Tough Champions League task for Pirates
Orlando Pirates are 90 minutes away from winning arguably the toughest football competition in the world. Any win or a score draw higher than 1-1 over Al Ahly in the CAF Champions League Final second leg will secure the title they last won in 1995. That will be a remarkable achievement considering how tough it is for South African teams in Africa's premier club football tournament.
The question is often asked why South African teams don't do better in continental competition, with Pirates the country's only African champions ever. You can't help but wonder whether the 1995 triumph was not simply part of that almost magical honeymoon period for South African sport when we also won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996 and cricket's Champions Trophy in 1998. Since then international and continental trophies have been scarce, with only the Webb Ellis Cup to shine in 2007.
I think an argument can be made that the Champions League is possibly the toughest of all. I will not argue that the competition is of an unbeatable quality or that there is a big disparity between teams from different countries. What I will say is that the challenges facing African clubs do not as often affect clubs in, let's say, Europe for example. I'm taking about awkward travel logistics, sometimes unplayable pitch quality and hostile or tense atmospheres where unrest has tarnished the beautiful game.
This weekend, for example, Pirates are travelling to the capital of a country where political hurricanes have blown away a vibrant society and ushered in a tense merry-go-round of revolution, democracy, and coups... The cycle continues and the next uprising seems just around the corner. Surely this has some effect on a visiting team and perhaps even more the hosts. The Egyptian league has not been completed for two seasons due to unrest and here teams play in empty stadiums because security forces can't guarantee safety, although I hear hardcore fans ignore crowd bans. Even Sunday's grand finale of Africa's premier club competition is affected.
Al Ahly will not use the 70 000 seater Cairo International Stadium due to crowd control issues and will instead have to use the Arab Contractors Stadium which can accommodate around 30 000. The venues are only 4.1 kilometres apart. That will help Pirates dull the noise and passion of the home support, but it won't put them at ease. Just another example of how tough things can be in Africa. I'm convinced that Sunday night will be a brilliant occasion though and I'm looking forward to soaking in the atmosphere even though it could be just a little intimidating.
On the pitch, Pirates will be fielding a team without captain Happy Jele and midfield maestro Andile Jali. Both are suspended. Veteran Lucky Lekwathi has had his ups and downs at Orlando this season, but he looks set to start. The 38 year old club captain is perhaps exactly the man you want steering the ship on a night when your opponents will be playing with an attacking mindset and are bound to increase the pressure.
The 1-1 draw in Soweto means Al Ahly need a win or a goalless draw, but I think they will back themselves to achieve a home victory. Pirates could do with a win or a score draw of 2-2 or higher. So, it's winner takes all or the application of the away goals rule if we have another draw. If it's a 1-1 draw we will have penalties and there can be nothing more dramatic than a shootout in a final.
If it comes to that it will be a spotkick that determines a nine month treasure hunt for the Buccaneers. They started in the prelim round in February, with easy wins over Djabal FC from the Comoros. 5-0 and 4-0. Then hard fought wins over Zambia's Zanaco. 1-0 and 2-1. This was followed by victory over the DRC's TP Mazembe. A 3-1 win at home and a 1-0 defeat on the round.
That was enough to take Pirates to the group stage during which they beat Al Ahly 3-0 away from and played to a goalless draw on home soil. Other results include a goalless draw and 1-0 defeat against AC Leopards, as well as a 4-1 win and a 2-1 defeat against Zamalek.
Bucs scraped through the semi-finals thanks to an away goal in second leg 1-1 draw. The first leg ended goalless. Then the Champions League Final first leg in Soweto looked set go the way of Al Ahly, the seven times champions, thanks to a freekick from Mohamed Aboutrika. Thabo Matlaba however scored late to give Pirates more hope of earning a second star this weekend.
I expect Pirates to put up a brave fight, but I have to make Al Ahly the favourites to win a record eighth CAF Champions League title. I think the home will apply early pressure and open the scoring. After that it will come down to how Bucs respond. Roger de Sa will get his team in a fighting spirit and they have proven this season they can dig deep. I hope my speculation is all wrong and that South Africa can erupt in cheers of "Up the Bucs!" on Sunday night. You know you want to. Wesley Petersen is the EWN Cape Town Sport Editor and is in Cairo for the CAF Champions League Final second leg.
Wesley Petersen is the EWN Cape Town Sport Editor and is in Cairo for the CAF Champions League Final second leg.
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