The Circus in Lubumbashi
Harare – Orlando Pirates returned to a heroes’ welcome in South Africa this week but the damage inflicted on the profile of the CAF Champions League by the wild events in Lubumbashi on May 5 will be felt for some time to come.
Complaints of biased refereeing, outright corruption and ill-treatment of visiting teams have been part of Africa’s premier inter-club tournament for decades, leading many seasoned observers to question if the competition really produces the best football team of the year.
On May 5 the tournament reached an all-time low in Lubambashi when South African journalists were harassed and their broadcasting equipment confiscated. Pirates’ skipper, Lucky Lekgwathi, was sent off in controversial circumstances and the TP Mazembe were awarded two disputed penalties. The second penalty was given with just two minutes left in regulation time.
Given that this game was a high-profile encounter featuring two former African champions, it hogged the limelight in a Champions League weekend.
And CAF officials will certainly be embarrassed by the way it was staged and handled, with everything done to try and help the host team, only for Pirates to emerge triumphant.
The Soweto giants lost the game 0-1 but having won the first leg 3-1 in Johannesburg, they qualified for the group stages of the tournament with an aggregate 3-2 victory – but not before their hosts and the match officials had done everything possible to deny them a ticket into the last eight.
A second goal for TP Mazembe on May 5 would have given them victory on the away goals rule; but twice the Congolese giants missed controversially awarded penalty kicks with Pirates’ ‘keeper Senzo Meyiwa emerging the hero.
The events in Lubumbashi will once again throw the spotlight on the gamesmanship that goes on in the CAF inter-club competitions, something that the leadership of Issa Hayatou has failed to manage and will give justification to those sides that have chosen not to be part of this circus.
South African giants Kaizer Chiefs are one such club and even though Amakhosi are favoured to win the domestic league championship for the first time in eight years, they have already declared they will not take part in the Champions League in 2013-14.
Recently, TP Mazembe were booted out of the Champions League, for using an ineligible player, while Egyptian referees claimed – after handling a tie in Lubumbashi two years ago – that the hosts had tried to bribe them with US$10 000 payouts.
There was in uproar in Zimbabwe when Dynamos were given a lavish banquet in Lubumbashi three years ago, after losing a Champions League tie against TP Mazembe. More shockingly, TP gave them a huge amount of money to “cover their expenses”.
After the way his team were treated in Lubumbashi, both on and off the field, Pirates’ coach Roger De Sa said he felt like walking away from football for good.
“I feel a bit like Rambo this morning. We expected trouble but nothing like that. I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about it. All the things that happened. What they tried to do to us,” De Sa told the South African media.
“In the end it’s not about football when you see the way TP Mazembe handled themselves. To be honest, I feel like walking away from the game. If somebody called me and offered me a job outside football I’d take it.
“But then you calm down, and you realise the national pride in our result. Look, what these people did is bad for the game, it’s bad for Africa.
“The intimidation, the officials, the way we were treated. It’s disgusting. Still, we’re through. There must have been a stronger force at work for that to happen.”
The Pirates’ coach told his players they were likely to see things they had never seen before in a football game – and his dire prediction came true.
“I warned the players what would happen. When we got to the ground, it was filled to capacity. They’ve built a great stadium, a huge fan base – so we walked on the pitch in our suits and we absorbed the crowd,” said De Sa.
“They walked around, they sang. We felt no fear. I showed the lads videos of what has gone on in games like this before. We were prepared for it.
“But then, when you have referees and officials like that, I mean what can you do? Their first plan was to send off our captain. Then the penalties. Senzo Meyiwa was heroic. We were one goal away from going out.
“What do you do about it? They stopped all coverage of the game on television and radio. They took away the mobile phones so nobody could say anything. In the end the referee’s decision is final and we have nothing to show CAF or FIFA.
“We’ve known about this kind of thing for years. I just find it unbelievable things like this can happen. Some people there actually think it’s right to do these things, to win at all costs.
“It can’t be right. But we gradually built up to this. To be honest when we went to Zambia in the last round there were signs of it. Now we go to the group stages, and we’ll soldier on.”
SABC, who sent a television crew hoping to screen the game live at a cost of R2 million, found themselves stranded after their equipment was confiscated and the mobile phones of their journalists taken away by security staff.
Thomas Mlambo, who was anchoring the SABC sports programme that was meant to culminate in the live coverage of the Pirates’ game, was left stranded in his studio in Johannesburg, with his Congolese guest, as events unfolded in Lubumbashi.
TP Mazembe’s wealthy owner, Moise Katumbi Chapwe, had two weeks prior to this game been hosted by Pirates’ chairman Irvin Khoza at his home in Johannesburg and the 2010 FIFA World Cup organising committee chairman promised his men that they would be free in Lubumbashi.
As millions of SABC viewers watched, in disbelief, Mlambo contacted Pirates’ administrative team manager, Senzo Mazingiza, who was in Lubumbashi and he gave a shocking account.
“I’m sitting in a box, I am not allowed out, I have no access to the dressing rooms or anywhere else. But I’ll try to keep you up to date,” he said.
“Our captain Lucky Lekgwathi has been sent off.” Mlambo’s guest on the show was Chris Bongo and he was also trying his best to get as much information as possible from his Congolese colleagues.
“A DR Congo journalist has told me the cards against Pirates were disputable. The two penalties were harsh. But the goal TP Mazembe scored was good,” said Bongo.
“I can also tell you nobody has received a TP Mazembe team list.”
Pirates’ ‘keeper Meyiwa, the hero of the day, said at some point it ceased to be a football game.
“It wasn’t a game, it was a war. We knew after a few minutes we were in for it. A lot of decisions were going against us but we were prepared for that,” said Meyiwa.
TP Mazembe said on their official website that Pirates needed a miracle to survive, and they got one.
“The year 2013 will not be a great year in the history book of TP Mazembe,” the club said on its English website.
“Mazembe can only blame themselves because at this level you cannot miss two penalties without being punished. The punishment is that the TPM will not play the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2013. We’ve got to accept.”