Johannesburg – For a man who was unemployed just over a year ago, Roger De Sa has come a long way to stand on the cusp of history, with Orlando Pirates having reached the African Champions League final under his guidance.
Surprisingly sacked by Bidvest Wits just before the start of last season, De Sa stood idle for a couple of months, scanning the job market, before a call from Pirates owner Irvin Khoza landed him his biggest coaching job to date.
That was in late September last year, and some of us wondered whether he would survive until Christmas following the stuttering nature of his early days.
When he did survive, De Sa’s Pirates obituary was written again at the beginning of this year, with Khoza – unimpressed after seeing Pirates bundled out of the Champions League at the first round by teams from Angola and Botswana – making it clear he wanted the continental club championship, or a “second star” as it has become known.
The path De Sa has travelled in leading the Buccaneers to the epic final against Al-Ahly (first leg on Saturday, Orlando Stadium, 8.30pm) has been fraught with difficulties, littered with suspicions regarding his competence and in the case of certain results, miraculous.
Having seen off Djabal of the Comoros and Zambia’s Zanaco, Pirates’ biggest test was their third-round tie against TP Mazembe, the 2011 continental champions who also reached the final of the Fifa Club World Cup that year.
But on the back of a commanding 3-1 win at Orlando, Pirates travelled to Lubumbashi in the second leg and survived a hostile crowd, a red card, two penalties and generally dodgy refereeing to progress into the group phase at the expense of the DR Congo side.
Some among us, again, doubted if Pirates would make it past the group phase, but suggested they stood a chance if they avoided the big guns of Egypt – Ahly and Zamalek.
When Bucs were drawn against the two giants, and AC Leopards of Congo in their group, De Sa must have thought his execution – predicted for months by his detractors – had arrived. But to his credit, he remained calm and promised Pirates would prevail. We thought he was deluded because in their first group match Pirates had flattered only to deceive at home to Leopards, branded by SA “experts” as ostensibly the weakest side in the pool.
Pirates then travelled to El Gouna and claimed arguably the most significant away result by a South African side in over a decade – beating Ahly 3-0 – and sending shockwaves throughout the continent.
Zamalek were also hammered at Orlando, virtually sealing Pirates’ place in the semi-finals, but that they didn’t top the group meant they faced another test – a clash against Esperance, the all-conquering Tunisian side who had reached the last three Champions League finals.
De Sa again came up with a great game-plan that left even Tunisians watching inside the Stade Rades applauding afterwards, having seen their side outclassed, although the 1-1 result didn’t depict the full story of a one-sided semi-final second leg.
De Sa now has to do it just two more times, starting tomorrow and culminating in Cairo next week, for his name to be etched in indelible ink in South African football folklore.
He and his team members could be remembered as the men who confounded predictions and critics to triumph; true greats who, if successful, would be celebrated for years to come.