Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Mamelodi Sundowns are up against a team with a delightfully contradictory name and bizarre history when their African Champions League campaign begins on Wednesday.

The Premiership winners take on Leones Vegetarianos in the Equatorial Guinea capital of Malabo in the first leg of their first-round tie.

The idea of a lion being a vegetarian is absurd, but just as odd is the history of the club‚ whose founder was a Spanish traveller whose desire to set up football structures in out-of-the-way places was matched by his passion to spread a vegetarian way of life.

Juan Manuel Rojas from Spain, Granada claims to have taken his coaching badge alongside 2010 World Cup-winning coach Vicente del Bosque and devoted a large part of his life
to teaching the game to kids
and adults.

Rojas travelled to Equatorial Guinea‚ setting up in mid-2000 a club in Malabo, which he first called the Vegetarians. This was with the support of an NGO promoting vegetarianism in a strange example of using football to promote a cause.

Rojas did not last long in Africa and has since moved onto India. The Vegetarians‚ however‚ thrived‚ and quickly became a top-flight team.

In 2010‚ a local businessman took over the club‚ adding Lions to their title.

"The players wanted to keep the vegetarian thing‚ we talked about it and we agreed‚ but we also needed something different‚" said Ateba Mangue‚ who took over the club. "I asked them: ‘what do you think about adding Lions?’ They accepted."

Mangue does see the absurdity. "It’s true that a lion that eats grass is not going to last long in nature. People mock our name, but we like it. And we want to use it to become famous."