Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies made good on coach Jerry Tshabalala’s pledge to go for gold at the CAF Women’s Champions League (CAF WCL), winning in style without conceding a single goal.
Sundowns have been ruthless this season, also winning South Africa’s Hollywoodbets Super League and the COSAFA qualifying tournament for the CAF WCL.
Tshabalala credited the experience of Banyana Banyana goalkeeper Andile Dlamini and his defenders for the team’s stinginess in front of goal. However, by his own admission, even the impenetrable Sundowns were consumed by nerves ahead of the CAF WCL final against Ghana’s Hasaacas Ladies.
Fortunately for the team from Pretoria, Tshabalala had a few psychological tricks up his sleeve: “I’m not somebody who believes in rituals and all that, and we have this thing where if you’re late for breakfast, it’s either you do 10 push-ups [or something else].
“On the day of the final, I made myself late on purpose. They were waiting for me on the bus and they started sending me messages, ‘Coach, we are waiting for you. Where are you?’
“I said to them, ‘Wait, I’m still preparing my rituals,'” Tshabalala told ESPN, who then went on to tell the team that a [fictitious] traditional healer had given them a blessing.
He added: “In the changeroom, I could tell that the players were a bit tense and anxious. After our warm-up, I came back and told them, ‘As much as you guys are anxious — this is a big stage — it’s not only you guys. The team from Ghana is feeling the same thing.’
“I made them aware during the warm-up — I said, ‘Look at them. They can’t even control the ball,’ just to give them the edge above the Ghanaian team. [After] one or two touches of the players from Ghana, when the game started, you could tell that they were anxious.
“I said, ‘Look, it’s not only us. They are also anxious. They are also tense.’ I think that helped the players in terms of them settling into that game.”
Explaining the secret to his rock solid defence, Tshabalala said: “Look, we are not a team that concedes a lot of goals. When you look back at home in our league — our record — we don’t concede that much.
“I think the fact that the experienced players that I have — the likes of Zanele Nhlapho [who recently had a stint with Kosovo’s KFF Mitrovica], Bambanani Mbane [recently in Belarus with Dinamo-BSUPC] and Andile Dlamini… all those have got international experience. I think that’s what really helped us not to concede a single goal.”
Women’s football is only now beginning to reach the radars of many South African fans, but Sundowns’ success was met with massive fanfare, particularly in the wake of the men’s national team’s controversial World Cup qualifying defeat to Ghana.
“I always tell my players a day or two before the game not to go into social media, but I was sneaking into social media and seeing the comments of the people, and I could tell that after what happened between South Africa and Ghana, everyone was rooting for us,” Tshabalala said.
“I didn’t want us to put ourselves under pressure and say we’re going to make South Africans happy by beating the team from Hasaacas. I said: ‘No — we’re in here to play women’s football. We don’t want to involve ourselves in what happened between Bafana and Ghana’.
“But we really appreciate the fact that [fans on] social media supported us big time. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have been able to pull through.”
Mamelodi Sundowns chairman Tlhopie Motsepe, son of billionaire CAF president Patrice Motsepe, promised on behalf of the club to reward their women’s team financially, though he kept the precise figures confidential.
“Women’s football hasn’t been funded the way it was supposed to be, but the contribution from the club will definitely make a huge difference to myself as a coach and the players’ lives. When it’s revealed, you’re going to be shocked at what has been provided by the club,” said Tshabalala.
Even South Africa’s state president Cyril Ramaphosa offered his congratulations to Sundowns Ladies after their CAF WCL victory, tweeting: “National congratulations to the women of Mamelodi Sundowns for your triumph in the CAF Women’s Champions League. You’ve done your club and country proud. Well done and enjoy your celebration.”
Tshabalala was understandably caught off guard by this message. He said: “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I never knew that what we did was this big.
“Still, today, it hasn’t sunk in. When I walk down the streets, lots of people are coming up and shaking my hands and I’m like: ‘Why?’ [They say] ‘You don’t understand what you did. It’s something big for South Africa.’
“To me, I think because I’m used to the team winning now, there’s that thing [in my head] that says it’s just like any other match, but when you engage with any other South African, they always remind me how big it is what we have done with the team.”
Tshabalala is expecting Sundowns’ local rivals to up their game next season in response to their remarkable achievements. However, he is confident that Sundowns Ladies will rise to the challenge and raise the bar higher yet for South African women’s football.
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