Sports

For Mapeza, this is the green grass of home

THE HAPPY PEOPLE. . . FC Platinum players and their goalkeepers’ coach, Tembo Chuma, are celebrating their team’s victory in the first leg of their Champions League preliminary round tie against Costa do Sol of Mozambique

Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor

IT wasn’t as spectacular as Edinson Cavani’s St Mary’s heroics but the gripping theatre in Maputo provided a perfect replica script to the drama, which ended with Norman Mapeza reuniting with FC Platinum, a few days earlier.

A turbulent week, which began with the club being forced to part ways with Dutch coach, Hendrik Pieter de Jongh, ended with the beautiful chaos of a last-gasp victory at the Estadio Nacional do Zimpeto.

And, on a day De Jongh was addressing a media conference in Bulawayo, questioning CAF’s decision to bar him from taking charge of their inter-club matches, Mapeza was back in cauldron of Champions League battles in the FC Platinum dugout.

After guiding his men for only three days, taking charge of a team playing their first competitive game in 10 months, Mapeza said he would have taken a draw, in this opening battle.

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When the clock struck the 90th minute, with his team holding a 1-0 advantage, thanks to a goal from the reliable Ralph Kawondera, it was probably more than Mapeza had hoped for.

The value of a clean sheet, either at home or away, in the Champions League, is priceless and — after conceding in all their three away group games last season — this represented a dream start for the reunion of the coach and his men.

However, the hosts scrambled to get an equaliser, in the first minute of time-added on.

Usually, it’s the trigger which home teams usually need to go on an all-out offensive, in these games, and turn matches on their head.

It’s also the signal, which for many coaches, represents the time for them to go into their defensive shell, and protect the draw, rather than go out in search of a win.

However, FC Platinum decided to try and go for glory, something which is embedded in the DNA of their coach, and Elias Maguri was there to provide the winner for the Zimbabwe champions.

The last-gasp winner came just moments after the hosts had secured the goal, which they probably felt was enough to gain them a draw, and keep this showdown on a knife-edge, ahead of the reverse fixture in Harare on Saturday.

The nature of how the victory was secured, when other clubs would have possibly lost their will to fight, deflated by conceding so late in the game, was as dramatic as the events which preceded Mapeza’s reunion with the club.

A few days earlier, Mapeza was jobless, after his attempts to return to the South African Premiership, as head coach of newboys Tshakuma Tsha Madzivandila, suffered a still birth.

The scars of his unceremonious exit from another Supa Diski side, Chippa United, considered by some as the most chaotic football club in the world, had healed and he was ready for a fresh challenge.

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TTM promised him a project, where he could help them find their feet in the South African top-flight league but, soon after arriving at the Limpopo side, it became clear to him he was being sold a dummy.

And, he left.

Then, his old employers — the one he had left in September last year, saying he wanted a break from the game — came knocking on the door and the two parties reunited for the second time.

It takes a brave coach to accept the challenge where his first job would be a Champions League battle, away from home, against the plucky Mozambican side.

The team which, in their last battle against a Zimbabwean side in the same tournament, had beaten Dynamos 2-1 in Maputo in 2018.

That result, though, proved academic as they had crashed to a 0-3 defeat in the first leg in Harare, with Edward Sadomba scoring a hattrick.

Some analysts will argue FC Platinum won in Mozambique in their last Champions League campaign, when they beat UD Songo 4-2 in Beira, but the reality is that there is a huge difference between Songo and Costa do Sol, who are the record league winners since Independence in Mozambique.

Costa do Sol’s last home defeat had come in June 2018 and Mapeza knew this was never going to be a stroll in the park.

“It’s not that easy, everybody is aware that there was no football in the country for the past eight months,’’ he said. ‘’I have been with the team for the past three days, it’s not going to be easy.

“My wish is for the boys to go out there and implement what they have done for the past three days.’’

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That he even went into that battle, without four of players he said he would have thrown into the starting XI, after they failed fitness tests in Harare, put into context the special nature of this victory.

Maybe, it was all meant to be.

And, for Mapeza, the first man to guide a club from outside Harare and Bulawayo to the domestic league championship since St Paul’s Musami won it in 1966, it looks like FC Platinum will always provide the green grass of home.

His adopted home town still looked the same and, as he stepped out of his car last week, and there to meet him were his old fans, and the officials who had taken another chance, on him.

When he looked down the road, he could see Mandava, its history now painted in gold, thanks to FC Platinum’s achievements in recent years.

And, for him, it must have been good to, once again, touch the green grass of home.

Tougher tests lie in wait, at a club whose leadership and fans now don’t consider qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League as a benchmark of success.

But, the first impressions, thanks to the drama in Maputo on Saturday, are good.

Ten months ago, FC Platinum held Egyptian giants Al Ahly to a 1-1 draw at Barbourfields in the Champions League campaign which ended on Friday night with the Cairo giants winning a record ninth title under Pitso Mosimane.

This shows, on their day, the Zvishavane side can compete with the best the continent can offer and it’s up to Mapeza to make them believe again.

HERALD