JOHANNESBURG: A rare air of optimism is sweeping across Southern Africa, a region infamously long known as the punching bag of African football, following Orlando Pirates’ fairytale run in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Confederations Cup. The South African club has conquered the history and odds stacked against them, including playing the better part of the tournament with only one goalkeeper available, to emerge 180 minutes away of claiming their third major continental accolade to contest the final on Saturday.
The first leg of the decider is against Tunisian giants Etoile Sportive du Sahel at Orlando Stadium. An unlikely semifinal victory over defending champions Al Ahly has the South African full of belief ahead of the two-legged final. While the decider will not be a walk in the park, there is no doubt the Class of 2015 has etched its names into the hearts of fans across the Southern African Development Community (SADC) community.
“I had never followed Orlando Pirates previously, but this time around, I have been tempted to support them, especially when they represent South Africa and the entire SADC region,” said South African-based Zimbabwean, Joshua Ndlovu. “While locally, I support Kaizer Chiefs and Highlanders where I hail from, I am impressed by what Pirates have achieved in this tournament. They have torn the form book into shreds. We must all rally behind Pirates in the final as they have done well not only for South Africa but the entire SADC regional member states happy,” said Ndlovu.
Despite the fact the side is the region’s sole winner of the more lucrative CAF Champions League (then known as the African Champions Cup) in 2005, they were not outright favourites to progress to the knockout stages in a group that also featured continental powerhouses CS Sfaxien (Tunisia) and Zamalek (Egypt). They were tipped to fight for the wooden spoon with Congolese side AC Leopards de Dolisie. Odirile Baatweng, from Botswana said the entire region should hail the performance of the Buccaneers.
“SADC regional football was always ridiculed!” he said of a region that is one of the continent’s lightweights in football. “SADC football national teams and their soccer clubs have always been playing second fiddle to their counterparts in the northern and western parts of the region. However, this crop of Pirates players, whom I am happy for, has defied the stereotype the region is a punching bag. Along their tour journey to the final, Orlando Pirates have actually won themselves millions of soccer fans from across the entire SADC region,” Baatweng said.
Naledi Moshoeshoe from the tiny neighbouring Lesotho Kingdom, said she was thrilled by Pirates’ campaign, particularly the two-legged victory over Al Ahly. “When we talk of true country and regional ambassadors, Orlando Pirates head coach Eric Tinkler and his players stand to be counted as such!” she said.
“I’m of the opinion that the Pirates team players will also want to prove to the domestic league that they are indeed champion material by winning almost every silverware when they return to the domestic league. Orlando Pirates were not given a chance by its fans, football doubting Thomases of South Africa and the region, but they have defied their domestic form book,” Moshoeshoe said. What makes Pirates’ run even more breathtaking is their domestic struggles. They have not been firing in the Absa Premiership and were knocked out at the first hurdle in the MTN 8.
Such an indifferent run of form ahead of the clash against Al Ahly, had piled the pressure on chairman, Dr Irvin, Khoza, to relieve Tinkler of his duties. However, even the doubted have been won over following Sunday evening’s encounter in North Africa. “What we have seen at the Orlando Pirates camp is unbelievable! While back home (South Africa), we fans are calling for the coach to be fired, but at the international scene the club is performing above board,” said Malawian Mavhuto Nyirenda.
“I was one that have been doubting the coach’s capacity to win anything for us but my view has changed. Tinkler must stay. We are now on the verge of winning the CAF Confederation Cup yet back home, we have been vilifying the coach. He has been amazing,” Nyirenda said. Ndlovu concurred. “It defies logic! Domestically, Pirates seems be struggling but at international level, they appear to be the best team in the continent. The team and coach have been fantastic,” he said.
Pirates’ win will be massive on a Southern African context. No side from the region has won the tournament since its inception in 2004. None of the clubs from the region has won the Champions League since its current format in 1997. Pirates were the last side from SADC to come close in continental competitions, only to falter to Al Ahly in the final of the latter two years ago.
SOURCE: CAJ NEWS AGENCY