Mokwena not leaving Downs’ CAF hopes only to ‘luck’

Mamelodi Sundowns head coach Rulani Mokwena during the CAF Champions League press conference. | BackpagePix

Mamelodi Sundowns head coach Rulani Mokwena during the CAF Champions League press conference. | BackpagePix

Published Mar 1, 2024


SUCH IS Rulani Mokwena’s confidence – some would argue arrogance – in his coaching abilities that ‘luck’ is not a word you would expect from his mouth when he talks about the ingredients required for continental success.

But as he prepared to take yet another step towards leading Mamelodi Sundowns to their second CAF Champions League title, the coach called ‘the South African Mourinho’ in some circles uttered the ‘L’ word that most high achievers such as himself are known to usually discount.

“Lots of consistency, hard work and luck,” he responded to a question about what it would take to win the continent’s premier club knockout competition.

Inside the auditorium at Sundowns’ Chloorkop head offices, Mokwena sinks deep into his chair before taking a sip of the content of his disposable ‘coffee’ cup. It is the pre-match media conference ahead of their Group A clash with TP Mazembe, and the young Sundowns tactician is in his element as he addresses the newshounds he’s clearly familiar with.

And he quickly picks up on his ‘luck’ statement that has raised eyebrows and moves to clarify it.

“You need a lot of luck (to win the Champions League). You need only look at last season with Al Ahly. In high-level competitions, you need a little bit of luck,” he says, now sitting straight up and his piercing eyes wide open as if to ensure that he is understood.

“Just look at the Ivory Coast story (in winning the Africa Cup of Nations). Already (knocked) out, coach out and then these people qualify (for the knockout stage) and go on to ride the crest of that wave.”

To the uninitiated, host nation Ivory Coast were crowned African champions last month despite looking dead and buried with just three points from the group. They progressed as the worst of the four third-placed teams before going on a remarkable run which saw them riding their luck to win matches they looked to be losing.

“(It was) same with Al Ahly,” Mokwena continued in reference to the Egyptian giants’ Champions League success which came about after they narrowly survived group stage elimination – ironically thanks to Sundowns captain Ronwen Williams saving a late penalty against Al Hilal.

“Even our AFL (African Football League) victory and how we made it. We go to Egypt (in the semi-final second leg against Ahly), get a late penalty against us (which was saved) and play with 10 men (after Junior Mendieta was sent off six minutes from time).”

When “the gods smile at you”, as he put it, you have to help them along by working hard.

“You then need to be brave and show courage if you are to win the Champions League. You’ve got to be there – get to the quarter-final and the semi-final.

“You must feel the need to stretch out your wings and soar slightly higher than you have (before). As daunting as it may seem and sound, it is possible. But go one game at a time, one stage at a time and perform right there and then. And hopefully the football gods smile at you.”

So while he does believe in luck, Mokwena clearly understands that you also have to ‘make your own luck’. And to this effect, the young coach stops at nothing to ensure that his team is well prepared for every match they play.

Ahead of today’s encounter with Mazembe at the Lucas Moripe Stadium, he again showed just how ready his team is by rattling out the names of the opposition players and their strengths.

Sundowns need to beat Mazembe – the team that got the better of them via a 1-0 win in Lubumbashi in the first round – to finish top of the group as the two teams are locked on 10 points after five group matches. Should they finish on the same points, the Congolese will win via the head-to-head rule.

“We know we have to do our homework and give players enough information to be able to fight and put ourselves in a better situation than last season (when we were knocked out in the semis),” he said.

“We have qualified for the quarter-finals and we now need to try and be top of the group after reaching the 10 points benchmark that we had set ourselves. And there’s a huge probability of that happening in Saturday’s (today’s) game.

“It’s tough, but that’s what it is. The wind blows hardest when you are top of the tree. We dared to dream and dared to climb. Now we must get used to the pressure that comes with it.”

And luck had nothing to do with it. Or did it?