Orlando Pirates are just one point away from a place in the African Confederation Cup and continuing another remarkable campaign in continental completion.
At the Orlando Stadium on Saturday night, a draw with AC Leopards from Congo (Brazzaville) will be enough to ensure a finish in the top two places in the group and a ticket to the semifinals next month.
Pirates will want to do better, however, and try to win group B. They have a final group game away in Cairo against Zamalek in a fortnight and, if they can finish higher than their Egyptian rivals, then they will have the advantage of playing at home in the second leg of their semifinal tie.
Although this is African club football’s secondary competition, without the gravitas or financial rewards of the African Champions League, it is still a marathon that demands an intensity of ambition that is often lacking in local teams.
Pirates’ attitude sits as a large anomaly when contrasted with the mediocrity of South African sides in the past in competitions where, given their resources and the standard of the domestic league, the Premier Soccer League (PSL) teams should regularly be in the line for honours.
Competing in Africa remains something of a mental hurdle that locals have not been able to master. Too often teams opt out, crumbling at the prospect of exhausting travel, intimidating destinations and the discomfort of going to places where the sights and sounds are foreign.
Pirates have set a different course and shown a soldier-like quality of endurance and perseverance. But they have yet to master doubling up success in the Confederation of African Football competitions with a consistency on the local scene.
Ever since 1993, when Jomo Cosmos reached the semifinals of the now-defunct African Winners’ Cup but were relegated from the old National Soccer League, there is an assumption that competing in the pan-African competitions saps the energy and negatively affects the local campaign.
It was clearly also the case for Kaizer Chiefs two seasons ago when they let slip a healthy points lead and handed the league championship to Mamelodi Sundowns, who were unencumbered with extraneous competition and singularly focused as they overtook Chiefs to win the 2014 PSL title.
Learning to be able to juggle both pan-African participation and domestic duties is the next trick for South African clubs to aim for. But Pirates have certainly broken down barriers as well as many of the insular attitudes that pervade the PSL.
Saturday’s opponents are representative of a new breed of club emerging throughout Africa – newly created clubs that are playthings for a rich benefactor whose dubious source of wealth means the entire enterprise reeks of corruption and scandal.
In Leopards’ case it is an army general, Remy Ayayos Ikounga. He is a close friend of the Republic of Congo President Dennis Sassou Nguesso’s nephew, he walks around with five suited bodyguards and his source of wealth has been questioned in an Oxfam report.
Leopards have been a sensational new name on the African football circuit over the past few years, winning the 2012 African Confederation Cup when they beat Djoliba of Mali 4-3 on aggregate in the final in an upset result. It was the first continental success for a side from Congo for almost 40 years.
They made it to the league phase of the Champions League the next year, where they shared the same group with Pirates.
Leopards come from Dolisie, the third-largest town in the country after the capital Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire. They play on an artificial surface at a 3?000-capacity stadium, appropriately named after Nguesso. Athletic Club Leopards were founded in 1954 by the local Catholic priest, but only won a place in the top flight of Congolese football in 2009.