When Two Champions Leagues Titles in Eight Months Don’t Count
Pitso Mosimane has done enough winning in the last year, plus change, to talk about nothing else. In November 2020, only three months after he was appointed manager of the Egyptian club Al Ahly, he won the African Champions League title. He did so by beating Zamalek, Al Ahly’s fiercest rival. The final was cast as the derby of the century. Nobody in Egypt thought it was an exaggeration.
Eight months later, he repeated the trick. The calendar contracted and concentrated by the pandemic, Al Ahly returned to the Champions League final in July to face Kaizer Chiefs, the team Mosimane had supported as a child in South Africa. He won again. He was showered with golden ticker tape on the field, then presented with bouquets of roses by government grandees when he returned to Cairo.
He places both trophies among his proudest moments as a manager, alongside coaching his country — he was in charge of South Africa for a couple of years after it served as host of the 2010 World Cup — and winning his first continental trophy, with the South African team Mamelodi Sundowns in 2016.
And yet Mosimane does not rhapsodize about either victory quite so much as he does the one international tournament in 2021 that he did not win. Between his two triumphs, Mosimane took Al Ahly to Qatar for the Club World Cup. His team was drawn to face Bayern Munich in the semifinals. “They had beaten Barcelona, 8-2,” he said. “I was worried. That was Barcelona with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. If they could do that to them, what would they do to us?”
He had no need to be concerned. Al Ahly lost, 2-0, but there was no embarrassment, no humiliation. A few days later, in the third-place playoff, Mosimane’s team overcame the South American champion, Palmeiras, to take bronze. “Africa got a medal,” he said. “The year before, it had not won a medal. That, to us, was success.”
That it is the third place, not the string of firsts — two Champions Leagues, accompanied by two African Super Cups — that Mosimane lingers on is instructive. It is a reminder that silver and gold are not the only measure of glory in management; achievement is necessarily relative to opportunity.
Mosimane, by that gauge, has enjoyed a year that holds up in comparison to any of his peers. He has not, though, been granted the same recognition. When FIFA published its seven-member shortlist for its men’s coach of the year award a few weeks ago, Mosimane — who had lifted three continental honors in 2021 — was not on it.
He was not the only notable omission. Abel Ferreira was not there, either, despite going one better than Mosimane and leading Palmeiras to two Copa Libertadores titles in the same calendar year. He did not make the top seven, let alone the top three. Those spots were taken by Thomas Tuchel, Pep Guardiola and Roberto Mancini.
The pattern held for the women’s prize, too. Bev Priestman led Canada to an improbable Olympic gold in Tokyo, but she did not make the final cut, overlooked in favor of Lluís Cortés, Emma Hayes and Sarina Wiegman.
The connection is not that all of these coaches won major honors: Cortés might have led Barcelona Femení to an emphatic treble and Hayes might have won the Women’s Super League, but Wiegman saw her Dutch team knocked out in the quarterfinals of the Olympics, then left to take charge of England. The link, instead, is that they all work in Europe.
The temptation, of course, is to chalk this up to FIFA’s star-dazzled ineptitude and move along. The problem, though, is more deep-seated than that. FIFA does, of course, choose the initial shortlists of candidates for its so-called Best Awards, and it has a tendency to overlook anyone not competing in the most glamorous, most lucrative tournaments in the game.
But, occasionally, one slips through. Djamel Belmadi, of Algeria, was nominated in 2019. So, too, were River Plate’s Marcelo Gallardo and Ricardo Gareca, the Argentine in charge of Peru’s national team. Lionel Scaloni, the Argentina coach, was included this year.
That none went any further is not just to do with FIFA but with the array of players, coaches, fans and journalists who command a vote on the awards. It is not only the game’s governing body that is in thrall to the famous faces and the glamorous names of the major leagues of western Europe, but the game itself.
“It is not only Africa” that is overlooked, Mosimane said. “It is as though it does not mean as much when you win in the competitions that do not generate the most money, that do not have the biggest audiences.”
The consequences of that Eurocentrism reach far beyond one prize, one gala. Mosimane was appointed by Al Ahly, at least in part, because the club was “looking for someone who knew Africa, knew the Champions League, had beaten the teams they needed to beat.” His record was impeccable. He was, by some distance, the best man for the job.
He landed in Cairo, in September 2020, to be greeted by thousands of fans at the airport; it was then, and only then, that he realized the scale of the job he had taken. “I don’t know if there is another club in the world that has to win everything like Al Ahly does,” he said. “I thought South Africans loved football. But they don’t love it as much as Egyptians do.”
In the news media, though, Mosimane detected a note of skepticism. Al Ahly had employed foreign managers before, but they had all been European or South American. He was the first non-Egyptian African to be given the post. “There were people who asked whether I had the credibility to coach the biggest team in Africa and the biggest in the Middle East,” he said.
It made sense to him that those doubts proved unfounded. Africa, as Mosimane pointed out, is full of European coaches. They should, really, be at a considerable advantage. Until recently, the African soccer federation, CAF, did not run a formal high-level coaching course, the equivalent of the pro license required of all European managers.
Mosimane was one of the first coaches accepted for the inaugural qualification. It was supposed to take six months. Three years later, it has still not finished, only in part because of the pandemic. Meeting European coaches in competition, he said, was the equivalent of “being asked to sit the exam but not being given the books to read.” And still, African coaches still found a way to pass. “When the floors are level, when they are coaching teams with the same quality of player as us, we beat them,” he said.
It is small wonder, then, that Mosimane is convinced that if he was put in charge of Barcelona or Manchester City he would “not do too badly.” He is resigned to the fact that he will never find out. If FIFA finds it easy to overlook the success of African coaches, if African clubs are wary of the abilities of African coaches, then there is little hope a team from outside Africa will offer him that sort of chance.
Part of that, he is adamant, is to do with the color of his skin. He was pleased to see one of his former players, Bradley Carnell, be appointed coach of St. Louis City S.C. in Major League Soccer. He is proud to see another South African doing well. Carnell does not have a fraction of Mosimane’s experience. “So maybe I could get a job in M.L.S. then?” he said. He did not sound hopeful. Carnell, after all, is white.
Europe is more distant still. He has noted the almost complete absence of Black coaches — let alone Black African coaches — in Europe’s major leagues. He has spoken with former players of the highest pedigree who feel they are denied opportunities easily afforded to their white counterparts. “That is the reality,” Mosimane said.
That is not to say he does not harbor ambitions. His latest Champions League crown has earned him another tilt at the Club World Cup next month. It is the trophy that he would like to win, with Al Ahly, above all others. “There is nothing left for me to win in Africa,” he said.
Once his time in Cairo ends, he would like to try his hand at international management again. The “timing” is not right for South Africa, he said, but perhaps Senegal, Nigeria, Ivory Coast or Egypt might be feasible: one of the continent’s traditional powerhouses.
He would cherish the chance to coach the best players in the world in Europe, of course, but he knows soccer has imposed a ceiling between them and him. His ambitions run as high as they can, given the way the world has been constructed around him, one in which opportunity is not always contingent on achievement.