Bucs bank on Benni in Africa
Johannesburg - Soweto club Orlando Pirates are banking on veteran striker Benni McCarthy to trigger a strong challenge for the 2012 CAF Champions League title.
Pirates are the only South African team to conquer Africa at the highest level, winning the 1995 CAF Champions Cup with a stunning 1-0 victory over hot favourites ASEC Mimosas in Abidjan.
The Ivorians were so confident of success after a 2-2 Johannesburg draw that the government declared the Monday after the return match a public holiday in anticipation of national celebrations.
But a Pirates rearguard marshalled by Mark Fish, Gavin Lane and Nigerian goalkeeper Williams Okpara survived a relentless onslaught and Jerry 'Legs of Thunder' Sikhosana grabbed the winner a rare incursion into the ASEC half.
A South African club has reached the final of the premier Pan-African club championship only once since and there was no happy ending second time round as Al-Ahly of Egypt floored Mamelodi Sundowns 4-1 overall.
Pirates officials led by hyper-ambitious chairman Irvin Khoza believe the time has come for the country to make its mark on the competition again and Brazilian coach Julio Leal says mid-year signing McCarthy could be the catalyst.
"We are counting on Benni in our plans to mount a strong Champions League challenge," said the South American who took over when the contract of former Dutch star Ruud Krol was not renewed despite a domestic treble last season.
"Benni is a footballer of superior quality and capable of bringing an extra dimension to the team. His strengths include holding up the ball, bringing team-mates into play and his scoring ability.
"There is pressure on him as a high-profile signing, but he is a fighter and a champion He must carry on working to improve his fitness, speed and agility," said the older brother of national team assistant coach Jairo Leal.
McCarthy has his eye on a historic Champions League double having helped Porto outclass Monaco 3-0 in Germany seven years ago to collect a European winners medal.
Pirates are among eight winners of the African title set to compete for a 1.5-million-dollar first prize won by Esperance of Tunisia last month after a tense, two-leg showdown with Wydad Casablanca of Morocco.
Besides Pirates and Esperance, TP Mazembe and Vita Club from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Al-Ahly and Zamalek of Egypt, Raja Casablanca from Morocco and Etoile Sahel of Tunisia have won the greatest African club football prize.
Ahly have claimed a record six titles, Zamalek five and Mazembe four and they appear the teams to beat along with Esperance, who face Al-Sadd of Qatar on Sunday in a FIFA Club World Cup quarter-final.
Moghreb Fes of Morocco, winners of the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup last Sunday after a penalty shootout with Club Africain of Tunisia, are another team capable of going far.
African football governing body CAF do not reveal the official list of entrants before the mid-December Cairo draw for the three qualifying rounds and not all clubs eligible to compete are likely to do so.
Many cash-strapped governments no longer bankroll the African campaigns of national champions, leaving them to hunt for sponsors as travel costs are much higher than on other continents.
There is a 5.7-million-dollar prize pot, but it kicks in only at the group stage by which time just eight clubs remain in contention for the 1.5 million winners cheque.