JOHANNESBURG - The spark that ignited Thapelo Morena’s fire in the CAF Champions League was lit in the fiery stands of Borg El-Arab Stadium in Alexandria last year as Mamelodi Sundowns conquered the continent.
Morena travelled with the Brazilians to Egypt as part of a contingency that also included players who weren’t registered in the Champions League. The idea was for those players to soak in the atmosphere to prepare them for the following campaign by experiencing what to expect rather than being told about it.
The reception the African champions received in the final was hostile. Sundowns weren’t given a training pitch and had to fend for themselves after the White Knights relinquished their duties as part of the Egyptian club’s mind games.
On match-day over 70 000 loud and passionate Zamalek fans tried to unsettle the Brazilians with their chants, lasers and water bottles they threw at them during pitch inspection.
“Everything about that trip inspired me to do even more to be in the team that played in the Champions League after that,” Morena said. “I felt the atmosphere from the stands and I wished I was inside the pitch. I was happy to be there and the most important thing is that we won the final. It was on another level.
"Those people go all out in their support for their teams. It blew my mind. Now I am experiencing that atmosphere as part of the playing personnel which shows that if you have a dream, work hard on it, you will definitely achieve it. This is big. It’s an environment that every player wishes they were a part of, playing at the highest level against the best in the game.”
The 24-year-old is ready to set Rabat ablaze on Saturday night, 10pm, in the Brazilians’ second leg clash with Moroccan giants Wydad Casablanca at Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium. Wydad have already started playing mind. They haven't supplied them with a training pitch upon their arrival on Tuesday. And that’s just the start.
That won’t rattle Morena who got first-hand experience of how to deal with that having witnessed something similar in Rades against Esperance and Addis Ababa against Saint George. Sundowns’ coach Pitso Mosimane is likely to push Morena, a former sprinter, to midfield looking to utilise his speed. Anele Ngcongca, who is a better defender, will slot in at rightback to help his team defend their lead. Regardless of where Morena has been fielded, he has consistently delivered for the Brazilians.
“When you want something, you must be willing to make sacrifices and adjustments that will help you achieve your goals,” Morena said. “You have to cut a lot of things and keep your eyes on the prize. I am happy because I know what I want and I am focusing on it.
"After each game I look at where I can improve, where my strengths are and where are my weaknesses. I know that I always have to do that. You must always strive to improve in football. That’s how you stay at the top.”