JOHANNESBURG: Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa set out Saturday (Sunday in Manila) in Pretoria to try and move closer to completing a remarkable journey to the summit of African club football.
The CAF Champions League final against five-time title-holders Zamalek of Egypt will be fought over two legs with the return match on October 23 in Mediterranean city Alexandria.
At stake is a $1.5 million (1.36 million euros) first prize and a place at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan during December.
But the prospect of facing Real Madrid superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale was the last thing on the minds of the Sundowns squad and staff a few months ago.
The expensively assembled, multi-national South African team was eliminated from the competition this year by V Club of the Democratic Republic of Congo after the final qualifying round.
Demoted to the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup, Sundowns lost a play-off against Medeama of Ghana to heighten their disappointment.
Freed of African commitments and with the domestic season over, the players planned holidays and coach Pitso Mosimane arranged to visit the United States and watch the centenary Copa America.
Just hours before the Champions League group draw was made in Cairo, however, a dramatic story broke: V Club had been disqualified and Sundowns reinstated.
The Congolese were given the boot after a never-revealed source informed the organisers that the Kinshasa club fielded a player serving a suspension in earlier qualifiers.
There was more disappointment for Sundowns, though, when a surprise 2-0 matchday 1 win over Entente Setif in Algeria was declared null and void and Setif disqualified over crowd trouble.
Unflustered, the Pretoria outfit beat Enyimba of Nigeria at home and Zamalek home and away to clinch a semi-finals place with a match to spare in a mini-league reduced to three teams.
Sundowns also shrugged off a semifinals, first leg loss at ZESCO United of Zambia, winning the return match with an early goal from Liberian Anthony Laffor setting the tone for a dominant showing.
“We hope to become the Denmark of Africa,” coach and former South Africa striker Pitso Mosimane told reporters.
“They were eliminated from the 1992 European Championship at the qualifying stage only to be reinstated when Yugoslavia were disqualified.
“Despite being underprepared with many players having to be recalled from holidays, Denmark went on to beat Germany 2-0 in the finals.”
Mosimane conceded that not having a mid-year break caught up with his team recently when they slumped 3-0 in a domestic cup finals after falling behind 35 seconds into the first half.
Apart from injured Colombian striker Leonardo Castro, Mosimane can choose from a full strength squad.
The likely ‘spine’ consists of Uganda goalkeeper Denis Onyango, center-backs Thabo Nthethe and Wayne Arendse, midfielder and captain Hlompho Kekana and Zimbabwe striker Khama Billiat.
While Sundowns finished runners-up 15 years ago in their only previous Champions League final appearance, Zamalek have reached six and won five between 1984 and 2002.
They qualified by winning a remarkable semi-final in which they built a 4-0 first-leg lead over Wydad Casablanca of Morocco only to lose 5-2 away.
Trailing by four goals in the second leg with eight minutes left, Zamalek were indebted to recent signing Stanley Ohawuchi for a breakaway goal that finally ended a brave Wydad fightback.