TIYANI Mabunda's journey to becoming an African champion and a part of the first South African club to play in the Fifa Club World Cup was littered with potholes, disappointment and heartbreak.
The Mamelodi Sundowns midfielder didn’t look like he would ever play for the club after joining them from Black Leopards. He was sent on loan to Free State Stars and upon his return, despite doing well in Bethlehem, was demoted to the reserve team and was even transfer-listed at one stage. He took all of that on the chin, knuckled down and worked his way back into the first team, filling the void left by Bongani Zungu.
His loan spell in Bethlehem helped him to not only find himself, but the loss of a friend made him value the small victories, despite big defeats wearing him down.
“I wasn’t playing at Sundowns because I was injured at first,” Mabunda said. “After I recovered, they told me to compete for my place in the team. I requested to go on loan at Free State so that I could gain more confidence. It’s not easy to come from an injury and get your place. So I had to go and compete somewhere else, get my confidence back and then come back to fight for a place at Sundowns.
“When I lost my friend at Free State Stars, Richard Henyekane, it was a really difficult moment for me because I came with him from Sundowns. It was really painful. I re-evaluated a lot of things in my life after that. I believe that wherever Richard is, he is proud of me.”
Mabunda has achieved a lot since Henyekane passed away in a car accident in April last year. “Shuga”, as Mabunda is affectionately known, contributed to Sundowns winning the Absa Premiership, unlike his other league medal that he won as a squad member three seasons ago. He has been called up to Bafana Bafana after his exploits on the continent during Sundowns’ successful CAF Champions League quest. That title earned the Brazilians a place in the Club World Cup in Japan.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for quite a long time,” Mabunda said. “It’s been a rough journey but now it’s actually happening. We believe that from the past few games that we played before Japan, we have gained enough confidence. If you had told me two seasons ago that I would be at this stage, I would have been excited, although I wouldn’t have seen it coming. Don’t be surprised then if you see us coming back with the trophy from Japan. We do well when not much is expected from us.”
For Sundowns to be world champions, they must first go through either Japanese league winners Kashima Antlers or Oceania champions Auckland City in the quarter-finals on Sunday. Sundowns will know who they will play tomorrow when these two clubs clash. If they get through to the semi-finals, South American champions Atletico Nacional await them and then possibly Real Madrid in the final. Facing Madrid is a prospect that excites everyone at Sundowns.
“I believe that there is power in the words that people speak,” Mabunda said.
“There’s been a lot of talk about us playing against Real Madrid. If people want to see us in the final, we must just execute every team on our way to reach the final.”
The Brazilians settled into Osaka on Tuesday and will hold their first training session in the city on Wednesday.