JOHANNESBURG – Hlompho Kekana talks about winning the Caf Champions League with Mamelodi Sundowns with the same enthusiasm he uses when talking about tonight’s friendly against Barcelona at FNB Stadium.
The 32-year-old’s reign as the Brazilians’ captain is littered with memorable moments in the club’s history, from becoming African champions for the first time to being the first South African team to play in the Fifa Club World Cup, winning the league for a record eighth time and now facing the Catalan giants.
“We have played important matches before,” Kekana said. “I have seen Sundowns go to Alexandria and win the Caf Champions League for the first time in the club’s history. I have seen Sundowns play important matches. This match against Barcelona is one of those important matches that we have to play as Mamelodi Sundowns’ players.
"We are looking forward to the match. There will be no stage fright from anyone in our team. We managed to survive in Alexandria (in the Champions League final against five-time African champion Zamalek), so I think that nothing will ever break us.”
Kekana once joked that he went to watch Lionel Messi live just so that he could see that he is actually a human like the rest of us. Tonight, he will see Messi closer than he did as a spectator as he will be up against the Argentine genius.
Even though this is a friendly, for Sundowns’ players it means much more than that as it’s an opportunity for them to test themselves against the world’s best.
Below: Barcelona arrive in South Africa
Kekana was in his second spell with Black Leopards the last time Barcelona played the Brazilians in an international friendly in 2007. He would have laughed at you then if you had told him that he will captain a side against the Spanish champions.
“No! No! No! Then I didn’t think that I would captain a team like Sundowns against Barcelona,” Kekana said. “That’s why I always give thanks to the people who helped me become the captain of this team. I always try to serve them well and give them the best. That’s the only thing I can do to thank them.”
One of those people is Surprise Moriri. The Sundowns’ legend convinced Kekana to take the armband after Ramahlwe Mphahlele’s departure two years ago. Kekana was hesitant at first to assume such a responsibility as he is the joker of the team. But once he took over the armband, it has been at home in his arm as Kekana always leads by example on the pitch.
He gives his all and makes the team tick by supplying the muscle in the middle of the park, giving the attack-minded players assurance to play with freedom knowing that he has their back.
Moriri has Kekana’s back. Kekana consistently seeks advice from Moriri who is now the assistant coach of the Brazilians’ MultiChoice Diski Challenge team. If the two had a conversation about taking on Barcelona, Moriri would have shared with Kekana what it takes to score against them as he scored the Brazilians’ only goal in 2007 at Loftus Versfeld in the Catalans’ 2-1 win.
But then again Kekana doesn’t need much advice when it comes to scoring goals. He is famous for his spectacular goals. If Marc-Andre ter Stegen or Jasper Cillessen aren’t careful in Barcelona goals, they might join a growing list of Kekana’s victims.
“This game is a big one,” Kekana said. “We are looking forward to it. It’s going to be one of the best moments in our football career.”