Mamelodi Sundowns coach Rulani Mokwena sings praises of the highest order for Themba Zwane

Coach Rulani Mokwena has waxed lyrical about Themba Zwane, showing just how important the player is to Mamelodi Sundowns. Picture: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Coach Rulani Mokwena has waxed lyrical about Themba Zwane, showing just how important the player is to Mamelodi Sundowns. Picture: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Published Nov 11, 2023


If Themba Zwane was not aware of his stature at and importance for Mamelodi Sundowns, the soft-spoken and versatile midfielder would have known just how valuable he is to the Brazilians on Thursday.

And you can bet the Sundowns skipper will work his socks off to prove that much in Sunday’s African Football League final second leg clash against Wydad Athletic Club at Loftus Versfeld. Not that he has to, for there can be no denying that the player fondly referred to as Mshishi has long earned himself legendary status in the yellow and royal blue of the multiple South African champions.

His coach Rulani Mokwena has sung his praises on numerous occasions, previously referring to him as ‘a navigator’ for his consummate ability to find his teammates with passes. He went a notch higher on Thursday deep in the bowels of the Loftus Stadium during the pre-match media conference for the match Sundowns have to win at least 1-0 to overturn the 2-1 deficit from last weekend’s first leg at the Mohamed Stade V.

Mshishi was asked about his feelings on the unfamiliar number 9 role that he has been playing in the absence of regular strikers Peter Shalulile and Lucas Ribeiro and responded by describing it as being ‘difficult, but obviously I have to respect the coach’s decision. It’s my duty. For me, it is all about the team’.

Mokwena bats off Zwane criticism

Mokwena jumped in and started by lamenting that fact that Zwane had been unfairly criticised for not being highly effective latterly.

“Themba Zwane has come under a lot of undue criticism for the performances and in my opinion he has been fantastic for us. I am asking a 34-year-old to play in a different orientation. Imagine for the last 15 years or so has played as a (number) 10 whose orientation is this way - towards goals. Now, all of a sudden the coach says you must play as a (number) nine with an orientation back to goal. For a player of his magnitude and stature, the leader profile he has, to humbly accept to play in different position and do different things he would normally not do shows the amount of humility, but also shows you the character.

“Now you understand why in the last 13 or 14 years he has been one of the best players in South African football because of his human qualities. I think he’s been amazing; he has run his legs off and helped with certain defensive schemes organisational that we set up;  he’s helped with certain moments to create space and situations from which we can have scoring chances. Of course he’s not going to be a specialist in that area, but he is intelligent enough and he can navigate and find himself in situations in the area, hence I have nothing but the utmost respect for Mshishi.”

Had he been of a much lighter hue, Mshishi’s cheeks would have been redder than the colour of their opponents’ jersey.

Mokwena was not done with handing his captain flowers while he was still alive.

“He is not only a demonstration that you’ve got to be a top human being to be a top footballer. But he also demonstrated that you don’t need to be loud and aggressive to be a leader but you can lead through practically demonstrating by performances, by effort and by being a positive influence on not only your age group but also the younger ones. You must see how he interacts with (Thapelo) Maseko and how he interacts with (Siyabonga) Mabena.

Influence unmatched

“And his influence on Cassius Mailula last season. A lot of people thought I helped Cassius improve, but Mshishi did more than I did. Mshishi helped Peter Shalulile improve more than I did. He’s an amazing player and he has really improved.”

That improvement will have to be at play on Sunday if Sundowns are to pull the rug from underneath a Wydad side that denied them a place in the final of last season’s CAF Champions League – a competition in which they were unbeaten. Wydad knocked Sundowns out in the semifinal via the away goal rule after a 2-2 draw at Loftus following a goalless stalemate out in Casablanca.

Zwane will no doubt have been inspired by his coach’s words to score yet again to not only lead Sundowns to continental glory on Sunday, but to also have Mokwena proudly take up the same seat he occupied Friday and say ‘I told you so’.

“He is an amazing human being and I think some of the criticism has been extremely unfair,” Mokwena explained.