With an hour to go until kick-off, the Mamelodi Sundowns team weaved their way through the back halls and corridors of Suita City Football Stadium. Their preparation for J.League champions and tournament hosts Kashima Antlers had been thorough. All that was left for Africa’s champions to do was warm up, and wait patiently for their history-making debut at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016.
As the players zig-zagged through various stadium checkpoints, there was the surprising absence of headphones. Instead The Brazilians walked quietly and fully engaged with their surroundings, greeting staff as they passed. The friendly atmosphere prompted an overeager cameraman to shout out: “Are you ready Sundowns?”
Percy Tau was the first and quickest to fire back. “Always,” Tau said softly but aggressively, head down as he walked by. The midfielder's quick reply provided a glimpse into the attitude that has earned him the praise and trust of coach Pitso Mosimane. As one of the shortest and lightest players in the Sundowns line-up, Tau is a lightning quick, technically gifted player, constantly inventing attacks and quick to engage opponents.
Ultimately, the bitterly cold evening in Osaka would freeze out the sunshine-fuelled South Africans. After a very strong first half in which Hitoshi Sogahata made two impressive saves to deny the guests an opening goal, Sundowns hit a wall in the second-half, allowing the tactically-astute Kashima to take control of the game and score two goals without reply.
“I think we did very well.” Percy told FIFA.com shortly after leaving the dressing room, still trying to control the shaking in his voice. Mosimane had held the team for a long post-match meeting behind locked doors, and the effects were still visible on the 22-year-old. “We should have scored goals from the chances we created in the first half,” Tau says. “He [Pitso] just told us in there that we really have to move on now. We have to get back and we have to be positive.”
Sundowns will face Asian Champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on 14 December while Kashima have secured a semi-final meeting with South Americans Atletico Nacional. Speaking ahead of the Jeonbuk match, Tau said: “For sure we have a point to prove. We don’t like to lose. For me, I like to win. That’s the best feeling. Winning comes first to me.”
A small, hard-working corner of some 50 South African fans wearing combinations of yellow shirts or no shirts – a brave decision for the biting evening – had sung and drummed throughout the match, bravely trying to out-voice the thousands of singing Kashima fans facing them on the opposite end of the pitch. “We saw them and were happy that they came through for us,” says Percy of the travelling supporters. “And for the kids watching back home tonight, I just want to tell them, focus on getting a few things right in football. Take care of the basics and whenever you lose, come back strong.”