How Sundowns' continental success could help Bafana's AFCON quest
With Mamelodi Sundowns sealing their passage to the CAF Champions League semifinals with a 5-1 aggregate thumping of Al Ahly last weekend, the Brazilians fortunes on the continent could prove key to Bafana Bafana’s own chances at AFCON 2019.
The biennial continental showpiece, in which the 14th ranked South Africans were recently drawn in Group D alongside Côte d'Ivoire, Namibia and Morocco kicks off in Egypt in 64 days time.
When the tournament kicks off on Friday 21 June the 1996 champions will be looking to navigate their way through the group stages for the first time since hosting the spectacle in 2013 where they bombed out to Mali in the quarterfinals.
Putting Al Ahly, record eight times champions of Africa’s premier continental club tournament, to the sword with a ruthless 5-1 aggregate scoreline was no mean feat given The Red Devils’ formidable reputation on the continent.
Such an experience against a continental giant that is often a cornerstone of the Egyptian national team could prove pivotal when Bafana Bafana, who often draw a considerable pool of players from the Chloorkop based outfit for international encounters, head out to Egypt in June.
The swashbuckling juggernaut assembled by Pitso Mosimane, the 2016 African Coach of the Year, plays with the swagger of a team that is sure of its standing in African football, a team that is hellbent on lifting the continent’s premier club competition on June 1st 2019.
Stuart Baxter, the 65 year old English born Scotsman, will be hoping that the form shown by some of Sundowns' mainstays will bode well for his own team's chances in Egypt come June. Baxter will be banking on The Brazilians' figures such as skipper Hlompho Kekana, the silky Themba Zwane, the tough as nails Tiyani Mabunda, the consistent Tebogo Langerman and the technically gifted Lebogang Maboe to transfer their incredible domestic and continental form to the national side in June and July.
The likes of Kekana and Mabunda are hardened and tactically astute warriors who should be able to go toe to toe for midfield scraps with European based opponents such as Cote d'Ivoire's AC Milan midfield powerhouse Franck Kessié, Fulham's Jean-Michaël Seri and the robust Serey Dié of Swiss club Neuchâtel Xamax.
Playing in Africa is no easy task, what with the variety of dirty tricks employed by teams on the continent to unsettle visiting opposition, but Sundowns have weathered every storm that's been thrown their way on their expeditions across Africa and that experience will no doubt go a long way in helping Bafana during the four week long tournament.
Another aspect that should not be disregarded is Orlando Pirates' own venture onto the continent this season, albeit ending unceremoniously in the group stages of the Champions League.
Numerous spurned chances in games against Tunisia's Esperance, FC Platinum of Zimbabwe and the plucky Guinean outfit Horoya put paid to their chances of making the quarterfinals, but the experience accumulated by the Buccaneers should also contribute tellingly to the national side.
The experience garnered by the likes of Thembinkosi Lorch, Vincent Pule, Ben Motshwari, Innocent Maela and a rejuvenated Wayne Sandilands will be expected add some much needed mettle to Baxter's Bafana.
They will have eight days, between their opening group stage litmus test of an encounter against Ibrahim Kamara's Côte d'Ivoire on Monday June 24 and their final group group against a star studded Moroccan outfit headlined by Ajax Amsterdam superstar Hakim Ziyech on Monday July 1, to navigate their way through a tricky group and into the last 16.
Sandwiched between those two fixtures will be a Southern African derby against neighbours Namibia, a fixture from which Bafana should be able to claim all three points.
However it could also, in equal measure, prove a potential banana skin given the Brave Warriors' spirited showing in qualifying for the tournament proper.
The 32nd edition of African football's showpiece event could serve as a telling account of the direction South African football is taking, particularly with qualification for the 2022 Qatar World Cup in mind, and the stars of the country's two biggest clubs could and should play a central role in that story.