Just 180 minutes and a potential penalty shoot-out separate Mamelodi Sundowns and Zamalek from a place at the showpiece event of club football: the FIFA Club World Cup.
South African champions Sundowns host the Cairo giants, whose name has already been engraved five times on the trophy, for the first leg of the CAF Champions League final on Saturday.
Sundowns are no rookies when it comes to the championship match, although their first – and to date only – appearance in the final will not conjure up pleasant memories for their fans as they took on Zamalek's city rivals Al Ahly in 2003. After drawing the first leg 1-1 at home, they found the going much tougher in Egypt and lost 3-0.
What makes Sundowns progress to the final so spectacular this time around though is the fact that they were literally down and out – twice. In the play-offs for the group phase of the competition, they were knocked out by Congolese club Vita Club. They then continued playing in the play-offs of the CAF Confederation Cup and were again knocked out, this time by Ghanaian team Medeama.
Sundowns, however, received an unexpected life-line when Vita Club were disqualified for fielding an ineligible player in a previous round and Sundowns were given their place. Their coach Pitso Mosimane is quick to point out the similarities between his side and Denmark in the UEFA European Championship in 1992, when the Scandinavians had also been eliminated, but received a call to replace Yugoslavia whilst most of their players were already on holiday.
“That story had a fairy-tale ending," said Mosimane. "Many of my players were also on holiday when we were reinstated into the competition and there is no reason why our story should not end the same way.”
The 'Brazilians', as they are known, go into their game on Saturday on the back of a 3-0 defeat against Wits University in the MTN Cup final last weekend, but South African Footballer of the Year Khama Billiat believes they will have learned something from that loss. “We love learning and we can't choose the way we learn sometimes. That defeat was a wake-up call for us. I'm sure we are ready for anything right now and we don't want to do the same mistake.
“We don't want to lose again, it was so hard to digest. But at the end of the day, we don't have much time to cry and mourn. We have to come back and do things right.”
The Zimbabwean international says that having beaten the White Knights twice in the group stages could help them. “We knew exactly what to expect and it came out exactly like that. It was easy for us to deal with them. Hopefully, there is not much change because we know them very well, but there is always a surprise on the day.”
A similarly long wait
If Sundowns' fans have had to endure a long wait to get to the final, Zamalek fans can share their pain. Their last appearance in the final was in 2002, when they won the last of their five titles.
Coach Moemen Soliman is aware that adding a sixth will not be an easy undertaking. “We can’t get anything wrong in the coming period; in training, sleeping or nutrition. Everything must be done at a high level. Sundowns is a big, strong team just like Zamalek, and winning the title is possible for either team.”
Soliman, who only took over from Mohamed Helmi in July, said that he will resign if Zamalek fail to win the trophy. “If we lose, I’ll resign via phone call, and I will not go to the club for the training sessions so that I don’t embarrass anyone, if this happens.”
He received a major boost ahead of the game when defender Ali Fathi, who missed Zamalek's last three Champions League matches through injury, was declared fit. His absence forced Soliman to play Ramzi Khaled and Islam Gamal on the left, but as neither are natural left-back players, Soliman will welcome Fathi's return.
Zambian international Emmanuel Mayuka, who joined Zamalek at the beginning of the year, has already tasted continental glory, being in the side that sensationally won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 2013.
He is aware that adding the club title to that will not be easy. “Sundowns are a good team. They play good football. We know that they are a good team. We just have to do our own thing and play our own game. We know that it won’t be easy… We are both in the final, so that means that these are the two best teams in the continent.”