Johannesburg - The bluster and bandwagon-jumping is nearly over. On Saturday night, on Soweto soil, Orlando Pirates will begin the last act of their quest for continental glory as they seek to take down Al Ahly in the first leg of the African Champions League final.
Ever since the Buccaneers fought past Esperance to make the final for only the second time in their history, from Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula quoting French electronica outfit Daft Punk, to the South African Football Association, to the Premier Soccer League, administrators have been stumbling to glue themselves to Pirates’ quest for a second star.
If this kind of politicking carries a mildly nauseating note, there is no doubt that genuinely, a few fanatical Kaizer Chiefs fans aside, there seems to be a nation of goodwill behind the Buccaneers.
This should reflect in a healthier crowd than normal at Orlando Stadium this evening, Pirates hopefully getting the kind of public support they have earned through their extraordinary African adventure.
The Buccaneers, whose sole Champions League victory came way back in 1995, have truly overcome the odds to reach the final of this tournament, finding a way past sides that between them have collected 18 African Champions League titles.
The seven-time champions, Al Ahly, who Pirates took four points off in the group stages, now stand in their way once more.
The Red Devils have had their own odds to overcome in the last couple of years.
The Port Said tragedy of February 1, 2012 saw the death of over 70 Al Ahly fans and forced the cancellation of the Egyptian league. And yet Al Ahly still won their seventh Champions League title last year.
With political turmoil ongoing in Egypt, the domestic league was cancelled again in 2013. And yet Al Ahly have made the final once more. The Red Devils simply have players who know what it takes at this level, with the vast experience of men like Wael Gomaa, Ahmed Fathy and Mohamed Aboutrika.
For this reason alone, Al Ahly have to start as slight favourites, though Pirates won’t mind that, having shown no fear as the underdogs throughout the tournament.
The Buccaneers will seek victory at home to give them momentum going to Cairo, but also showed in the semi-final that a goalless draw at home is not such a bad result.
Two of Pirates’ best performances in this tournament, indeed, have come away from Orlando, against Al Ahly in El Gouna, and in Tunis in the semis, when a 1-1 draw and progress to the final was the least they deserved.
Roger De Sa also has a very settled side for this tournament, though there was a slight surprise yesterday with the news that former captain Lucky Lekgwathi has been restored to the squad.
“He’ll be on the bench. The guys that have been playing have been doing great so it would be silly to throw a 38 year old into the Champions League final,” said De Sa yesterday. “I have always said he is like the others. He’s worked hard and played a few training games, and now he is back in contention.”
African Champions League final, first leg: Orlando Pirates (SA) v Al Ahly (Egypt), Orlando Stadium, 8.30pm on Saturday.