JOHANNESBURG - If it wasn’t for a Mamelodi Sundowns legend, Yannick Zakri could have been among the Wydad Casablanca forwards the Brazilians have to contain to reach the semi-finals of the Caf Champions League.
The Ivorian was wanted by a number of African giants, including the 19-time Moroccan champions, after his exploits with Asec Mimosas in last year’s Champions League. But Zakri chose Sundowns and made Wydad pay for losing out, scoring the goal that gave the African champions a 1-0 lead going into the second leg in Rabat on Saturday.
“I was influenced to come here, enjoy my football and then go to Europe by seeing Siaka Tiene do that at Sundowns,” Zakri said. “Al-Ahly, Zamalek and even Wydad wanted to sign me but I didn’t want to play in those parts. I wanted to come here and play for Sundowns.
"I saw their videos and what the South African league is about and I was impressed. I liked how Sundowns play and saw that I could fit in here. I told my president (at Asec, Roger Ouegnin) that I wanted to come here to get experience and then go to Europe.”
Tiene also joined the Brazilians from Asec before going on to have an impressive career in France with stints at PSG and Montpellier.
Fellow Ivorian Soumahoro Bangaly helped Zakri settle at Chloorkop, acting as his translator while he improved his English. Now Zakri could serve as a translator for his teammates in a country that uses French as its language of business.
His role will not stop at being the “translator” as Zakri has valuable insight on the club that stands in the way of Sundowns and consecutive semi-final appearances. He has faced Wydad twice in the Champions League and even scored in Morocco,
“It’s fire there. Fire! Arab teams are totally different when they play at home,” Zakri said. “I know it will be very difficult. I have played Wydad three times. I know every player there. I know how Wydad play, how they attack and defend. I know everything. But every game you play isn’t the same. As much as I know them, they also know me. Maybe they are working on how to stop me.”
With a long injury list, coach Pitso Mosimane is likely to call on Zakri to lead the attack at Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium in Rabat. Khama Billiat could make an appearance after watching from the stands for the better part of this campaign due to injuries.
But Zakri could be the Brazilians’ talisman. He scored against Wydad the last time he was in Rabat, just like he did in the first leg. But none of those goals rank high in his career.
“The most important goal of my career will come in the final. I trust my team. I know we will reach the final and defend our trophy. That goal (in the first leg) was important for us because I know that Sundowns play very well away. We will get a good result there to go to the next stage.”
Meanwhile, Sundowns arrived in Morocco on Tuesday without a training venue to prepare for the match. The Brazilians wrote a letter to the South African Football Association (Safa) asking for urgent intervention from the Confederation of African Football (Caf) on the matter.
In the letter, the Tshwane side wrote “As you are aware, the Sundowns’ advanced team has been in Morocco since last Thursday to check the training venue and arrange accommodation and logistics in Rabat. Despite communicating with the WAC (Wydad) delegation incessantly and on daily basis, we have still not been told which facility will be put at Sundowns’ disposal to train. We have tried and made all attempts possible to reach out to WAC officials and the officials of the Moroccan FA to assist us but we have received no assistance and have been shunted from pillar to post.”
Sundowns had intended to hold their first training session at 9pm on Tuesday. The hosting club and association are responsible for organising the visiting team a training venue and a bus to transport them. The Brazilians face Wydad in Rabat on Saturday at Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium.