Roger de Sá will be within his rights if he walks into the Orlando Stadium on Saturday night’s first leg of the African Champions League final between Orlando Pirates and Egypt’s Al Ahly with a sense of personal accomplishment and professional pride.
For a man whose appointment as Pirates head coach was met with almost universal scorn, he has one thing that his Premier Soccer League peers don’t have: he has taken his club to the finals of the champion’s league – and no other South African football coach has ever done that.
The last time a South African club made it to the finals of the competition was in 2001 when Mamelodi Sundowns were under the tutelage of Romanian-born Ted Dumitru, a citizen of the United States who lives in South Africa.
When Pirates won the Champions Cup in 1995, they had Zambian Ronald Mkhandawire as coach, standing in for Scotsman Joe Frickleton who had quit a week earlier.
De Sá might be Mozambican-born but he is a fully fledged South African who has represented his country in three sporting codes – basketball, indoor soccer and soccer – and he was one of the three goalkeepers in the 1996 African Cup of Nations-winning Bafana Bafana squad, though he did not play.
He has sailed the Buccaneers’ ship through some turbulent storms since his appointment as the club’s head coach last year.
After a positive start, going 12 matches unbeaten in his first 14, the wheels came off badly with Pirates only managing two wins in their past 12 matches. It was the club’s first half of the season that ensured it stayed mathematically in contention until the last two matches of the season.
It seemed a foregone conclusion that De Sá would not see a second season at the helm of one of South Africa’s best-loved clubs after Bucs chairperson Irvin Khoza criticised him on radio for conceding that Pirates were lucky to win 1-0 against a mediocre Bidvest Wits side.
Consensus among fans and pundits was that De Sá’s reprieve was owing mainly to the club not wanting to change coaches in the middle of a champion’s league campaign. De Sá, so went conventional wisdom, would be dismissed as soon as Pirates bombed out of the continental competition.
A league of their own
But the news of his demise proved to be greatly exaggerated, especially with Pirates being a different proposition altogether when playing in the champions league. After strolling to a 9-0 win over Comores journeymen over two legs, they faced a stern test against Zambian champions Zanaco, prevailing 3-1 on aggregate after a 1-0 away win.
Few gave De Sá’s charges a chance when their earlier exploits meant a date with the pedigreed Democratic Republic of Congo champions, TP Mazembe. Mazembe were the first club to defend the champions league trophy. They retained the title in 2010 and were runners-up in the Fifa Club World Cup that year.
It was unthinkable that the emerging powers of African football could fall to a South African side that had not managed the first hurdle the last two times they were in the champions league.
Again De Sá’s obituary was being written. But then Pirates scored a 3-1 home win and endured a torrid time in eastern Congo, including a red card and two penalties, to emerge 3-2 winners on aggregate – and to march into the group stages of the tournament.
And then it was Mazembe owner Moïse Katumbi who pulled the trigger – on his coach Lamine N’Diaye and the club’s entire sports committee – for falling to Pirates.
When the last eight were drawn it seemed as if fate had again dealt the Buccaneers an unkind hand, pitting De Sá’s men in the same group as two Egypt behemoths, Zamalek and Al Ahly, as well as Republic of Congo’s AC Leopards.
One of the best
De Sá’s stature as one of the continent’s best cannot have been harmed by his club’s combined 7-1 win against the two Egyptian sides.
When Pirates finished second in the mini-league stages, commentators again raised the concern that they would have done themselves a favour by finishing first to avoid Tunisia’s Esperance.
A goalless draw in Orlando followed by a one-all draw in Tunis meant that, again, Pirates and De Sá had defied expectations. Again he stayed on as coach and learnt that his counterpart at Esperance had been fired even before Pirates had arrived back in South Africa for a heroes’ welcome.
Tribute must go to De Sá’s assistants, Tebogo Moloi and Eric Tinkler. The trio, all former Bafana internationals, have combined their different skills as players – Moloi, the creative midfielder; Tinkler, the midfield hard man; and De Sa, the goalkeeper – to get the best from their players and technical support team.
Having conquered three former African champions and ended the careers of coaches at some of Africa’s most decorated clubs, and now being only two matches away from possibly being African champions for the second time in history, De Sá can afford to swagger.
After the next two fixtures, he could be throwing his name in the hat for future national team assignments.
Rogério Paulo Cesar de Sá has come a long way from being the man the Pirates faithful disparagingly renamed Roger Dlisa (the loser) and Roger de Saster to potentially being Roger de Star.