the continent’s club competitions and the Afcon could be the catalyst we need to consistently box and hold our own against the best in the rest of the continent.
Cosafa have five representatives in the group stage of the Champions League that now features 16 teams instead of eight. Sundowns, Zesco, Primeiro de Agosto (Angola), Township Rollers (Botswana) and Mbabane Swallows (Swaziland) will fly the flag.
The region is guaranteed at least one team in the quarter-finals as Zesco, Primeiro and Swallows are in the same group along with Tunisian giants Etoile du Sahel who are favourites to be one of the two teams to advance to the next round from Group D.
Swallows will grow as a team from facing such opponents in their first appearance in the group stage of the Champions League. The tournament’s expansion has opened doors for teams who could only dream of featuring at this stage.
The exposure and high level of competition will be beneficial for those teams, especially those from our region as we are still lagging behind the rest of Africa. We should also share information and experiences with each other so that we can help those teams who are too far behind to catch up.
“I think that while we look at the political unity, we should also look at the sporting quality (in the region),” Zambian football legend and Caf executive member Kalusha Bwalya told me in an interview four years ago. “That’s more important than politics. Everyone is involved in football so that they can see their countries doing well, otherwise we will keep lagging behind. That’s not what the Cosafa region wants – we want to be winners. Bafana Bafana in 1996, Zambia in 2012, but if you look at the years in between, it’s too long. If you calculate from 1996 to 2013 how many Southern African teams have been in the semi-final or final of the Champions League or the Africa Cup of Nations, then you will see that it’s been bad. Those facts don’t lie. It’s the truth. It says bad things about the standard of our game. It is in the best interest of the region for all of us to do well.”
In the absence of a high number of players playing at the highest level in Europe from the region, doing well in the club scene on the continent could be our region’s getaway to consistently doing well in the Afcon and adding to the two lone titles we have.
I find Swallows and Rollers’ attitude towards continental football refreshing. These two clubs don’t have the financial muscle that most of our clubs have but they are driven to battle against the best on the continent.
It’s an attitude that needs to be adopted by more teams in South Africa because the experience you gain in Africa is priceless. With the increase in prize money we shouldn’t really be complaining about the finances since you can now get back what you spend and even make a profit if you win the Champions League or the Confederation Cup. But we are still hearing the same cries because we love whining.
Sundowns have the Champions League to thank for breaking the stranglehold Cape Town City had over them. The Brazilians managed the Citizens to advance to the semi-finals of the Nedbank Cup, using a key component of succeeding in the Champions League - not being too fancy but effective. The seeds of a Southern African derby on the continent have been planted but it’s up to all of us to water them so that that dreams comes to fruition.