Orlando Pirates prepare for Congo battle

TP Mazembe fans. (Gallo)

TP Mazembe fans. (Gallo)

For those who have had to justify their preference for reading their newspapers from the back, this weekend's African Champions League encounter between local champions Orlando Pirates and TP Mazembe will be a vindication.

Pirates's face-off with TP Mazembe comes at a time when tensions are increasing between South African politicians and rebel army commanders in the DRC, particularly in the east of that country where South African troops are part of the United Nations forces deployed to enforce peace.

Newspapers report a threat to South Africans coming in the form of M23, a rebel army that is preparing for a possible war in the north-east of the vast country. The rebels have warned of a "mutual massacre" if South Africans troops get involved in frontline action.

It is pretty hectic stuff and a loss of life on either side is not to be discounted.

The back pages also report a similar zero-sum game. Except that the outcome will most likely see the victors and the vanquished hug and perhaps even exchange their battle apparel in the knowledge that all is fair in love and war.

Such is the glory of sport in a time of war and political brinkmanship.

High stakes
That said, the stakes are high.
The losers will lose big; the winners will go to the last eight and league stage of the tournament.

Like the South African soldiers, Pirates face a threat from the east of the DRC. The country's champions hail from that part of the territory – they are based in the DRC's second city, Lubumbashi in the southeast.

Unlike the M23 forces, the threat that TP Mazembe poses is well documented and deserves to be taken seriously.

Mazembe were African club champions in 2009 and defended it the following year.

They were disqualified in the first round in 2011 for fielding an ineligible player, Janvier Bokungu, during a preliminary stage match against Tanzanian champions  SimbaFC.

Last year "The Ravens" were eliminated by Tunisia's Espérance in the semis. The Blood and Gold went on to lose to Egyptian aristocrats Al Ahly in the finals.

In 2010, they became the first African club to reach the finals of the Fifa Club World Cup. Until then, the world club tournament was an exclusive domain for European and South American sides.

The football threat to South Africa's hopes for continental supremacy will be led by Trésor Mputu Mabi. If you forget the name, look out for the man in the number eight jersey. Mputu is to TP and Congolese football what Lionel Messi is to Argentina and Barcelona.

He was named best African-based player in 2009 and continues to be the talisman for club and country. Mputu has the propensity of popping up anywhere and scoring vital goals, like he did when the Congolese Leopards held Ghana's Black Stars to a two-all draw in the Africa Cup of Nations tie in Port Elizabeth in January this year.

All-time greats
Though he failed to convince Arsène Wenger to offer him a contract when he went to the Arsenal for trials in 2007, the Gunners gaffer described him as "one of the most talented players to come out of Africa in the past two years".

Former DRC coach Claude le Roy described Mputu as better than Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon, one of Africa's all-time greats.

It is testament to TP Mazembe's wealth rather than lack of technical ability that Trésor has not been wooed to any of the big-spending European sides or the Belgians, who have used their historical ties with the DRC to poach that country's most promising talent.

Apart from matters military and political, the clash also represents the ambitions of the two sides's ­owners, Moïse Katumbi Chapwe and Irvin Khoza.

Chapwe is the wealthy businessman turned governor of the Katanga province. He is as ambitious as he is charismatic.

Continental champions
He has sometimes been referred to by DRC media as the country's answer to Barack Obama. Chapwe, like Khoza, awakened a national giant and demanded that it compete with the best in the continent. He took the club over in 2001. At the end of that year, TP Mazembe qualified to test itself against Africa's best after an 18-year absence.

Khoza took over the ailing Pirates in the late 1980s before turning the team into continental champions in 1995.

Having tasted the feel of holding Africa's premier club tournament trophy in their hands, the two men will want that feeling again.

This means failure at this stage – or to deliver later – might have implications for the futures of Pirates coach Roger de Sa and former Senegal national team coach Lamine N'Diaye, who was on the bench when TP Mazembe were crowned African kings in 2010.

The losing coach might end up facing the firing squad, proving true the warning that the encounter between the South Africans and the men from the DRC could turn ugly.

 

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