Pirates kick off the the international show

SOCCER: Andrew Muchineripi

THE arrival of Nigerian champions Shooting Stars this week heralds the start of a hectic period of international activity involving Bafana Bafana and Orlando Pirates.

On Sunday at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, the Buccaneers continue their defence of the African Champions’ Cup with a quarter-final tie against highly-rated Stars.

The following Saturday sees the start of the annual Simba Four Nations’ Cup with Australia facing Ghana and South Africa meeting Kenya at King’s Park rugby stadium in Durban.

On Wednesday September 18 the show moves to the Johannesburg Stadium with Ghana tackling Kenya and South Africa seeking revenge over Australia under the lights.

Another rugby cathedral, Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, stages the final act in which Australia confront Kenya and South Africa seek a hat-trick of victories over Ghana in what could prove the title decider.

Pirates, struggling to maintain high standards with a squad tired from too much football, have received a welcome boost with the return of centrehalf Gavin Lane. Known as Stability Unit, the burly defender was one of the heroes of the shock Champions’ Cup final triumph over ASEC in the Ivory Coast last year and has been sorely missed.

Apart from Lane, Pirates are blessed with an outstanding goalkeeper in Nigerian Williams Okpara and a highly under-rated defender in Hendrick “Phiri” Tsotetsi.

No less an expert than senior coach and TV analyst Eddie Lewis rates Tsotetsi as national squad material because he is an outstanding man-to-man marker.

The Buccaneers have not been exceptionally sharp in midfield lately, partly due to the fact that Dumisani Ngobe has often had to drop back to solve a defensive manpower crisis.

John Moeti and Helman Mkhalele have been playing virtually non-stop since the beginning of last year and it is a constant source of amazement that they are still ticking over, albeit at low revs.
Jerry Sikosana returned to action last week following a three-match suspension and deservedly earned a call- up to the national squad for the Four Nations’ Cup.

Pirates’ biggest problem has been scoring goals and much will hinge on Sikosana, whose superb run and goal took his club past Mufulira Wanderers of Zambia in the previous round.

While South Africa lifted the Champions’ Cup at only the third attempt, Nigeria have been trying in vain for three decades to get their hands on the prestigious club trophy.

Stars reached the last eight with impressive aggregate victories over Mangasport of Gabon 5-2 (4- 0 home and 1-2 away) and Dynamos of Zimbabwe 6-4 (5- 1 home and 1-3 away).

While these results suggest Stars are poor travellers, it should be remembered that the Nigerians took four-goal leads to Libreville and Harare, which almost inevitably led to a slight weakening of resolve. The Nigerian club have no stars as the best players from the West African nation like Finidi George, Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Daniel Amokachi and Emmanuel Amunike perform in various European leagues. Kalu Umar is worthy of special attention from Pirates, though, having scored five goals in four Champions’ Cup matches, including a hat-trick against Mangasport.

Goalkeeper Abiodun Baruwa made international headlines last year when Zimbabwe accused him of being more than 23 years old and, therefore, ineligible for the Olympics qualifying tournament. Fortunately for Nigeria, who faced disqualification from the Games, the Zimbabwe allegation could not be substantiated and the West Africans went on to claim gold at Atlanta.

Pirates narrowly defeated another Nigerian club, BCC Lions, on their way to glory last year and Stars are likely to prove even tougher opposition, especially on their own ground in the university city of Ibadan. The Simba Four Nations’ Cup grows in stature each year and the 1996 line-up is the strongest invited to an annual event which offers more than $100 000 in prize money.

South Africa shared the title with the Ivory Coast in 1994 and last year were outright winners, topping Egypt, Zambia and Zimbabwe in a tournament plagued by bad weather.

National coach Clive Barker has been forced to name a 29-strong squad, such is the uncertainty surrounding many members of the “Foreign Legion” based in Europe, notably Lucas Radebe and John “Shoes” Moshoeu. But as Pirates senior citizen Marks Maponyane noted recently, the man from Durban has a habit of turning adversity to his benefit and it could well be the case again.

Australia boast a 100% record against South Africa, having beaten them in Adelaide and Sydney two years ago while Bafana Bafana have had the Indian sign over Ghana, conquering them twice. Last, but certainly not least, come Kenya, the country which caused the biggest shock of the 1998 World Cup qualifying competition by eliminating Algeria 3-2 on aggregate.

The Kenyan under-23 team were unlucky losers to their South African counterparts at Milpark Stadium this year and the same coach, Yugoslav Vojo Gardesevic, is in charge of the seniors. With Nations’ Cup qualifiers beginning in October and the first World Cup matches due one month later, the Simba Four Nations’ Cup represents a golden opportunity to prepare troops for battle.

ENDS

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