Saturday, 17 August 2013

Pirates 7, Egyptian giants 1: how Pirates - not Bafana or the Boks - led the celebrations for Madiba

Opening goal: Lennox Bacela

NELSON MANDELA’S 95th birthday celebrations were not led by Gordon Igesund or Heineke Meyer, despite rousing wins for Bafana Bafana and the Springboks at Soccer City on Saturday.

The highlight of Madiba’s “Sport and Culture” day came eight kilometres away while the musicians were still playing at the World Cup final venue.

The big celebrations were going on in Orlando, deep in the heart of Soweto, where Roger de Sa’s swashbuckling Pirates blew away African giants Zamalek SC 4-1 in perhaps their best display yet in the Champions League.

With Al Ahly – thumped 3-0 by the Buccaneers at Al Gouna a fortnight ago – edging the Congo’s AC Leopards 1-0 earlier in the day, Irvin Khoza’s club now lead Group A by three points at the halfway stage in qualifying.

By my reckoning, depending how the second half pans out, Pirates now need just THREE points from their last three games to make it. One win. Three draws. Boom. Even two might do.

For a side laid low last season as De Sa failed to retain the PSL for a third consecutive season after taking over from Augusto Palacios with the side in 10th place, the African miracle, the quest for the second star, is rapidly becoming a real possibility.

Not since 1995 has a South African side looked this good on the continent. A combined score of 7-1 against the two Egyptian giants with 11 stars between them since 1982 is beyond the dreams of any South Africa football fan.

While Gordon’s Bafana saw off a tepid Burkina Faso 2-0 and Heineke’s Boks crushed Argentina 73-11, Roger’s Pirates were in all sorts of trouble when Zamalek instantly wiped out Lennox Bacela’s brilliant turn-and-fire opener.

But three well-worked second-half goals from the revolutionary Sifiso Myeni, the returning Tlou Segolela and  the reviving Dain Klate left Zamalek in tatters by the final whistle.

Roger, all smiles and clenched fists, emerged to say: “We could have done without conceding that equalising goal but what can I say? How can I ask for more than that from these players?

“We’re enjoying this purple patch in Africa. I know they’ll be ready for us when we return to Egypt but we travel well now. The boys are united, we are a team, we fight and fight.”

While Bafana can claim to have redeemed themselves (a little) after the abject 2-0 defeat against Nigeria last Wednesday in Durban with goals from Siphiwe Tshabalala and Lerato Chabangu (forget Nomandele’s last-gasp touch over the line), it was the Pirates who really lifted the nation on a rousing day for South African Sport.

Vieira: Lehlogonolo Masalesa
With Klate back to something like his best and Bacela proving an astute buy, it was Lehlogonolo Masalesa who really caught the eye.

The 21-year-old from Alexandria was thrown on when Andile Jali – struggling with an ankle before the game – was carried off on a stretcher with what look like a related groin injury early in the game.

But the man known as Vieira did more than hold his own between in the bristling band of midfield Pirates like Myeni, Oupa Manyisa and Klate.

He thrived, he grew, he ran and ran. On a night when heroes were made in Orlando, Masalesa was the flag-bearer, the bugle-blower. De Sa said: “He looked like he’d played in Africa all his life. What a performance.”

It’s wise at this point to remember just where the Egyptians are at the moment. Domestic football violence, the Arab Spring and, more recently, the Morsi coup has left their league suspended. Football doesn’t matter when a nation is burning.

Four-star Zamalek and seven-star defending African champions Al Ahly are currently struggling to keep match fit, their star players are eager to find a place in Europe.

And while Zamalek’s twitterers complained about the training ground next to Ellis Park on Friday, hundreds were dying in Cairo. Just turn on one of the 24 news channels. Now. It can’t be easy.

But Roger and his Pirates can’t be blamed for any of those factors. All they can do is beat what is put before them. And they have done that with some panache over the past fortnight.

The return trip to Zamalek is next, then Al Ahly come to Orlando hunting revenge before AC Leopards finish the group stages in the Congo Republic. I have no doubt a semi-final berth awaits, with similar obstacles to come before talk of a second star can commence around a glorious finale.

But for now, let’s celebrate. Bafana won. The Springboks cruised. Orlando Pirates were magnificent. All in honour of Madiba. That can’t be bad.

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