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20 Mar 2014 00:00
Kaizer Chiefs will play the first leg of the third-round Champions League tie in Kinshasa, far from their fans. (Reuters)
The inhospitableness of the Congolese reached such epidemic proportions just over a decade ago that their football team was banned from participating in African club competitions for a year.
Some of the rough edges might since have been smoothed over but trips to Kinshasa and Lubumbashi remain taxing experiences for visiting teams, who face general hostility, poor facilities, devious ploys aimed at unsettling them and, most alarmingly, attempts to bribe the supposedly neutral referees.
Anecdotally, corruption is rife in the African Champions League and Confederation Cup, particularly in the earlier rounds. But few cases, if any, come to light and are publicly prosecuted by the Confederation of African Football.
Refereeing deceit is what Kaizer Chiefs will fear most when they play AS Vita Club of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Kinshasa on Sunday, in the first leg of the third-round tie in the Champions League.
It was at the same stage of the same competition last year that Orlando Pirates overcame a level of unsophisticated skullduggery that bordered on the comical as they edged out TP Mazembe Englebert in Lubumbashi.
Two penalties awarded against them, a rash of blatantly disruptive refereeing calls and a whole circus of bizarre off-the-field incidents, including pulling the plug on the television transmission – presumably to hide the underhandedness – were designed to frustrate them, but the Buccaneers held out like soldiers overcoming a siege.
Pirates' run to the final of last year's Champions League was built on the solidarity displayed in the face of overwhelming cheating, uniting the players in way only facing such adversity can.
Chiefs and Vita Club are playing off for a place in the lucrative league phase, where the minimum payout is more than R4-million, rising to more than R15-million for the winner.
Only the last eight teams get to share in the spoils from marketing and television deals, with a set amount of prize money on offer, depending on where the club eventually finishes in the standings.
Tantalisingly, victory in the Champions League also offers a chance to represent Africa at the Club World Cup, which will again be played in Morocco in December.
There, all-expenses-paid participation alone guarantees a minimum payout from Fifa of more than R5-million, a handy boost to the coffers.
Vita are joint leaders in the Congolese championship, which for logistical reasons is split into two groups.
They are arguably not as tough an opponent as Pirates faced in Mazembe last year, but the trauma that can be caused on the trip to Kinshasa has the potential to derail the South Africans' campaign.
Sunday's first leg at the Stade Tate Raphael Stadium is followed by the return leg at Soccer City next Saturday.
The aggregate winner will proceed to the draw for the groups that will be conducted in Cairo in late April.
Chiefs are obviously keen to replicate, if not better, the wonder run of Pirates last year. Just how desperate they are will become more evident in this tie after two routine assignments in the earlier stages against Namibian and Mozambican opposition.
In beating Black Africa and Liga Muculmana, Chiefs barely broke a sweat; they had both ties sewn up after the first legs and used reserve players to finish off the assignment in the return matches.
The contest with the Congolese will be much closer. Playingwise, Chiefs will have much more ability and acumen that their hosts, but mentally there are question marks about their ability to produce the requisite doggedness and determination amid the discomfort of continental competition.
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