HIGH-FLYING Zimbabwe international forward Khama Billiat and immortal Warrior Peter Ndlovu stand on the threshold of becoming champions of Africa when Mamelodi Sundowns battle Egyptian giants Zamalek in the final of the 2016 CAF Champions League this month.
Billiat, voted the best player in the South African Premiership last season, has played an influential role in powering the Brazilians to their first appearance in the CAF Champions League final in 15 years.
The Zimbabwean scored three goals as Sundowns defied the odds, rising from the ashes of a second round elimination at the hands of Oscar Machapa’s AS Vita of the Democratic Republic of Congo to somehow book their place in the final after being thrown a lifeline following the disqualification of the Congolese giants.
His priceless away goal in the 1-2 defeat in the first leg of the semi-finals in Ndola, Zambia, proved crucial as Sundowns beat a plucky ZESCO United 2-0 in Pretoria last Saturday to book their place in the final of the CAF Champions League.
The last time Sundowns reached this far in their quest to win the premier knock-out football tournament on the continent was in 2001, but they were outclassed by other Egyptian giants, record CAF Champions League winners Al Ahly who powered to an easy 4-1 victory.
Times, though, have changed.
Sundowns have won in North Africa this season, beating Zamalek home-and-away in their group battles and also beating Algerian side ES Setif — with Billiat scoring a beauty — before that result was nullified when the Algerians were disqualified for the crowd trouble that followed that home defeat.
Billiat has transformed himself into the main man at Mamelodi Sundowns, having struggled to make a big impression when he first arrived at the club on a huge transfer fee from Ajax Cape Town and some analysts say he has benefited immensely from the presence of Warriors legend Ndlovu in the Brazilians’ technical side.
Ndlovu, the greatest Warrior of all-time, who led this country to two appearances at the Nations Cup finals as an inspirational skipper is the Sundowns’ team manager.
Now, two of the brightest footballers to come out of this country find themselves on the verge of being crowned champions of African club football should Sundowns hold their nerve and repeat their group beating of Zamalek in the final.
The Brazilians, who have been showing signs of fatigue after a punishing schedule which has seen them playing non-stop football since August last year, will host the first leg of the final in Pretoria in two weeks’ time with the return leg set for Cairo a week earlier.
In a tournament where the team playing the second leg at home enjoys a slight advantage, some analysts have questioned why Sundowns, who topped their group and beat Zamalek home-and-away, have to play the first leg at home.
The CAF leaders, whose headquarters are based in Cairo, have long been accused of bias towards the Northern African football giants.
Billiat, who was expected to move to Europe before the start of this season, but has remained in South Africa, says it was always his dream to win the CAF Champions League title.
“I decided to stay because I believe not every soccer player will have this opportunity to win the Champions League,” he told Goal.com
“It is a gamble. Things might not work for me, but it doesn’t mean that it would work for me either way.
“They might play their whole career and never get this close and I believe you can only go overseas when you play good. I don’t doubt my effort, nor my talent, but I know I am a fighter.
“If I fight harder and bring the best out of myself . . . no matter when, I can still go overseas.
“I am pushing harder, giving everything. Every game for me is a final, I want to put a smile on the faces of everyone associated to this club. I play every game to win.”
Billiat’s handlers could also be gambling on Sundowns winning the CAF Champions League and qualifying for the FIFA Club World Cup where the Zimbabwean international could make a huge impression and boost interest in his services from clubs in Europe.
“Obviously, the FIFA Club World Cup has a bigger international profile than the CAF Champions League and if you can just imagine, Khama playing against Real Madrid and making a big impact in that game, obviously his stock will rise and the transfer fee, too, will go up,” an agent told The Saturday Herald.
“That is the way football works because when you look at the South African Premiership it hasn’t produced players, in the past few years, who have gone to become success stories in Europe the way Benni (McCarthy) and Lucas Radebe did in the past and that means clubs are not sure whether a player doing well there will be guaranteed to do well in Europe.
“Tefu Mashamaite, who was crowned the best player in South Africa before Khama, only lasted a few months in Denmark and is already back in South Africa and all that comes into play in these deals.”
Billiat even confirms that playing in the FIFA Club World Cup would provide him with a platform to showcase his talent to a bigger audience.
“We want to play the best teams, we want to play against the best and this also gives us a big opportunity,” he said.
“Maybe that is where we will be spotted if you want to play overseas.
“It would be a great achievement if we are able to do that.”