JOHANNESBURG - The Fifa Club World Cup, with all the harsh lessons Mamelodi Sundowns were handed, proved to Sibusiso Vilakazi that he had made the right decision to join the Brazilians from Bidvest Wits.
The 27-year-old stands by that decision even after the Clever Boys made history without him, winning their first Absa Premiership title in the club’s history while Vilakazi finished a disappointing season with nothing from the domestic league.
“There are no regrets,” Vilakazi said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Yes, on the other side they won the league and they did well for themselves. But at the same time I came here and I played at the Club World Cup, a different level.
"I won the CAF Super Cup, a different level. I am in the quarter-finals of the CAF Champions League, a different level. I took my game to the next level by coming to Sundowns.”
“We were smashed in the Club World Cup. We got a lesson and a shock. But it also motivated us to return there and we know what we have to do to achieve that - win the Champions league so that we can test ourselves against the best in the world.
"I am now competing at a higher level. Bigger than anything you can do in the PSL. The Champions League doesn’t just test your football. It also tests your mental strength because of the things you have to endure, from the travelling to the hostile crowds and the tricks clubs play when you’re in their backyard.”
The Brazilians’ trip to Morocco is testimony to what Vilakazi is speaking about. The African champions reached Rabat by firstly flying to Cairo in Egypt, then Casablanca before going to the city that will host their clash with Wydad Casablanca at Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium at 10pm South African time on Saturday.
The Brazilians had to find their own training pitch after the Moroccans didn’t bother to arrange one. Such things and the demands at Sundowns took Vilakazi out of his comfort zone. He struggled to adapt in his first season.
“It was disappointing,” Vilakazi said. “I couldn’t wait for the start of this season, my second season here. I was driven by the desire to get better and improve. I am glad that we have done well in the Champions League. That’s the big fish at the moment. Obviously when you chase a big fish, it comes with bigger challenges and players have to rise to the occasion.”
Vilakazi and company have to rise to the occasion in Rabat with a 1-0 advantage. It’s a slender lead that will need them to find the right balance between attack and defence, especially against a team that has won all their home games in the Champions League without conceding in their own backyard. “Vila”, as Vilakazi, is affectionately known, has found his groove at Sundowns in his role as the link between the midfield and the attack.
“I had to become a complete player, defend, attack and score, to fit in here at Sundowns,” Vilakazi said. “Football isn’t about one person. It’s about the team. But for you to make a good contribution to the team, you have to find yourself first. I have done that and that’s why I am now comfortable with my game and what I bring to the team.”