Pirates vie for Africa greatness

1 November 2013

Orlando Pirates, who face Egypt’s Al Ahly in the first leg of the CAf Champions League final at Orlando Stadium in Soweto on Saturday, will be attempting to follow in the footsteps of the great Pirates side of 1995 – the only South African team to have won the African Champions League.

The current team has resembled its predecessors by producing impressive results away from home, going against the grain to achieve the away wins and draws, which are traditionally exceptionally hard to come by in African competition.

In fact, when the Buccaneers claimed the trophy in 1995, they also did it the hard way, drawing 2-2 with Asec Abidjan of the Ivory Coast in Soweto in the first leg of the final, before winning 1-0 away from home to come out on top 3-2 on aggregate.

A fearsome test

Pirates face a fearsome test in the 2013 final against Al Ahly, a team that the Confederation of African Football (Caf) named the “African Club of the Century” in 2000.

With seven Caf Champions League titles to its name, Al Ahly is the most successful club in the history of the competition. It has also won a record 36 Egyptian Premier League titles, won the bronze medal in the Fifa Club World Cup in 2006, and placed fourth in the competition in 2012.

However, Roger De Sa’s charges are unlikely to be overwhelmed by the task at hand, even though the task awaiting them is likely to be much tougher than it was in the group stages, when they faced Al Ahly during Ramadan, while the players were fasting, and in front of an empty stadium due to political unrest in Egypt. That’s what the 3-0 result in that game will do for players.

Feet on the ground

An impressive 4-1 victory over Al Ahly’s arch-rivals Zamalek will also serve as a confidence-booster for the Soweto giants, but a 1-2 defeat to the same side in Egypt and a goalless draw against Al Ahly at the Orlando Stadium will ensure that the South African club’s players keep their feet on the ground.

On their way to the final, a victory over Democratic Republic of Congo powerhouse TP Mazembe, who appeared in the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2012, was a particular highlight and the kind of victory from which players grow.

There were some who believed the Congolese would end the Buccaneers’ run, but a goal from Onyekachi Okonkwo in the second minute sent them on their way to a 3-1 victory in Soweto as Collins Mbesuma added a double.

Away from home, however, Pirates were able to overcome the dark side of football in Africa, losing 1-0 on the day, but progressing 3-2 on aggregate, despite having to put up with multiple nasty hurdles.

It began with the television broadcast of the match, which was cut just before kick-off in Lubumbashi. Then, during the game, Pirates captain Lucky Lekgwathi was shown a dubious red card and Mazembe were controversially awarded two penalties. Goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa, however, stood firm, saving both spot kicks to steer the Sea Robbers into the group stages of Africa’s premier club competition.

Semi-final victory

The side’s semi-final victory over Tunisia’s Esperance was also a notable feat. The Blood and Gold had in the previous three seasons won the Champions League in 2011 and finished as runners-up in 2010 and 2012.

In the first leg of the semi-finals, they played a very defensive game in Soweto and managed to hold Pirates to a goalless draw.

De Sa’s charges used that result to their advantage, however, and by scoring an away goal they effectively forced Esperance to score two goals to win the game in Tunisia. They could not, and the 1-1 draw saw the South African club into the final on the away goals rule.

Character-building

Such character-building results will have shown the Pirates players that they have it within them to capture the Caf Champions League title again.

South Africans football fans, including fans who normally have allegiance to other clubs, appear to have rallied behind the Buccaneers. The common view is that a victory for Pirates would be a victory for South Africa.

The Soweto club has displayed impressive maturity during the Champions League competition to undo the traditional dominance of teams from central and north Africa. A victory, though, is needed to round off the job and boost South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.

Bring on the football!

Pirates’ path to the final

Preliminary round
Djabal Club (Comoros) 5-0, 4-0, 9-0

First round
Zanaco (Zambia) 1-0, 2-1, 3-1

Second round
TP Mazembe (DR Congo) 3-1, 0-1, 3-2

Group stage
AC Leopards (DR Congo) 0-0 (h)
Al Ahly (Egypt) 3-0 (a)
Zamalek (Egypt) 4-1 (h)
Zamalek (Egypt) 1-2 (a)
AC Leopards (DR Congo) 0-1 (a)
Al Ahly (Egypt) 0-0 (h)

Semi-finals
Esperance (Tunisia) 0-0, 1-1, 1-1 (won on away goals)