“Do not give Al-Hilal a chance on the ball, guys. If you do, they will show how good they are.”
This is what Al-Ahly coach Pitso Mosimane told his players before the FIFA Club World Cup bronze-medal match against the Asian and Saudi champions in Abu Dhabi.
That did the trick. The Egyptian giants simply demolished Al-Hilal 4-0, leading to Leonardo Jardim’s dismissal from the Riyadh club.
“They have an amazing team,” the South African said of Al-Za’eem in a phone call from Cairo. “My staff and I slept four hours a night to prepare our players for a match every three days, especially this one.”
“We checked everything about Al-Hilal and noticed that against Chelsea, when the latter put a little pressure on, Hilal lost the ball. So we did the same. Against a team with so much quality like Al-Hilal, it’s crucial.”
“We simply had this second engine inside of us that day,” the 57-year-old said.
Mosimane is one of the rising football figures in Africa in recent years. He has been an assistant in a World Cup with South Africa, won multiple domestic titles, and in 2020 became the first black African coach to take charge of one of African and Arab football’s most prominent institutions, Al-Ahly.
He remains a fascinating, barrier-breaking character who looks to challenge conventions in world football.
In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Mosimane discussed the Club World Cup challenges, life at Al-Ahly, football in Africa and the Middle East, and being a successful non-European coach in a Eurocentric football world. A story of a coach that goes against the odds, to change the status quo.
“On one hand, we got a medal, which was what we wanted,” Mosimane said of the Cairo club’s Club World Cup campaign.
“On the other, we got the same medal as last year,” he admitted, a bit disappointed. “But the important thing is that we did it, and against all odds.”
When Mosimane says “against all odds,” he has his reasons. With nine players who had just recovered from COVID-19, five who had returned from the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, and a few key injuries, the Club World Cup was a challenging mission for Al-Ahly.
Yet a team effort helped to overcome the obstacles and win the bronze medal.
“After every match, my South African staff, a physical trainer and two analysts did a corrections session. We shared conclusions with the players and immediately implemented them in training,” he explained.
But against Al-Hilal, it meant more.
“It was an Arab derby,” Mosimane said. “Our people in Egypt didn’t want to lose to Saudi Arabia in football. We did our best, played well and provided an unbelievable performance that showed how much we wanted it.”
During the medal ceremony in Abu Dhabi, the Al-Ahly coach stood with a South African flag wrapped around his back. His home nation is a significant part of his identity.
Mosimane was born in Kagiso, a township in Johannesburg’s western outskirts. Nicknamed “Jingles” after a player he admired as a child, young Pitso played for a couple of his country’s biggest clubs while earning four caps for the Bafana Bafana.
In 1989 he went to ply his trade in Europe. It was there that he started his coaching journey. While playing for Belgian Rita Berlaar, he took charge of the club’s U-11 team. Afterwards, he had a short stint with Qatari powerhouse Al-Sadd, before retiring in 1996. Then he went back to his home country to implement what he had learnt abroad.
After a few years in local clubs, he joined the South African national team as an assistant to the ex-Saudi national team coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, in the country’s most significant football moment — the 2010 World Cup.
“Working with a coach who has been in three World Cups, and won it, was an unbelievable experience,” Mosimane said. “He taught me football coaching. I absorbed like a sponge from Parreira.”
After the Brazilian left, Mosimane took over as the Bafana Bafana head coach. Despite a promising start, in a decisive 2012 AFCON qualifier against Sierra Leone he mistakenly played for a draw when a victory was needed for qualification, and South Africa got eliminated.
“This is the lowest point of my career,” he admits. “But I learned and improved from it. You can’t reach higher levels without failing. It’s an integral part of my success today.”
Since then, Mosimane’s career has been an unqualified success. After leaving the national team, he joined Mamelodi Sundowns as head coach. The impact was immediate.
In eight years with the Masandawana, Mosimane guided the team to 11 titles.
“With European coaches, Mamelodi won nothing,” he said. “With me, we were champions or runner-ups every year.”
Five South African league titles, two cups and most notably, the 2016 CAF Champions League against Zamalek. That year he also won the African Coach of the Year award.
Mosimane’s impact wasn’t only local or national. In African football, there are different cultural sensitivities between the North and the rest of the continent. Racial relations and prejudice are part of traditional tensions between clubs, national teams and fans, and are evident every time representatives from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa meet.
At Sundowns, Mosimane used it to attract attention to himself, rather than his players, by making comments on the subject.
“They know how to manipulate the system. They put pressure on the referees . . . that’s why the North Africans dominate,” he once said after a match against Wydad Casablanca, erupting a heated discord in the process. Together with his professional success against North African clubs, Mosimane made a name for himself as a sophisticated tactician, and a master of mind-games.
This earned him respect among the masses in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.
“I always wanted to crack the space of North Africa,” he said. “We changed the status quo in Africa back then. We did it simply by winning on the most difficult grounds in the continent.”
But this was only the beginning as, in October 2020, Al-Ahly called and Mosimane was about to take his career to the next level.
“Ohhh, Pitso, Pitso, Ohhh, Pitso, Pitso,” the Ahlawy faithful sang his name during Al-Ahly’s recent 4-0 victory against El Gouna in the Egyptian league. Pitso was touched and clapped back to the fans with joy.
“This club changed the status quo for me, changed the culture for me, and for this I will always be grateful,” he said, referring to the fact he is the club’s first foreign African manager.
His historic move influenced the region. Soon after, Moroccan club RS Berkane signed Congolese Florent Ibenge as a head coach. Mosimane and Al-Ahly suddenly became trendsetters.
“I always wanted to break this ceiling and work in North Africa,” he said. “But only when you are here you understand how massive this club and culture are. The pressure and expectations are unreal.”
Al-Ahly have won 143 titles since the club’s foundation in 1907; nurtured a few of Africa’s greatest players, including the great Mohamed Aboutrika; and have nearly 50 million followers in social media.
“After every game, everyone dismantles your team, exposing your faults,” he said of the reality of being Al-Ahly coach. “In this club you must win every match and every title, back-to-back.”
Despite the pressure, Mosimane and his staff have thrived in Egypt. With them, Al-Ahly won two successive CAF Champions Leagues, two CAF Super Cups and one Egyptian Cup. But there’s one title missing to make Pitso’s Al-Ahly adventure perfect. The bread and butter of the Ahlawy, the Egyptian Premier League, which the club has won a record 42 times.
“This is my target this year,” said Mosimane. “It will be perfect to bring it back to our fans after Zamalek won it last year.”
Mosimane is proving a point that African coaches can succeed at the top level of African and Arab football. Still, despite being arguably the most successful coach in the world last year, Mosimane didn’t make it to FIFA’s Best Coaches shortlist in 2021. Once again, European coaches took over the top three positions, the list of nominees disregarding the likes of Lionel Scaloni of Argentina and Mosimane himself.
Apparently, challenging the status quo between European and non-European coaches is more complicated than making the leap from the sub-Sahara to the North of Africa.
“If the awards were about Europe, let Pep (Guardiola) and (Thomas) Tuchel fight for it,” said Mosimane. “But then it is not our space, and it will never be. FIFA is about the world, not one continent.”
“Make the awards about relative achievements, then it will be fair.”
When asked about working in Europe one day, Mosimane laughs.
“Not in our lifetime. It will take another generation,” he said. “For me, I moved on. I am happy with my continent.”
While Europe is out of reach, Mosimane continues to closely follow Middle Eastern football.
“I rate Saudi football highly, especially after we played Al-Hilal,” he said. “Qatar is coming up and I was impressed with their Arab Cup performance. Al-Jazira and Al-Ain from the UAE are impressive too. This region has a lot of football to offer.”
After changing the reality in his home country and continent, Mosimane still has barrier-breaking football dreams.
“Al-Ahly is my first choice, but if they’ll bid me farewell, I want to win a league in another country and win an AFCON,” he said. “Then, maybe, return to my country with what I learnt, and rebuild the football reality there.”
The challenges, some of them very poignant, come think and fast for Mosimane.
On Saturday, Al-Ahly suffered a dramatic loss at home in the CAF Champions League, to no other than Mamelodi Sundowns. With one point out of the first two group games, Mosimane has another challenge: Get “al mared al ahmar” — the red giant — back on track in Africa’s premier club competition.
You would not bet against him.
It is not easy to gain worldwide recognition, but Pitso Mosimane has built a special heritage in Egypt, and Africa. Between another title or another Club World Cup campaign, this South African pioneer will look for a new status quo to change.
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