How Mamelodi Sundowns became the CAF Champions League's trickiest customer
Despite a mixed start to the 2019-20 domestic season, Tshwane giants Mamelodi Sundowns remain one of the teams to beat in the CAF Champions League, especially for unlikely rivals Wydad Casablanca.
Since becoming the second South African team to lift the title in 2016, the Brazilians have remained a thorn in the side of Africa's established giants, one of the few sides south of the Sahara to do regular damage to the northern teams.
Morocco's Wydad, who beat Sundowns in last season's semi-finals, were drawn alongside Pitso Mosimane's men in Group C this season. After hosting Petro de Luanda on 30 November, Masandawana are scheduled to visit Wydad at Stade Mohamed V on 7 December. It will be a ninth Champions League meeting between the sides since 2017.
When Sundowns visited Wydad in last season's group stage, they faced a hostile reception. "Pitso Mosimane: Great Country when teaching you, becoming corrupt when beating you" read a banner held aloft by the home supporters.
Mosimane, who attended a CAF Pro License course in Morocco in 2018, claimed last season that Wydad were "bullies" who could not handle defeat. His scathing words had upped the ante by a notch.
For Sundowns captain Hlompho Kekana, Wydad are on par with local giants Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and SuperSport United as rivals. Nevertheless, his respect for the Moroccan mega-club is evident.
"Wydad has always been a stumbling block every time we've played in the Champions League," Kekana tells ESPN.
"We always wanted to beat Wydad and they always wanted to beat Sundowns.
"The rivalry shows when these two teams play. There is pride within these players and teams. It gives football lovers really exciting moments. We just want to make sure we win against them.
"We want to make sure we win home and away this time. We have never won that side. It will be nice if we win at Wydad this time around."
There is no love lost on the field when Wydad and Sundowns do battle, but off the pitch a competitive camaraderie between the two teams appears to be developing.
"At the end of the match, it comes back to humanity and trying to understand that it was just a part of the game that we just really needed to win," says Kekana.
"We've competed more than enough to understand each other. We talk after the match. It helps us understand how they manage their pressure and we tell them how we do things in South Africa.
"We are getting experience in that space. I use this Champions League not only to learn about football, but to learn about different cultures, different things in life."
In the eyes of former Sundowns goalkeeper Calvin Marlin, who left the club in 2013 -- months after Mosimane took over as coach -- 'Jingles' was the main instigator of Sundowns' African vision.
"We did have a couple of foreign coaches that came in and I think a lot of them battled with the whole South African setup and African way of doing things. It's not the same as Europe," Marlin says.
"Pitso made it a point that this [the CAF Champions League] is where we're going to be. He took them into Africa for pre-season. He already showed the players that this is their goal, this is what you want to achieve. Before, there was none of that.
"He came in with a mindset, and [Sundowns' president] Patrice [Motsepe] as well; I think gave him the opportunity and the time to do that. I think, at one stage, the fans wanted to get rid of him [Mosimane]. Patrice held fast."
Even if Mosimane was the modern mastermind of Mamelodi Sundowns' Champions League success, the class of 2001, who lost the final to record eight-time winners Al Ahly, cannot be ignored.
Sundowns lifted three consecutive Premiership titles in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Glory in Africa, however, remained elusive.
Former Sundowns centre-back Matthew Booth was a member of the 2001 squad which fell at the final hurdle. He recalls the club placing significant emphasis on their Champions League campaign once they realised they had a shot at emulating Orlando Pirates' 1995 lone triumph.
"I don't remember any of our club owners or the coach saying to us in particular that the club wants to prioritise one or the other. I think that would be a very dangerous thing to do," Booth tells ESPN.
"But I think the players, as the season progressed, kind of sussed things out with regards to team selection -- which games were prioritised over the others.
"It was definitely a case of trying to rotate and starting to save your stronger team for the CAF Champions League the more we progressed in the competition.
"I think what sparked the hunger among the top teams was Orlando Pirates' win in 1995. I think the competition between the top club owners became quite fierce. They also wanted to have that star above their badge."
Even though Sundowns initially fell short of emulating the Buccaneers, their run to the 2001 final became part of their history.
The Brazilians fell on tough times after winning the 2006-07 Premier Division title, failing to lift it again until 2013-14. According to Kekana, Sundowns turned their fortunes around specifically because they became aware of what it meant to represent a club with such a successful past.
"When I joined [in 2011], we had so many good players, but we weren't a team that could compete. You know, you have to find a formula -- a team that can be together and fight together," Kekana admits.
"We were lots of individuals that were trying to play for the team, but we didn't find the thing that we had to fight for, to play for. We didn't find something that would drive us until we started realising the importance of playing for the badge.
"I think the turning point was [learning] that our time at Mamelodi Sundowns was very short and limited. So many players came and went and didn't win anything with the team. When we looked at the history of the team, they always competed to win trophies.
"At that time, when we started, we didn't really know much about the importance of competing with the team."
The 2013-14 league title was a turning point for Sundowns, according to Kekana. They have been South Africa's dominant force since, adding three more Absa Premiership trophies to their cabinet.
Even so, Kekana says that they did not expect to be crowned champions of Africa in 2016: "I'd lie if I said we really saw that one coming.
"To be honest, I think the turning point was when we went to [the Democratic Republic of] Congo for the first time when we participated in the Champions League," he said, referring to their 2015 3-2 aggregate first round defeat to TP Mazembe.
"We had just won the match at home here 1-0 and we went to DRC with the edge. I think the turning point was that match when we had to really see those guys. TP Mazembe had been in that space for so many years, so they were experienced. They bullied us.
"When we analysed and we saw how they did their pressing from the top, it was unbelievable and we really wanted to copy that and try again in the next Champions League, which turned out so well."
Sundowns have not looked back since. Having beaten Egyptian giants Zamalek in the 2016 final, they claimed revenge on Al Ahly in last season's quarter-finals with an astonishing 5-0 drubbing at the Lucas Moripe Stadium.
Egypt and Ahly goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy has been quoted by KickOff as claiming that Ahly want another meeting with the Tshwane side -- a sure sign that Sundowns have rattled even Africa's most successful club.
Sundowns' Gastón Sirino told the same publication that winning the CAF Champions League is the team's priority this season. His skipper does not disagree.
"We have been knocked out in the semi-final [last season] even, and when we look at the teams that went to the final, I think we stand a chance of competing with them," Kekana says.
"Unfortunately, we couldn't win it, but we can try again this season. It's doable; we have done it before. I think we just have to try and put the whole focus on it and try to win it again."
Mosimane claimed earlier this year that Sundowns are "small boys" compared to Al Ahly, referencing the Egyptian giants' power in the transfer market.
Wise as it may be to avoid getting carried away, he and his players will know that with experience and enthusiasm in their ranks, the Mamelodi Sundowns mantra; "the sky is the limit," rings as true as ever.