South Africa’s Pirates Face Final Hurdle as Bayern Beckon

South Africa’s Orlando Pirates are a win away from a possible match up with Bayern Munich in soccer’s biggest intercontinental club competition, yet the chairman doubts the European champions could handle the rigors of Africa’s Champions League.

“European teams would complain,” Irvin Khoza, 65, said in an interview on Nov. 5. “We carry everything. We bring our own water when we travel around for away fixtures. Sometimes we take our own food with us. When you go to Europe, it’s Eldorado, it’s heaven.”

Pirates, from Soweto, a Johannesburg township with a population of more than 1 million, face Egyptian defending champions Al-Ahly in the second leg of the final of the pan-African soccer tournament in Cairo on Nov. 10, having drawn the home leg 1-1 last week. The winner will receive $1.5 million in prize money plus a berth in the Club World Cup in Morocco next month, where they will face Bayern, Brazil’s Atletico Mineiro, and Auckland City of New Zealand for a $5 million winner’s check.

To earn the chance to add a second title to their only previous Champions League victory in 1995, Pirates have played 15 matches in South Africa, Congo Brazzaville, Tunisia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and the island nation of Comoros. Their opponents Al-Ahly are seven-time champions and unable to play domestic soccer because the league was canceled amid political unrest in Egypt.

Biggest Rivalry

Having conceded an away goal, Pirates start the match as 15-4 underdogs, according to Oddschecker, which collects odds from Internet bookmakers. That means a successful $4 bet would bring in $15 plus the original wager. Al-Ahly is the 3-4 favorites.

Pirates can trace their origins to migrant gold miners in Soweto who formed what was then called the Orlando Boys Club in

1937. In 1970, Kaizer Motaung, a star Pirates striker, returned from a stint in the U.S. and formed the Kaizer Chiefs in Soweto after falling out with his former colleagues. This started South African football’s biggest rivalry. Chiefs won the league title last season, finishing five points ahead of third-placed Pirates.

The animosity between the clubs was put aside on Nov. 2, when Chiefs and other fans flocked to a sold-out Orlando stadium for the Al-Ahly first leg wearing over-sized sunglasses, painted miners helmets, and capes in their team’s colors. Cramped into the 40,000-seater venue, they munched fried chicken, swigged cold beer and blew vuvuzelas while cheering on the home team.

Piquing Interest

Pirates equalized in the 93rd minute when left back Thabo Matlaba’s low 20-yard drive beat Al-Ahly’s goalkeeper, canceling out a Mohammed Aboutrika free kick in the first half. The fans’ ecstatic celebrations suggested the team had already lifted the trophy.

Orlando’s run to the final comes three years after South Africa hosted the soccer World Cup, piquing interest in the sport’s popularity on the continent. The television rights for South Africa’s Premier League Soccer were sold for more than 2 billion rand ($194 million) in 2011 compared with 1.5 billion rand four years earlier, according to league spokesman Luxolo September.

Naspers Ltd., Africa’s largest media company, is the largest broadcaster of soccer matches on the continent through its Supersport unit, according to its annual financial report. Revenue from its pay TV division rose 20 percent to 30.26 billion rand in the year through March, the Cape Town-based company said in the report.

Iron Duke

Supersport has spent about 750 million rand running its operations in the past six years, according to Brandon Foot, head of acquisitions and legal affairs for the broadcaster. They’ve also invested about 500 million rand in sub-Saharan Africa outside its domestic market.

With one front tooth missing, Khoza, also known as the Iron Duke, makes the perfect Pirates leader. The team traveled to Tunisia for their semifinal against Esperance de Tunis via Dubai because there were no direct flights, he said. Pirates will return to north Africa to play Al-Ahly at the 60,000 capacity Arab Contractors stadium in Cairo, although this time they are chartering a flight.

“It’s hard, sometimes we must go via Europe,” Khoza said. “When we went to play in Congo Brazzaville -- from the main airport to where we play is about 400 kilometers (248 miles). Fortunately, there was a landing strip where we could fly directly. If not, we would have had to travel by bus.”

Tout Puissant Mazembe, based in the Congolese city of Lubumbashi, reached the final of the Club World Cup in 2010 and is Africa’s best performing team at the event to date.

“To win it this time will be the biggest achievement,” said Khoza, who grew up in Alexandra, another Johannesburg township. “To play against Bayern Munich is a measure of how far we’ve gone. There are no more small teams and big teams now, today is a different ball game altogether.”

(Corrects date of match in third paragraph of story published Nov. 8.)
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