Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
PETER NDLOVU celebrated his 43rd birthday yesterday, with the Flying Elephant, for a change, plotting in the enemy’s camp as high-flying Mamelodi Sundowns brace for their CAF Champions League showdown against his hometown club, Chicken Inn, in Pretoria tomorrow night.
Ndlovu’s former English clubs, Coventry City, Sheffield United and Birmingham City took to their official Twitter accounts yesterday to congratulate the Flying Elephant and posted a number of videos of some of his finest moments.
A post on the Birmingham City Football Club official Twitter account said, “Happy Birthday to former Blues striker Peter Ndlovu who turns 43 today,” while Sheffield United noted that Ndlovu and Gareth Taylor, another of their former players, “born 5 000 miles”, shared the same birthday.
The former Zimbabwe captain was born in the same month as Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Gerard Pique, Carlos Tevez, Angel di Maria, Christian Eriksen, Fernando Torres, Edinson Cavani and Gheorghe Hagi, the great Romanian known as the “Maradona of the Caparthian Mountaints.”
Tomorrow, Ndlovu’s focus will be on the big match at the Lucas Moripe Stadium which has captured the imagination of football fans either side of the Limpopo and represents the ultimate showdown of a free-spirited underdog, taking on a member of the establishment on the biggest stage of Africa’s inter-club football battlegrounds.
Chicken Inn are only playing their second game in the CAF inter-club competitions while Sundowns, who reached the final of the 2001 CAF Champions League only to lose 1-4 to Egyptian giants Al-Ahly, have been in the trenches since 1994 when they made their debut in Africa’s premier inter-club tournament.
The Brazilians have played in nine CAF Champions League tournaments, two CAF Cup tournaments, one CAF Cup Winners Cup tournament and three CAF Confederation Cup tournaments during a long adventure in these trenches while their six league titles, in the era of the modern Premiership in South Africa since 1996, is a record haul.
A club that was once owned by Standard Bank is now the part of the business portfolio of billionaire mining magnate, Patrice Motsepe, and Sundowns are rated as the most Valuable Football Club in a South African Premiership ranked as the seventh richest league in the world.
The Brazilians’ financial muscle has seen them hire the likes of Reinhard Fabisch, the architect of Zimbabwe’s Dream Team, Dutchman Clemens Westerhof, who guided Nigeria to success in the 1994 Nations Cup and Frenchman Henri Michel, who guided France to gold at the ’84 Olympic Games, third place at the ’86 World Cup and also won the CAF Confederation Cup, to coach them in the past. Bulgarian football legend, Hristo Stoichkov, one of the greatest players to wear the iconic Barcelona jersey, and Argentinian gaffer, Oscar Fullone, have also been recruited in the past to take charge of a Sundowns team always dripping with riches.
Sundowns were formed in 1970, the year Peter’s late brother Adam was born, beginning a journey that would eventually take him to Chicken Inn, where he was the head coach when he died in that car crash near the Victoria Falls International Airport in December 2012.
Peter was the only one in that car, which veered off the road and crashed into a tree after a tyre burst, who miraculously escaped with his life and, in the week that the Flying Elephant celebrated his 43rd birthday, the arrival of the Gamecocks in Pretoria will certainly bring mixed emotions for Zimbabwe’s greatest Warrior.
Now the team manager at Sundowns, Peter is part of the Brazilians’ backroom staff plotting for the Gamecocks’ downfall and, two years ago, after Sundowns had captured their record sixth league title, the Zimbabwean was praised by coach Pitso Mosimane.
“I am surrounded by the right people. Mike Ntombela has been here. He is a legend and I played with him.
“Peter Ndlovu has played 15 years in the English Premier League and knows how to do these things,” Mosimane said in his hour of triumph.
“Ndlovu and the rest of the technical team were magnificent throughout the season. We supported one another to make sure Sundowns became the champions.”
Sundowns are unbeaten in South African league and cup competitions since September last year, in a run stretching more than 20 games, are yet to lose at home in league and cup games all season, and their only two losses — against Golden Arrows and Mpumalanga Black Aces — came on the road.
The Brazilians have won 11 of the 13 league and cup matches they have played at home in the 2015 /2016 season, and drawn the other two against Polokwane City (0-0) and Golden Arrows (0-0), and they have scored 29 goals, at an average of more than two goals per game, while conceding eight.
On Wednesday night they powered to a blistering start, scoring twice in the opening minutes, before settling for a 2-1 win over Mpumalanga Black Aces with Khama Billiat, who has been the heart and soul of their success story this season, turning on a man-of-the-match performance.
“We needed to get back to form,” Billiat told Kick-Off.
“We haven’t been doing well in the past two games and needed this (Aces result) to take us to the next game (against Chicken Inn). We all know that we are not out — we are still in it and will always give our best.
“We’re just gonna make sure we rectify the mistakes we made in Zimbabwe and make sure we don’t concede and focus on our own style, then hopefully we will succeed.”
Billiat did not play in the first leg of the Champions League showdown in Bulawayo, being withdrawn at the last minute because of injury, and his availability is key for Sundowns who believe that his form, pace and trickery could provide the spark they need tomorrow.
The Zimbabwe forward’s diminutive frame, change of pace and wizardry down the flanks, provides a throwback to some fans of the days when Ndlovu was tearing defences in the English Premiership and leading the Warriors attack during the Dream Team days.
Reports in the South African media yesterday indicated that Sundowns had pinned Billiat to a new deal that will keep him at the club, at least, for another season despite indications that he was set to move to Europe at the end of the campaign.
Mosimane believes Sundowns were drawn against very tough opposition and any duel against a Zimbabwean side was always going to provide a stern test.
“Chicken Inn are a good team, you find the Khama Billiats, the Cuthbert Malajilas, and the Evans Rusikes. We played a strong team,” the coach told the South African media.
Billiat has made 71 appearances for Sundowns in all competitions and scored 24 goals.
At about 10pm tomorrow night, Billiat and his teammates would give King Peter a belated birthday present by overturning the first leg deficit, or spoil the Flying Elephant’s big week by falling at the hands of the bullish Gamecocks.