Pirates are keeping Roger jolly
Recent political developments in Egypt have shown just how traumatic change can be. The north African country has moved from being a Hosni Mubarak dictatorship to having a popularly elected Arab Spring government and then military junta rule – all in the space of two years.
It is, therefore, an appropriate place for Orlando Pirates to be this weekend because the club is going through a quiet revolution of its own. The Buccaneers take on Cairo powerhouse Zamalek in the return round of the African Champions League.
Just as happened in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood was voted in as a popular government in 2011, only for the masses to turn against it two years later, Pirates coach Roger de Sa is learning how thin the line between love and hate can be.
At the close of last season, De Sa could easily count himself among the most reviled men in sports in South Africa. It was as though he could do nothing right. Under him, Pirates surrendered all the trophies they had amassed during the season when they won their second treble in a row.
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson instilled in his teams a never-say-die spirit that ensured that they regularly scored after the 90th minute and the phrase Fergie Time was coined.
De Sa could easily have contributed Roger Time to a football lexicon for a side that routinely concedes goals after the regulation time, for such were the number of occasions that the club lost matches at the death.
Fast forward to the 2013-2014 season and you have a side that is transformed. It is early days yet, but as long as Pirates keep churning out the results as they have been doing recently, De Sa could very well be en route to becoming an unlikely hero.
A win on Sunday will all but ensure that Pirates have booked their place in the African Champions League semis and will be only a few matches away from emulating the glorious side of 1995 whose efforts ensured that the gold star forms part of the club’s famous skull and crossbones emblem.
To De Sa’s credit, the transformation at Pirates has not been based on splashing out cash. Unlike Mamelodi Sundowns’s buying spree, which added to every position, including the bench, Pirates’s resurgence was not bought.
Of the men who will trot on to the El Gouna stadium pitch, about 350km from Cairo, on September 1, only Lennox Bacela was not part of the playing staff last season – yet it is for all intents and purposes a new side.
There is no doubt that political unrest has contributed to Egyptian clubs not playing as well as they could. The teams are used to playing in front of capacity crowds, but because the Egyptian government has decreed that all games be played behind closed doors to prevent football stadiums turning into theatres of social and political unrest, Zamalek have in effect been robbed of their 12th man.
Still, Pirates have made their own luck. They have cultivated a team culture and refined a playing style that is germane to their football upbringing.
Sifiso Myeni, who ordinarily trades as a winger, is a man reborn in the number 10 role behind the main striker. Oupa Manyisa, easily one of the most technically gifted players in the country, has recently added style to his trademark industriousness.
The sight of Tlou Segolela skinning Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana Bafana defender Eric Mathoho as though he was a schoolboy easily allows fans to forget that this is the same player who was so unhappy with opportunities under De Sa that he seriously considered leaving the club during the off-season.
The demeanour of the Pirates players – think of Rooi Mahamutsa tapping the ball in the 16-yard box and then serving up a bicycle kick – is that of a group of young men who have lost their fear of failure and have found a new sense of adventure.
They will need this newly daring attitude and the esprit de corps that makes anyone drafted into the team play as though their lives depend on that day’s performance.
It is the kind of spirit that they will need against Zamalek, who will desperately fight for a chance to make it to the semis of a competition they have won five times before.
If there ever was a sense that Pirates would be the weakest side of the group, the African football fraternity now knows that it was wrong.
Pirates lead the log undefeated at the halfway stage of the mini-leg, with two wins and a draw, whereas Zamalek have a single point. That has made Pirates the side to beat and the Cairo team will certainly go out on Sunday to try to do just that.
They will find a Bucs side that has earned its right to be respected. But their excellent results could also hold the potential for their downfall.
Having beaten Zamalek’s arch-foes, Al Ahly, in Egypt, walloping Zamalek 4-1 at Orlando and then beating Kaizer Chiefs in the first round of the MTN8, it is easy for Pirates players to become big-headed and forget that they have not won anything yet.
It is here that the stewardship and experience of 37-year-old captain Lucky Lekgwathi must come in handy. Against Chiefs in the second half, the Pirates rearguard showed lapses of concentration that the Egyptians would most certainly punish if they were to reoccur.
In the meantime De Sa’s most strident critics are getting fewer and fewer as Pirates climb higher and higher.