Sharuko on Saturday
OKAY, folks, let’s start by putting everything into perspective – for 1 012 days Real Madrid ruled European football, that’s about roughly 144 weeks of ruthless dominance, approximately 35 months at the very top, winning four of the last five Champions League finals.
Four appearances in five straight Champions League finals, including four wins, represented a level of both superiority and authority, like had never been seen in this tournament since Puskas and Di Stefano powered Madrid to dominance in the early years of this tourney.
Sid Lowe, the finest British journalist covering Spanish football, probably provided the best description of the wild events at the Santiago Bernabue on Tuesday night.
“Real Madrid’s mourners filed out in silence while Ajax danced on their grave,’’ he wrote in his report in The Guardian newspaper.
“As the north end of the Santiago Bernabéu roared to the sound of thousands of Dutch fans celebrating, the south stood abandoned and sad.
“Marca published an image of the north end as the final minutes ticked by, the Ajax section full, Madrid’s emptying, scoreboard quantifying their pain like some gigantic tombstone, on a front cover that was sparse and sombre.’’
Just 24 hours later, in Paris, Manchester United became the first club, in Champions League history, to overturn a 0-2 first leg defeat with a sensational 3-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain, on another wild night in the eternal City of Love.
There are many people who will tell you football is now on a mission to humble those who had started to take it for granted, who had started to believe the Champions League was now a playground for Real Madrid and that home teams will always be favourites to win.
And, of course, there are those who will tell you it’s all part of the myth related to the Ides of March and that’s why all this happened this month.
However, those who follow football closely will tell you the events on Tuesday and Wednesday in the Champions League are now becoming part of the norm in this rapidly changing game.
There was a time, not so long ago, when a home match, especially in international football, represented a guaranteed pathway to writing a success story for the hosts, no matter the pedigree of the opposition, and former world champions France would fall to Bafana Bafana in Pretoria.
When Cameroon, just a few years after illuminating the World Cup at Italia ’90, would come to Harare only to be destroyed by an inspired show from Vitalis Takawira, the Digital, whose superb hattrick would power the Warriors to a four-goal demolition of these Indomitable Lions.
WE’RE HOME, OF COURSE WE ARE, BUT THAT’S WHAT PSG AND MADRID SAID
But, the beautiful game has been fighting back with a vengeance and turning everything on its head the home comforts that in the past used to virtually guarantee success, are being tested like never before.
And, only two years ago, we saw the Super Eagles of Nigeria slump to their first competitive loss at the hands of Bafana Bafana, with this historic defeat being inflicted in their backyard in a 2019 AFCON qualifier, when goals by Tokelo Rantie and Percy Tau handed South Africa a 2-0 win in Uyo.
We saw Zambia suffering their first competitive defeat at the hands of Mozambique with that historic defeat for Chipolopolo coming in their Levy Mwanawasa fortress in Ndola at the beginning of the current AFCON qualifiers which come to an end in two weeks’ time.
We saw Bafana Bafana failing to beat Sierra Leone in Nelspruit, in a match they believed a draw would be good enough to take them to the Nations Cup, triggering those embarrassing and premature celebrations — in their flawed belief they had qualified after that goalless draw — only for reality to hit them hard that they had not made it.
The pattern, which these events have been painting, shows us a game that is dramatically changing, where home comforts are no longer a guarantee for success stories for the hosts and where visiting teams now come carrying genuine hopes they can also win in those away games.
That is why, while confidence is oozing across the country that our boys will clear the final hurdle erected by Congo-Brazzaville in their final 2019 AFCON qualifier in two weeks’ time, nothing should be taken for granted and we have to guard against complacency.
Because, after all, this game has provided us with a lot of examples, in recent days, from Paris to Madrid, and in recent years, from Uyo to Ndola, about the perils of counting our chickens before they have been hatched, simply because we have the home comforts in this final showdown.
It’s hard not to be superstitious in football, especially when no one can provide any scientific explanation to many of the bizarre things that happen in this game.
Like, as to why fate had to ensure that the DRC, then known as Zaire, the first black African country to feature at the World Cup, would suffer a 0-9 humiliation at the hands of the then Yugoslavia, in Germany in 1974.
Each of the goals they conceded in that match, somehow, matching the exact number of the nine juju men they had taken with them to Germany in an effort, according to the leaders of that team, to ensure the players would be “protection,’’ and ‘’boosted’’ by such mysterious powers.
How do we explain how the football gods somehow came up with the remarkable tale in which Libreville, the very Gabonese city that represented tragedy in Zambian football, would provide the setting for Chipolopolo’s finest hour in the game, a good 19 years later?
The same Chipolopolo, which like those Congolese coming here in two weeks’ time, represent the faces of the two teams that came to the National Sports Stadium, for a final AFCON qualifying showdown and left with the result they wanted after having shattered our nation’s AFCON dreams.
AT LEAST, BOTH LUKAKU AND LUKAU ARE FROM KINSHASA AND NOT BRAZZAVILLE
Somehow, in two weeks’ time, fate has also ensured it’s the same Congo-Brazzaville, who denied us in ’91 in such heartbreaking fashion after a late howler by goalkeeper John Sibanda, who will be in town for the final showdown, for a place in Egypt later this year.
And, as fate would also have it, Congo-Brazzaville are also known as the Red Devils.
The same nickname for Manchester United, who this week found a way to mock history where no team, in their predicament had ever prevailed, by beating PSG in Paris to qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals.
Those Red Devils, who many claimed faced Mission Impossible until a striker, whose parents came from Kinshasa, on the other side of the River Congo from where you can see Brazzaville in the distance, changed all that.
His name is Romelo Lukaku, he plays for the Belgian national team, but his father Roger, was born in Kinshasa before settling in Belgium, playing for the DRC team in the ’94 World Cup qualifiers and at the ’94 and ’96 AFCON finals.
Lukaku comes from the same country like that prophet, Lukau, who bizarrely claimed he had brought a man back from the dead at his church in South Africa before this was all exposed to be a gigantic fraud.
While prophet Lukau was shamed, Lukaku managed to raise his Manchester United team from the dead in Paris and a place in the Champions League quarter-finals.
In the north western part of the DRC, where both Lukaku and Lukau come from, the dominant language is Lingala and it’s also the dominant language across the Congo River in Congo-Brazzaville, which also explains why many of the cultures either side of the great river are similar.
And, when one considers that 11 years ago, a lightning strike during a game in that part of the world killed 11 players of just one team, Ben Tshadi, while all the players of their opponents, Basanga, survived that bolt, you understand why many in this country still believe that what happened to John Sibanda in ’91 was not just a simple mistake by our goalkeeper.
Why they still believe he was a victim of a bad spell was cast by the Congolese.
I’m not a believer in their conspiracy theories because I have always argued that, if the juju and all these weird things could influence football, an African country would by now have won the World Cup.
But, when you start questioning yourself how a lightning strike, midway in a game, can just kill all the players from one team, while sparring their opponents, you find yourself confused by all this.
“All 11 members of a football team were killed by a bolt of lightning which left the other team unhurt,’’ the BBC reported on October 28, 1998.
“Daily newspaper, L’Avenir, said local opinion — known to believe in charms and spells — was divided over whether someone had cursed the team.
“The two sides were drawing 1-1 in the match when the lightning struck the visiting team. The athletes from [the home team] Basanga curiously came out of this catastrophe unscathed.’’
Some things, I guess, can never be explained — like how Manchester United went to France and won 3-1 on Wednesday and Arsenal — the very team the Red Devils play tomorrow — also went to France the next day and lose 1-3.
How, all the four goals by the two English teams were scored by black strikers, all sons of immigrants – one by Marcus Rashford, born in Manchester to parents from the Caribbean island of St Kitts and Nevis, one by Alex Iwobi, who has dual British/Nigerian nationality who arrived in England as a four-year-old boy,.
And, of course, two from Lukaku, not Lukau, born in the Belgian city of Antwerp to Congolese parents.
Or, how do we explain that all the clubs wearing “Fly Emirates,” shirts — Arsenal, Real Madrid and Paris St-Germain — all suffered big defeats this week in European games and, somehow, they all scored one goal this week?
Or that, on both occasions that PSG have fallen, at the same stage in the last two years, they were without their star Brazilian forward Neymar, in both home games, because of a broken bone in his foot.
And, of course, that both home defeats came in March.
Please, don’t tell me it’s all about the Ides of March because we have a big game in two weeks’ time, ironically, against a team nicknamed Red Devils.