Ninety minutes of resolve is needed from COSAFA club Orlando Pirates to overcome the continent’s most prestigious side and book themselves a place in the African Confederation Cup.
The South African side take a slender one-goal lead to Egypt tomorrow night for a game where they can expect to face a fulsome home attack as hosts Al Ahli seek to turn around the aggregate deficit and stay on course to retain the trophy they won last year.
The match in Suez, some two hours south of Cairo, is being played behind closed Doors because of Egyptian authorities’ security concerns, both over the possibility of crowd violence and a repeat of the deaths that have overshadowed Egyptian football over the last two years, as much as political agitation as the military re-establish their authority over the running of the country.
Either way it is to the advantage of Pirates, who now do not have to contend with the usually intimidating atmosphere that the rabid Egyptian fans provide.
It is also the source of some concern for Ahli’s under-pressure coach Fathi Mabrouk, who decried the decision to the Egyptian media this week.
“We need our fans to be present against Orlando Pirates. They are a great motivation to the players and they are one of the important factors for success for any team in the world,” he told reporters on the eve of the game.
But even without their ‘12th man’, there is still a formidable force about Ahli, not least their record as Africa’s best trophy winning club.
But Pirates coach Eric Tinkler has been seeking to play a little mind games by declaring Ahli are not as good as their Cairo rivals Zamalek, who beat Pirates 4-1 in their last trip to Cairo a month ago in the group phase of the Confederation Cup.
But he does add: “They are going to come at us. They are a very good team going forward and if we don’t defend the way we did at Orlando (in the first leg), it will be a problem.”
Only four times before in some two decades of participation has South Africa managed to provide a finalist for one of the annual pan-African competitions – a paltry return given the plentiful resources of the Premier Soccer League.
Despite a recent turn in attitude and an alleged new desire to see PSL clubs dominate events like the African Champions League and the Confederation Cup, Pirates have emerged the only real contenders. They have been to two previous finals before while Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns have managed one apiece despite years of persistent participation.
The Buccaneers have developed a steely temperament, a mental fortitude and something of a warrior mentality as they have blazed a trial through the two competitions.
Two years ago they made it all the way to the Champions League final, only to lose to Al Ahli in the two-legged decider, and 24 months later play the same team for a place in the final of the Confederation Cup, the lesser of the two annual competitions.
It is to their credit that have kept such a hardy course through choppy waters but face a storm of note on Sunday before they can claim a place in the final.