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Pirates hope to raise flag for South Africa

By Mark Gleeson

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - The Orlando Pirates will be bidding to bring South Africa some rare international soccer success when they take on African Champions League holders Al Ahli of Egypt in the final over the next two weekends.

The Pirates are hosting the first leg in Soweto on Saturday, followed by the return in Cairo on November 10, where Al Ahli will be seeking to extend their record-breaking number of victories in the continent's leading competition to eight.

Should the Pirates prevail, however, it would mark a second successful intercontinental triumph, 18 years after the first.

That success rate represents a stark reminder of the disparity in achievement between the two countries, both major economic powers with established domestic leagues but with contrasting levels of proficiency in pan-African competition.

South Africa had high hopes that hosting the 2010 World Cup would catapult their soccer into a new, regularly successful realm but while their league enjoys a lucrative television deal, results have been poor and the game is in something of a slump.

"We hosted it in 2010 but we are not going to Brazil after failing to make the World Cup play-offs. We can't stand and accept mediocrity," newly elected South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan told a recent forum.

The Pirates have lifted some of the gloom with a run to the final, overcoming an exhaustive campaign, dubious refereeing decisions and several more obstacles on their travels through three preliminary rounds, a six-match group phase and a two-legged semi-final.

SHUT DOWN

But Al Ahli's achievement of reaching the final for a fifth time in eight years has come against even longer odds - the shut down of soccer in Egypt after the June overthrow of President Mohammed Mursi depriving them of regular match practice.

They were allowed to host Champions League games but prohibited by the military authorities from playing in Cairo and banished instead to the Red Sea resort of El Gouna, where the tiny stadium holds just a few thousand spectators.

Security officials were concerned the gathering of supporters would add to the civil unrest but have agreed to the second leg of the final being played in the capital, albeit with a restricted audience.

Al Ahli overcame the same odds to win last year's Champions League when Egypt's domestic competition was shut down for a year because of the Port Said stadium disaster, in which 74 of their supporters were killed.

They have shown a steely resilience and used their vast experience to reach the final again, although a dip in form left them needing to win a penalty shootout to progress from their semi-final tie.

The Egyptians also lost 3-0 at home to the Pirates in the group phase in August, although that match was played in El Gouna's extreme afternoon heat during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

The return match in Soweto in September ended goalless, although the Pirates did squander several good chances and have looked the better side throughout this year's competition.

"We must achieve a positive result in the first leg which will help us in the return leg. We are fully focused on the match," Al Ahli coach Mohamed Youssef said on Thursday, suggesting another draw in the first leg would be the perfect result with a return match at home to come.

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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