Zambian club Zanaco enter the CAF Confederation Cup group phase Saturday confident of becoming the first club south of the equator to lift the trophy.
Teams from Tunisia (three times), Morocco, Ghana and Mali have gone all the way in the second-tier African club competition, which replaced the CAF Cup Winners Cup and CAF Cup six years ago. However, southern African challengers have made little impact on a Cup that produced big-name winners until rank outsiders Stade Malien of Mali defied the odds last December.
Zanaco coach and former Zambia striker Wedson Nyirenda is confident his team can collect the $660,0000 winners cheque after watching them eliminate favoured Enyimba of Nigeria in the final qualifying round this month. The Zambian national commercial bank club built a 4-0 first leg lead against the two-time African champions despite lacking injured leading scorer Makundika Sakala and reached the last-eight stage with two goals to spare on aggregate.
"I believe we have a great chance of winning the African Confederation Cup because our showdown with Enyimba was the real final. I do not believe any other club will stand between us and our dream," boasted Nyirenda. "We are representing not only Zambia but the whole region as the only team from southern Africa still in contention," he told Zambian reporters before heading for Morocco and a Saturday night Group B date with FUS Rabat.
Southern Africa did have a strong presence in play-offs that pitted African Champions League third round losers like Zanaco against eight qualifiers from the knock-out phase of the Confederation Cup. However, Petro Atletico and Primeiro Agosto of Angola, CAPS United of Zimbabwe, Gaborone United of Botswana and SuperSport United of South Africa fell by the wayside.
FUS looked ordinary when edging depleted SuperSport on away goals and the game in Rabat offers Zanaco the best chance of away points with two-time winners CS Sfaxien of Tunisia and Harras al-Hodoud of Egypt to come. The North African sides clash in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria where Hodoud have scored 18 goals in home matches against Banks of Ethiopia, Simba of Tanzania and Gaborone.
Al-Ittihad of Libya and Al-Hilal of Sudan, strongest contenders to secure semi-finals places from Group A, play in Tripoli while giantkillers AS FAN of Niger host Djoliba of Mali in Niamey. Hilal have reached the Champions League semi-finals twice and Ittihad once in recent years, but are bound to be wary of the Niger armed forces club whose victims include 2006 Confederation Cup winners Etoile Shael of Tunisia.
Experienced continental campaigners Djoliba suffered a midweek morale blow when they surrendered the domestic league title to arch rivals Stade Malien after dropping two points in the final round.