OPINION: Sundowns do not have to fear mind games in Egypt
It’s highly unlikely that Mamelodi Sundowns would have horror stories to tell when they return from Egypt after their second leg of their Caf Champions League quarterfinal against Al Ahly in Alexandria on Saturday.
There’s a reason to believe eight-time Caf Champions League winners Ahly could be playing mind games ahead of their return leg against Sundowns‚ who hammered the Red Devils 5-0 in the first leg in Pretoria on Saturday.
Looking to bounce back on home soil‚ Al Ahly have changed the match venue from the Egyptian Army Stadium in Suez to the Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria‚ 350-kilometres away from the capital‚ Cairo.
This‚ of course‚ is frustrating for the Tshwane club because it goes against Caf rules that are clear that the match venue and date of any knockout fixture is set 10 days before match-day and cannot be changed thereafter.
Sundowns have been forced to start working on changing their hotel and training facilities.
Downs‚ however‚ have nothing more to worry about during their time in Egypt‚ based on my personal experiences.
The first time I was in Egypt was in June 2011 when I travelled to Cairo for Bafana Bafana’s 2012 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier against the Egyptians.
I don’t recall any dodgy incidents – the kind that travelling teams in Africa so often have to contend with in away matches‚ as home teams engage in gamesmanship and even dirty tricks to derail their visitors – leading up to the match‚ which ended goalless at the Military Academy Stadium.
The second trip was when Al Ahly hosted Orlando Pirates in the final of the 2013 Caf Champions League.
Like Bafana‚ Pirates also had peace of mind utilising excellent facilities‚ with no disruptions‚ during their preparations for the second leg. The first leg had finished 1-1 at Orlando Stadium.
Based on my observations‚ therefore‚ the Egyptians are not big on mind games.
Al Ahly are the continent’s most-respected and pedigreed club‚ and seem to consider themselves above such behaviour.
The travelling media in 2013 were booked into the same hotel as a few Bucs supporters and those fans’ interaction with the locals was always cordial.
If any Sundowns fans are travelling‚ they can expect great treatment in famously hospitable Egypt.
I recall one time myself and fellow journalists took a cab to Pirates’ training and perhaps we gave an impression that we were not happy with the driver.
The driver was adamant that if the client is not happy‚ the approach in Egypt is to pay back the money.
I’ve noticed in other countries that a foreigner who’s travelling and new to the area is seen as some sort of a money-making machine. Because you probably don’t know the normal price for certain things‚ you find that you end up paying far more.
In Egypt‚ we paid about 15 Egyptian pounds (an equivalent of R15 at the time) for a single trip that I could have paid a lot more for in other parts of the continent.
In terms of the match itself at Cairo's packed Arab Contractors Stadium‚ the Egyptians also refrain from unsettling the opposition by abusive chanting or anything of the sort.
The noise‚ though‚ from some of the world’s most fanatical and dedicated supporters of Al Ahly‚ can be unsettling for a visiting team.
Besides the annoying laser-pointing at times‚ the main idea is to create an atmosphere that is fully supportive of the home side. The supporters go all-out to pack the stadium‚ even by illegal means.
Before the match in Cairo‚ Pirates players could be seen having a walkabout on the pitch and even when they reached the goalposts and appeared to be performing some sort of ritual‚ the fans just watched. No trouble at all. The noise‚ though‚ was of course deafening.
In other parts of Africa‚ the invasion of the goal area could have been interpreted as an opportunity to apply muti there and then unpleasant chants might have followed. The Al Ahly supporters – especially the Ultras clad in red and not far from the goal area – focused on creating an intimidating atmosphere.
They are a confident lot‚ I must admit and it rubs off the players‚ as it did on 2013 when the Red Devils beat Pirates 2-0 to win 3-1 on aggregate.
It was a job done on both fronts with the supporters playing their part and the players performing their role on the field‚ without any unjust action toward the opponents.
That is what I expect from Al Ahly again this weekend‚ despite having lost a humiliating 5-0 to Sundowns in the first leg‚ their biggest defeat in the Caf Champions League‚ and largest margin in any competition in 77 years‚ since 1942.
It is not clear what sort of crowd will be allowed in the stadium in Alexandria.
Egypt’s military regime has kept a tight lid on football crowds since the Arab spring of 2011‚ where the Al Ahly Ultras were influential in the Tahir Square uprising that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
But the move from the 20‚000 capacity Suez Stadium to Borg El Arab‚ which takes 80‚000‚ suggests some kind of crowd might be allowed in.
As in the 2013 final‚ he authorities made an allowance for the 2016 last match between Zamalek and Sundowns at the same venue‚ saying they would allow 40‚000 into the second leg in the same stadium‚ though there certainly seemed more present on the night.
What I know is that the Brazilians‚ anyway‚ have the experience in Africa’s premium club competition and no mind games would work against them.
The change of venues is an isolated incident‚ in my view‚ and Sundowns can go on to finish the job with no trouble at all on and off the field.