SOWETO, South Africa, May 16 – Careless defending gifted European giants Barcelona two goals as they defeated South African champions Mamelodi Sundowns 3-1 Wednesday in a friendly game to honour the late Nelson Mandela.
Ousmane Dembele, Luis Suarez and Andre Gomes scored for the Spanish league and cup winners before Sibusiso Vilakazi pulled one goal back before a sell-out 80,000 Soweto crowd.
This year marks the centenary of the birth of Mandela, who died in 2013 having become the first democratically elected president of the republic 19 years earlier.
South Africans thronged to Soccer City stadium on a cold night to see world superstar Lionel Messi and their wishes were granted when he came off the bench on 74 minutes.
His every touch drew huge applause and Sundowns defender Wayne Arendse was beaming after the final whistle having exchanged shirts with the Argentine maestro.
“I liked this Sundowns team very much — they displayed a lot of creativity and energy,” said Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde.
“It is a pleasure to be in South Africa and I believe this huge crowd thoroughly enjoyed what both sides produced.
“We came to play football and to honour Nelson Mandela, someone who was very close to the hearts of all Spaniards.”
Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane said he was proud of his team and called the match a “great learning experience” for him and the players.
“I am so happy with my boys because they always tried to play football the way I want them to — building from the back.
“We did make crucial defensive errors, but I took a lot of positives from this match, including our passing and how we dispossessed Barcelona at times.”
The match came three days after Barcelona suffered a stunning 5-4 defeat at lowly Levante in their second last La Liga match, robbing them of a chance to complete the season unbeaten.
That feat was last achieved in 1932 by Real Madrid, the arch-rivals of Barca, when the season comprised 18 fixtures compared with 38 now.
Barcelona were ahead within three minutes as a Bangaly Soumahoro pass was intercepted by Dembele, who rifled the ball past Uganda goalkeeper Denis Onyango.
Ivorian Soumahoro was also at fault for the second goal, failing to cut off a Denis Suarez pass on 19 minutes and Luis Suarez made no mistake from close range.
Between the goals, Sundowns’ star attacker Percy Tau had two chances, but his chip was saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen and he fired a close-range free-kick over.
Denis Suarez rattled the woodwork with a header as Barcelona constantly threatened and turned over two goals ahead.
Valverde made 10 changes during half-time, but Messi was not among those introduced, leading the crowd to repeatedly chant “Messi, Messi, Messi”.
More sloppy defending gave Barcelona a third goal on 67 minutes when an interception set up Gomes to fire past substitute goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene.
Although clearly second best, the 2016 African champions never lost heart and were rewarded when Vilakazi scored on 76 minutes as Barcelona appealed for offside.