Young Urban Warriors relinquish under-17 crown

Ajax Cape Town's Riyaaz Koopstadt shields the ball from Old Mutual's Azhar Abrahams during Sunday's cup final.

Attacking midfielder Sonwabile Mfecane’s excellent performance in the engine room, and in front of goal, was not enough to see Ajax Cape Town defend their Engen under-17 Knockout Challenge title after they lost 1-0 to a highly motivated Old Mutual side in the final on Sunday.

The Young Urban Warriors, however, didn’t go home empty-handed as Mfecane, from Mfuleni, walked away with both the midfielder and player of the tournament awards. And, as if that was not enough, he was also named among the competition’s top scorers. His mentor, Kosta Scholiadis, was named coach of the tournament.

The Parow-based side booked their spot in the final after beating Glendene United 4-2 on penalties, in the semi-final. The score was 1-all at full time, after Glendene scored a dramatic late equaliser to force the encounter into spot kicks. Ajax proved more clinical on penalties, outscoring their opponents.

Old Mutual was even more impressive in their semi-final match against hosts Vasco da Gama, winning 3-1 to set a date with Ajax.

The Urban Warriors were slight favourites going to the final and the match started on a high note with both sides playing a quick-passing game.

It seemed the Pinelands-based Old Mutual had learnt a lot from last year’s final between Ajax and Atlantic Nacional. In that match, the Nacional players adopted a more physical approach, which didn’t really work as they went down 3-1. Old Mutual, however, was a completely different side on Sunday.

They played the ball on the ground, which is also Ajax’s style of play. It was, then, a matter of who was going to win the “carpet football battle”. Both sides had their chances but the one Old Mutual took, late in the game, was enough to win them the final.

The Young Urban Warriors had a slow start to the competition, drawing 0-0 against Fish Hoek and Hellenic in their first two group matches. However, they bounced back strongly to beat Grassy Park United 3-0 in their third match to book their spot in the quarter-finals against another Grassy Park side, Milano United.

The match was expected to be a cracker as both sides were among the favourites to lift the trophy.

However, history was against Milano who have been unable to perform well when it mattered most. And, that history repeated itself on Saturday as Ajax recorded a 2-0 win. They went on to beat Glendene United in the semi-finals.

Mfecane, who captained his side in this tournament, said as much as it was good to be recognised for his own achievements, he was not happy as his side didn’t defend their title.

He said winning an individual award was almost meaningless when the unit didn’t realise their goal.

“Winning these awards was not on my mind before the start of the tournament as we worked on what we wanted to do as a team. I think we lost focus late in the game and were not able to regroup after Old Mutual scored their goal but, yes, it is football and things like this do happen,” he said.

Mfecane, who has been with the Parow side’s development structures for five years now, said the experience gained over the years helped him understand what he calls the Ajax way of playing. “We understand each other very well and that is why we always do well,” he said.

Scholiadis said their plan was always about managing pressure because most of their players were new in this competition.

“The players did show some signs of nervousness and that’s why we conceded a lot of unnecessary free kicks. That, however, doesn’t mean we played badly, it rather showed that the tournament was much more competitive this year. You could see even the so-called smaller teams were able to win matches they were not expected to,” said Scholiadis.

Meanwhile, hosts and neighbours Vasco da Gama produced a much improved performance, compared to last year, as they went on to finish fourth in the 16-team competition.

Vasco were impressive in the competition before going down 3-1 to Old Mutual in the semi-finals. They also lost 1-0 against Glendene in the third place play-off. Coach Carlos de Oliveira admitted his side’s performance was far better than last year, when they hosted the tournament for the first time.

“Yes, being hosts means there is that added pressure to do well. Even last year, we didn’t do badly, it was just that the pressure was a bit too much for the boys,” he said.