SOCCER: Andrew Muchineripi
OVERCONFIDENCE will probably be the biggest threat to South African representatives Orlando Pirates, Jomo Cosmos and Bush Bucks when they launch their African club competition campaigns. Pirates have been paired with Rovers of Lesotho in the Champions League, Cosmos tackle Eleven Men in Flight of Swaziland in the Cup-winners Cup and Bush Bucks face Centre Chiefs of Botswana in the CAF Cup.
The Buccanners will be making their third consecutive appearance in the leading event, which they surprisingly won in 1995 with victories over clubs from Swaziland, Nigeria, Gabon, Uganda and Ivory Coast. Last year, Pirates proved too strong for teams from Reunion and Zambia before bowing to Nigerian outfit Shooting Stars in a fiercely-contested quarter-final settled by a penalty shootout.
Stars went on to lose the final against Egyptian giants Zamalek following another shootout, which indicates just how little separates the top clubs on the continent.
A key figure in the Nigerian line-up, utility player Sam Pam, joined Pirates this week to bolster a squad poised to make another strong challenge in a cup carrying prize money for the first time.
Instead of staging the 33-year-old competition entirely on a home-and-away knockout basis, only the preliminary, first and second rounds will be played in this manner.
When the eight quarter-finalists emerge in late May following the second round, they will be divided into two groups of four with each club playing its opponents twice, once at home and once away with three points for a win and one for a draw.
The sides heading the groups qualify for the decider, which is scheduled for two legs, a formula also used in South America to determine the most powerful club on the continent.
Teams will received an unknown amount for every point won in the mini-league phase and if Pirates can confirm their status as a major continental force by going all the way to the final, they stand to collect about R2-million.
Rovers staged a remarkable preliminary- round recovery to book a place among the last 32, walloping Telecom Wanderers from Malawi 5-1 in Maseru after losing the first leg by a solitary goal. It was a rare success at international level for the tiny mountain kingdom and should serve as a warning to the men in black and white that reputations alone do not win matches.
Pirates must be warm favourites to advance, however, with a team that appears to revel in the cut and thrust of cup football and became champions by defeating ASEC 1-0 before 50 000 fanatical Ivorian supporters. Strength in the face of adversity proved a critical factor in Abidjan and goalkeeper Williams Okpara, defenders Phiri Tsotetsi and Gavin Lane, midfielders John Moeti, Dumisa Ngobe and Brendon Silent and forward Jerry Sikhosana are still there.
Gabonese defender Guy-Roger Nzeng and Pam have added some international flavour to a team now guided by former Peruvian World Cup player and Bafana Bafana coach Augusto Palacios.
Cosmos may be one of the cinderella clubs in the national championship with few big- name players and disappointing support since ending a nomadic existence and moving east to PAM Brink Stadium in Springs. However, opponents could underestimate the Ezenkosi at their peril as the club owned and coached by Jomo Sono made a sensational Cup-winners Cup debut when South Africa first entered the competition four years ago.
Victories over teams from Swaziland, Madagascar, Burundi and the vastly experienced Daring Club Motema Pembe of Zaire propelled the outsiders into the semi-finals, where they finally met their match. Wealthy and packed with national stars, Africa Sports National came south from the Ivory Coast to Thohoyandou where they recovered from the shock of an early Cosmos goal to force a draw.
Cosmos made a disastrous start to the return match at the same ground where Pirates were to conquer Africa, conceding a couple of early goals and despite the valiant efforts of a then emerging Mark Fish, Africa Sports romped to a four-goal triumph.
Eleven Men in Flight will have home advantage first as they attempt to atone for a dismal previous showing against South African opposition in which they crashed 5- 0 to Pirates two years ago. Cosmos may lack household names, but Burundian Aime Kitenge can be an inspirational goalkeeper and central defender Andrew Raputla is worth a place in the national squad, according to former star Sono.
Midfielder Vusi Mncwanga added to a growing reputation by scoring twice at home to Amazulu last weekend and Mozambican Manuel “Tico Tico” Bucuane has been finding the net with increasing frequency.
Bush Bucks from Umtata may be newcomers to continental fare, but technical adviser Marthias Mwenda once coached the Malawi national team and his knowledge should prove precious.
Leading scorer Wilfred Mugeyi and brother William, a defender who has scored more Castle Premiership goals than most forwards, have represented Zimbabwe at competitive level.
Centre Chiefs’ only previous excursion into Africa ended abruptly four years ago when they lost 6-0 on goal aggregate to Power Dynamos of Zamiba, and while the margin may be closer next month, another early exit seems likely.