When the draw for the last eight streams of the African Champions League was made in May, Orlando Pirates and AC Leopards must have buried their heads in their hands at the thought of playing the Cairo giants, Al Ahly and Zamalek, let alone having to travel to Egypt twice.
Now events that have nothing to do with football place the two clubs, which meet at the Orlando Stadium on Saturday night, in their best position to make the semis.
With the toppling of the democratically elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi on July 3, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) has given up trying to organise fixtures because of the current political and social instability. They have postponed matches indefinitely and it is anyone’s guess when their local football league will resume.
The situation is so dire that the interior ministry has refused to provide security for the Confederation of African Football Champions League match between the two Egyptian rivals. The match was scheduled to be played the day after the Pirates-Leopards encounter.
Pirates were expected to play Al Ahly in the first weekend of next month and return to Cairo two weeks later to play Zamalek.
The EFA is reportedly discussing, with the Confederation of African Football and the two teams, the possibility of holding the match and those between the South African and Congolese visitors outside the country, if the fixtures are honoured at all.
It has been a year and half to forget for Egyptian football. Until the military suspended sporting activities, professional matches were being played behind closed doors to avoid spectators using football matches to vent their political frustrations.
The fears were not unfounded. In February last year, 79 fans, mostly Al Ahly supporters, died when violence broke out after a match between Al Ahly and Al-Masry supporters in Port Said. Al-Masry supporters stormed the pitch after their side lost 3-1, attacking Al Ahly fans with knives, clubs, stones and bottles.
Pirates and Leopards could not care less about the state of Egypt or their football. Avoiding the Cairo giants is better than meeting them.
The Egyptians have monopolised the Champions League. Of this season’s representatives, they have won half of the past 12 editions. Between them, Zamalek and Al Ahly have won the competition 12 times (seven for Al Ahly and five for Zamalek). Therefore, anything that debilitates the Egyptians comes as a relief for their opponents.
Pirates might say (with good reason) that their progress so far is because of their guts and ability to overcome the odds. If the current state of affairs means that Pirates have never had it so good, it must be because the football deities are compensating them for the wretched time they had in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they emerged 1-0 losers on the day but 3-2 aggregate victors over TP Mazembe.
Though the quality of officiating is in question, what is indisputable is that Mazembe were awarded two penalties and Pirates goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa saved both. Had they scored just one of them, Mazembe, and not Pirates, would be playing Leopards and the two Egyptian sides.
Blessing or a curse
Like the Egyptians, Pirates have not played much in the past two months though their reasons are vastly different. The Premier Soccer League season ended in May. It remains to be seen whether the recess has been a blessing or a curse.
On the positive side, the club has had time to replenish its energy and add firepower in the form of former Bloemfontein Celtic forward Lennox Bacela. The negative is that, no matter how many friendlies you play and the quality of the opposition, nothing beats competitive matches for giving a side momentum and a realistic sense of its abilities and shortcomings.
Pirates have played University of Pretoria and Lesotho champions Matlama as part of their preparations for the fixture against Leopards. And the 5-1 win over the Basotho will give them the confidence that comes with winning matches, no matter how insignificant the records say they are.
Leopards, on the other hand, have played 17 matches and top their log. That alone gives them the edge over Pirates.
And that is about all the advantage the Congolese enjoy. They might be champions but figures show they are the least illustrious of their group. The title that brought them to the Champions League was their first since their founding in 1953, making this their maiden season among the continent’s big boys.
They have some continental experience though. They are reigning Confederations Cup champs – the competition for second-placed clubs and Football Association cup winners. It was an unexpected feat after the club had bombed out in the first round of the 2010 and 2011 editions of the same tournament.
The Champions League offers the unpopular Pirates coach, Roger de Sa, a shot at redeeming himself. Bucs finished a disappointing third in the league and failed to defend any of the three titles they won the previous season. Club owner Irvin Khoza publicly hinted at his irritation with De Sa after the coach attributed the team’s win against Bidvest Wits to luck. Khoza was equally unimpressed with the club winning just two of their past 12 matches, in effect handing the championship to rivals Kaizer Chiefs.
It is a no-brainer that De Sa is living on borrowed time, as is any big club coach who does not win trophies. If he is to redeem himself and get Pirates’ fans off his back – even if it is only for a while – slaying the Leopards would be good place to start.