Tunis – For a man virtually reduced to a freelance coach whose ability was questioned with almost every passing game, Roger de Sa could afford a dig at his critics after leading Orlando Pirates to the African Champions League final here on Saturday.
After sprinting on to the Stade Olympique Rades pitch to celebrate with his players after an heroic 1-1 result against Esperance, which sent the Buccaneers into their second continental club final, De Sa had to be dragged out of prolonged, noisy dressing room celebrations to fulfil a mandatory press conference. And he recalled how, when this campaign started, few believed Pirates would get even out of the first round, which was a valid concern given that previous attempts at matching Bucs’ Class of ‘95 had ended in disaster.
“I remember how when we were to play against (TP) Mazembe (of DR Congo), nobody gave us a chance. I remember when we drew with AC Leopards (of Congo-Brazzaville) at home in the first game of the group phase, we were heavily criticised. It was the case again when we drew against Esperance in the (semi-final) first leg in Orlando. I hope those critics keep on coming,” De Sa said.
While he couldn’t resist to fire back after what has been a stressful, 14-match campaign which has put Pirates on the brink of glory, the Bucs coach also had words of praise for the people who’ve made it possible for the team to have made it this far.
“Credit to the players, the staff and everyone who believed in us. Behind the scenes, people like (administrative manager) Floyd Mbele have been outstanding. It’s really been a team effort.”
Saturday’s draw sent Esperance fans into a trance, and those who could find their voice vented at a club who are known to embarrass opposition – not least South African clubs – at their revered fortress. But irate as they were to see their side outclassed, the home supporters were gracious enough to applaud Pirates off the field, while throwing insults at their own players.
Pirates had clearly done their home work, which De Sa revealed centred around preventing Youcef Belaili and Oussama Darragi from initiating attacks. “We had to stop Esperance from playing, and to do that you had to target their No11 (Belaili) and 27 (Darragi). We then attacked their wings and created plenty of chances. We got better and stronger. We played with a lot of confidence in the second half, and should have scored more than three.”
It is true that Pirates were by far the better side, and should have had more than Rooi Mahamutsa’s headed goal to show for their dominance. Tlou Segolela blew a glorious opportunity in the first half; Daine Klate had a header stopped unbelievably by goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifia, while Lennox Bacela also came close from six yards.
In the end, however, those misses were not costly, with Esperance restricted to only a Mohammed Msakni’s equaliser, which was not enough as the away goals rule shattered their bid for a fourth successive Champions League final.
For Pirates, Saturday’s events will remain etched in memory. “I looked at young guys like Sifiso (Myeni) and Vieira (Lehlogonolo Masalesa) – four, five years ago they arrived at Bidvest Wits carrying plastic bags. A guy like Senzo Meyiwa, a year ago he was on the bench. Now he’s playing in the Champions League final. It’s a fantastic achievement for all these guys,” De Sa said.
Much was made of his decision to leave behind captain Lucky Lekgwathi for Saturday’s match, but Ayanda Gcaba, who partnered Mahamutsa in central defence, was outstanding as he helped repel Esperance’s attacks.
“We were solid in all departments. For Ayanda to mark their big striker (Yannick Ndjeng-Ndjeng) like that was great. I knew that I couldn’t expect a 37-year-old (Lekgwathi) to run around chasing a big striker when he hasn’t played for four games, hence we brought Ayanda here,” De Sa said, firing another classic at his detractors. “That’s the reason some of us are coaches, and others are just critics.”
Whatever happens in the final – taking place on November 2/3 and November 9/10 – when Pirates face Egyptian giants Al-Ahly for the $1,5-million first prize, De Sa’s “critics” are certain to have dwindled in numbers.