Tunis – You could hear the noise from 100 metres away as you approached the Orlando Pirates dressing room inside the Stade Olympique Rades on Saturday evening.
It was song and dance inside, and a great pity that only a white coolerbox – containing energy drinks, ice and bottled water, and not champagne and beer – was in sight.
Half-dressed Pirates players sang in unison from the top of their voices, some certainly still not believing what had unfolded here – that their side had overcome the might of Esperance, returning a 1-1 draw which sent them into the African Champions League final.
It may have been only a draw, but it surely tasted like victory, such was Pirates’ dominance of Esperance, the all-conquering Tunisian giants nicknamed the Blood and Gold, who had until Saturday never failed to beat a South African side at their fearsome home ground.
The Stade Olympique is fearsome not just because of Esperance’s proud record, but also because local fans make it hell for visiting players, as was the case when Pirates took the field for a mere pre-match warm-up. They were greeted with boos and whistles, but if Pirates thought it was going to get any better by kickoff, it got worse as Esperance fans flashed green lasers in the faces of the opposing players whenever they were in possession.
Goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa bore the biggest brunt in this regard, and nearly conceded twice in the first half as he struggled to track the ball due to lasers firmly in his face.
“It was difficult out there,” Meyiwa said as he took a breather on the bench inside the dressing room, moving away from the celebrations.
“Those green things (lasers) made it difficult for me to see the ball. But I’m so happy we made it.”
Meyiwa was almost beaten by Hocine Ragued from long range, the ball dipping but the goalkeeper recovered well to divert it onto the crossbar.
“Once we survived that, we grew in confidence. I don’t know how we didn’t convert all those chances. Watching from the goalline, it was incredible, but the guys did well in the end. I now see myself playing against Bayern Munich (in the Fifa Club World Cup),” Meyiwa said.
Daine Klate was topless, sweating profusely due to extended celebrations in a raucous dressing room.
“This is overwhelming,” he sighed. “Our entire campaign has been difficult. People wrote us off. Making it this far is a great step not only for our club, but our country as well.”
Klate was unfortunate that his headed effort was saved brilliantly by Moez Ben Cherifia in the second half.
“The good thing is we did not come for a draw; we created chances. Fortunately, we did not have to rue not taking them. Yet we shouldn’t be so wasteful.”
The Bafana midfielder said Pirates’ dominance was a direct result of Esperance thinking the game had already been won after the first leg.
“They were celebrating in Orlando after that 0-0 draw. We banked on that … to make them think they would have it easy here, but it wasn’t. We really played well, and what touched me most was to see their supporters clapping us off the field.” Klate added this was indeed “Pirates’s year”.
“You get a sense that it’s written in the stars, that we’ll get that second star. Look at how we overcame TP Mazembe, Zamalek, Al Ahly and now Esperance.”
Andile Jali agreed: “I said last week that I was tired of hearing about 1995 (squad that won the Champions League). I want to experience this myself. The time for the class of 2013 has arrived.”
Captain Happy Jele was also chuffed, having led the team imperiously when there had been doubts about Bucs’ defence going into the match.
“We defended well in the opening period because we expected Esperance to be strong. I was relieved when we scored first. It made our job at the back easier, although it was still difficult in the last 10 minutes. We managed to withstand them. Our resolve throughout this tournament has never been in question. We’ve overcome big teams, and everybody knows we deserve to be in the final. Now the next challenge is to win it,” Jele said.
Bucs’s celebrations continued long into the Tunis evening at their El Mouradi hotel, where former coach Ruud Krol – now with CS Sfaxien – paid them a visit. But the celebrations were cut short as they had to take a long-haul flight via Cairo back to Joburg to prepare for two games this week – against Golden Arrows on Wednesday and Saturday’s Soweto derby at Kaizer Chiefs.