Kaizer Chiefs: From domestic flops to continental conquerors

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It is a campaign that has left everyone, from armchair coach to TV and newspaper pundit, dumbfounded!

It is a campaign that began when Kaizer Chiefs, a side that had led the 2019/20 South African league for most of the season before faltering at the last hurdle, were already showing early signs of a team in crisis.

When Amakhosi’s Caf Champions League campaign began on 29 November 2020 against Cameroon’s PWD Bamenda, it came barely a fortnight after Amakhosi had been hammered 5-0 on aggregate by bitter Soweto rivals Orlando Pirates in a two-legged MTN8 semi-final.  

In Gavin Hunt, the Chiefs ship had a new skipper at the helm and for some critics, this explained why they had been so easily pillaged by the ‘Sea Robbers’.

If their league form was anything to go by, the boys from Naturena looked a long way from calmer waters. So early in the campaign to win a title that had so painfully eluded them at the end of the previous season, the statistics already made for worrying reading.

Hunt’s side had at that point recorded one win, one draw and one loss after three matches played, having scored one goal [an own goal] while conceding three, in the Premiership.

So, it came as somewhat of a surprise when they went to the Limbe Omnisport Stadium and snatched a narrow 1-0 win against PWD.

With a precious away goal, it did not matter that ‘Amakhosi Amahle’ failed to score when they came back for the second leg at FNB Stadium in a match that Hunt described as “dull” and “disappointing”.  

“In my 30 years as a coach I have never seen anything like that,” Hunt said. However, despite the former Bidvest Wits coach’s disappointment at that underwhelming performance, Chiefs’ struggles seemed to be deepening. They had started the season on the back foot.

While domestic rivals had strengthened pandemic-hit squads at the end of the previous season, Chiefs had been handed a ban by FIFA which took them out of the next two transfer windows.

At the beginning of a fresh season, Chiefs, who were crawling towards the finish line at the end of the 2020/21 campaign, looked like they were already running on fumes.  

With Eric Mathoho’s towering presence missing at the back through injury and Samir Nurkovic missing in a goal shy forward line for the same reasons, their campaign already had echoes to their misfortune riddled but successful 2001 African Cup Winners Cup campaign.

“I remember how we beat a club from Angola [Interclube 2-1 on aggregate] under Muhsin Ertugral despite the fact that we only had 14 registered players,” former Chiefs skipper Cyril Nzama remembers of that campaign.

“We couldn’t register new players before the final. So, it was a thin squad from the Last 16 until the final. We would have three substitutes in a game, one being a goalkeeper, ” ‘Skhokho’ tells FARPost

“Muhsin would tell us that if you start the game, you must finish it. We went all the way and beat an Angolan team 1-0 with 14 players. If we could do it under those circumstances, then the current team can do it.”

At the beginning of the year, Chiefs’ domestic woes continued as they qualified for the group stage of the Champions League via a Leonardo Castro winner in a narrow 1-0 over Primeiro de Agosto in Talatona.

However, even that momentous victory could not be celebrated as it came sandwiched between a one all draw with Bloemfontein Celtic and a 0-2 loss to Maritzburg United in the league.

The rollercoaster ride that the Phefeni Glamour Boys have taken their fans through in the domestic campaign would get exported to the later stages of the Champions League too. A 4-nil loss to Wydad Casablanca would be followed by a 2-0 win against Petro De Luanda.

In the quarterfinals, a 4-0 thrashing of Simba would be followed by a heart stopping 3-0 loss in the reverse fixture. In the semi-final, they would once again face Wydad, the Moroccan giant that mercilessly bludgeoned them in the group stage.

The result would reinforce their unpredictable nature. To most critics and even fans, the side’s run in all competitions just did not make sense.

“You never know with them. They can play a very good game, and sometimes they don’t play a very good game,” Pitso Mosimane has said of the Soweto giants before their meeting Al Ahly in the final.

“They lost 4-0 to Wydad — not in Wydad, in a neutral place. And then they go to Wydad and they win [1-0]. It’s a very difficult team. They win 4-0 at home against Simba, and they lose 3-0 away. You can never tell — it’s just another team. You must not try to make sense out of it. You must just focus on their games in the Champions League because these are their best games,” Mosimane said.

For fans, the Soweto giants’ form in the Champions League successes were not enough. In the past, Chiefs, like other South African clubs, have been accused of prioritising domestic success over continental honours.

While this season they may have played like a side that wants to buck this trend, this might not have been the case in the minds of their supporters. This might explain why a protest was planned by fans in May even though a rare quarterfinal appearance against Simba loomed on the horizon.

For the players, however, the successes in the Champions League are a badge of honour to don despite misfortunes on the domestic front.

“It is a huge achievement for the team‚ Kaizer Chiefs, and for each and every one‚ the fans‚ the players and the technical staff because it is the first time that we have come this far in this competition,” says striker Castro, who has already tasted Champions League success with Sundowns.

After a mazy run that has seen them dribble past all obstacles thrown their way, Chiefs players now also believe that they are on the cusp of something great.

It seems more fiction than fact that as the PSL entered match day 29 and with a Champions League semi-final coming up, there was still a mathematical chance that they could be relegated.  

“It’s unbelievable that they have made it this far,” ex-Chiefs winger Abel “Chacklas” Shongwe tells FARPost. “I spoke to some of the boys before they left, there is an air of confidence in the camp. I’m confident they will win it. It’s their time now.”

It’s a view echoed from within the camp by Njabulo Blom, a cog in a Chiefs’ defence that has not conceded a single goal at home throughout the campaign.  

“We have prepared well as a team and we will go there and do our best to bring the trophy home,” Blom says.

As the all-important final comes up, South African football fans will remember that they have been here before.

Thabo Matlaba, who scored an equaliser for Orlando Pirates at home against Al Ahly [1-1] but lost 2-0 away in the 2013 final, still recalls how the country rallied behind the Buccaneers as they came up against the Red Devils.

“It was lovely, we had the support of every football fan in the country. It didn’t matter whether one was Kaizer Chiefs, Sundowns or Celtic – everyone was behind us.

“I remember how packed Orlando Stadium was when we played the first leg. It was such a beautiful atmosphere. We were confident that we would win that game, we were not afraid of them because we had previously beaten them,” Matlaba tells FARPost.

On that occasion, Matlaba remembers how the wily North Africans outfoxed the black and white half of Soweto, punishing them for their smallest mistakes.

“I think we lost because of experience, when you commit fouls in dangerous areas, they punish you. When we attacked, they came back and hit us on the counter,” the Swallows fullback says, adding that the epic tie was “the biggest game of my career”.

South African hearts have been broken at the hands of Ahly before but this time, there is an added factor. When ‘Abafana Bok’thula Noxolo’clash with the Egyptians at Stade Mohammed V in Morocco, they will be facing a familiar foe in the dugout.

Interestingly, when they faltered at the end of their League campaign last year, it was Mosimane, then the gaffer at Sundowns, who snatched joy from the jaws of despair for the Pretoria giants, staging a late comeback that had seemed unlikely a few games prior.

The run-up to the end of that season was filled with mind games, as Mosimane’s colourful comments seemed to knock Chiefs off their stride.

Edward ‘Magents’ Motale, a winner of the Champions League with Pirates in 1995, is a man who is aware of both Mosimane and the mind games played by teams on the quest for continental glory. He warns the Naturena-based outfit may be tested on and off the field.

“They’ve done their homework about Al Ahly, they know Pitso can play mind games and is too good at that. From the bus to the airport, someone must start building the players’ mental strength.

“Now it’s not just tactics, but building mental strength because psychologically they can kill you before the game. The battle is lost in the mind. If you’re not strong mentally you’ll never win such a game,” ‘Magents’ tells FARPost.

He says of Bucs’ Champions League run: “We won it because we had people who were mentally strong, they found us unyielding, so we could stand anything.”   

For Nzama, a man who was there the last time, two decades ago, when Chiefs got a taste of success in Africa, Saturday would be the glorious culmination of a season during which Chiefs seemed to face the toughest of odds but are on the verge of ultimate success.

It is a final that comes after what is the perennial Glamour Boys’ worst league season ever, a season when they seemed to lose their glow. Could it be the moment to recapture the glory? Only time will tell!

RELATED STORY: Pitso Mosimane: Changing minds and winning hearts