South Africans are banking on Orlando Pirates to win the CAF Confederation Cup final against Etoile Sahel of Tunisia and end a 14-year African club trophy drought for the republic.
Orlando Stadium in Soweto hosts the first leg of the second-tier competition decider this Saturday with the return match next Sunday at Stade Olympique in Mediterranean resort Sousse.
Kaizer Chiefs, the arch domestic rivals of Pirates, were the last South African winners of a CAF competition, defeating InterClube of Angola in the 2001 final of the now defunct African Cup Winners Cup. In the mid-1990s, Pirates lifted the African Cup of Champions Clubs (now CAF Champions League) and the CAF Super Cup.
South African footballers regularly struggle to cope with travel conditions, accommodation, food, training facilities and hard, bumpy pitches with grass-less patches. Pirates have been a notable exception and long-serving club chairman Irvin Khoza recently urged other South African clubs to treat CAF competitions more seriously.
Rainbow Nation support
Domestic opponents have hailed coach Eric Tinkler and his Buccaneers in a rare show of unity among bitter rivals for the riches that South African football offers. "This is a massive final for South Africa, and not just Pirates," Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane told reporters.
"Pirates are the biggest team in South Africa when it comes to continental football. The rest of us need to copy the good things they do. The Buccaneers are not afraid of any rivals, they do not respect any opponents, and they play to win, home and away."
Former South Africa striker and coach Mosimane said the 4-3 semi-final victory over title-holders Ahly in Egypt was an amazing achievement. "To score four goals away to the winners of a record 19 CAF titles, the team voted the best in Africa during the last century, was awesome."
Tinkler, a bone-hard midfield enforcer in the South Africa 1996 Africa Cup of Nations-winning team, dreams of performances similar to that which floored Ahly. "If we perform as we did against Ahly we can win the trophy," said the 45-year-old. "Etoile are strong at home but not good travellers, and we need to take advantage of that."
Pirates, who also won the first leg against Ahly in Soweto, confounded pundits by becoming the first South African qualifiers for the final of a 12-year competition that North African clubs have won eight times.
Strikers Kermit Erasmus and Thamsanqa Gabuza have impressed in Africa this year, claiming five goals each to be among the second highest scorers in the Confederation Cup. But as much as Tinkler wants goals, he constantly stresses the need to keep a clean sheet against Etoile, a feat Pirates have managed in four of seven home matches en route to the final.
Sahel seek Tunisia glory
Like Pirates, Sahel collected their first CAF trophy in 1995, but there the similarity ends with the Red Devils featuring in another 14 African finals and winning seven. The Etoile squad that arrived in Johannesburg by chartered jet is packed with experience and includes 16 Tunisians plus an Algerian, a Brazilian, a Cameroonian and a Nigerian.
Algerian striker Baghdad Bounedjah, on loan from a Qatari club, will need particularly close attention as his six goals make him the co-leader of the Confederation Cup scoring charts. A concern for 65-year-old coach Faouzi Benzarti - in his fifth spell at Etoile - is a muscle injury to goalkeeper and captain Aymen Mathlouthi, who faces a late fitness test.
The overall winners receive USD $660,000 (€615,000) and qualify for a one-off Super Cup match against Champions League winners TP Mazembe Congo DR.