African elite primed for long road to glory
© AFP

There are only three countries in the world completely surrounded by another single state, bereft of any coastline or other access to the world but through their all-smothering neighbour. In Europe both San Marino and the Vatican City are completely surrounded by Italy, and in Africa, the small mountain kingdom of Lesotho is bordered on all fronts by South Africa.

The claustrophobic influence means that when a Basotho side is drawn against a South African team in continental club competition, it is invariably a lopsided match. With the huge population difference, past results have been one-sided, and the South African clubs have advanced to the next round in all nine previous two-legged ties. But the Basotho continue to determinedly set aside any reverence and will again strive for a giant killing act this weekend, at the start of the 2011 edition of the CAF Champions League.

This time Lesotho champions Matlama will face their South African counterparts SuperSport United in one of 23 first round, first leg ties across the continent. For Matlama, there is little to lose, but for an ailing SuperSport there is the terrifying danger of a hugely embarrassing exit, to go with their faltering league form this season. The two meet in Polokwane, one of last year’s FIFA World Cup™ venues, on Sunday in their first clash with Matlama dreaming big, even if aware of the challenge ahead of them.

In football money does not always equate to success. We have a good squad of players.
Coach Mahoa Matete of Matlama ahead of the first leg with SuperSport

“South African sides have had an edge over us in the past because of the financial muscle that the country's football has,” said Matlama’s coach Mahoa Matete. “It gives them an edge, we cannot deny that. But in football money does not always equate to success. We have a good squad of players, some who can probably be categorised as 'over the hill', others who are in their prime and then a good batch of youngsters. We will produce a fight.”

It has the potential to be a difficult tie for SuperSport, who have not made it past the preliminary rounds of the last two editions of the CAF Champions League and likely have their last chance for a while because their hopes of winning a fourth successive South African premier league title, and thereby qualifying for next year’s edition, look remote.

Sputtering giants look to get well
Poor performance in recent competitions by South African sides has seen them lose their right to have two entries in the Champions League. Only the top 12 countries on the Confederation of African Football’s table of performance, calculated on the results of the last five years, gain an extra entry and South Africa have fallen down to 14th place.

The only way to fight back up the table is for SuperSport to at least reach the last eight of this year’s competition, but their own form in domestic competition over the last six months has borne little resemblance to the all-conquering team they produced over the previous three seasons.

They are not alone in coming in to the Champions League with a strong reputation but erratic performances. Senegal’s Diaraf Dakar, Enyimba and Kano Pillars of Nigeria and even former continental champions Wydad Casablanca have had a difficult run of months and based on their form could face the potential of an embarrassingly early exit. Traditionally the opening round provides the penchant for upset and gives the representatives of some of the continent’s lower ranked countries a rare chance in the spotlight.

The giant-killing opportunity is not lost on the likes of Kenya’s Ulinzi Stars, who will host Egyptian giants Zamalek over the weekend. “On the pitch it will be 11 against 11, so we cannot be cowed," said their coach Benjamin Nyangweso. “On Saturday, we will go for nothing less than a win, and then hope for a draw when we travel to Cairo for the return leg.”

First round, first leg fixtures
ASFAN (Niger) - Jeunesse Club (Côte d’Ivoire)
Saint Michel Ouenze (Congo) - Enyimba (Nigeria)
US Bitam (Gabon) - Astres Douala (Cameroon)
Real Bangui (Central African Republic) - Mouloudia Alger (Algeria)
InterClube (Angola) - Township Rollers (Botswana)
East End Lions (Sierra Leone) - Djoliba (Mali)
ASC Diaraf Dakar (Senegal) - Gambia Ports Authority (Gambia)
ASPAC FC (Benin) - Deportivo Mongomo (Equatorial Guinea)
ASEC Mimosas (Côte d’Ivoire) - ASC SNIM (Mauritania)
Motor Action (Zimbabwe) - Cnaps Sport (Madagascar)
Raja Casablanca (Morocco) - Tourbillon (Chad)
Ulinzi Stars (Kenya) - Zamalek (Egypt)
APR FC (Rwanda) - Club Africain (Tunisia)
Recreativo Caala (Angola) - Saint George (Ethiopia)
Mitsoudje (Comoros Islands) - Simba SC (Tanzania)
Mighty Barolle (Liberia) - Kano Pillars (Nigeria)
Wydad Casablanca (Morocco) - Aduana Stars (Ghana)
Fello Star Labe (Guinea) - ASFA Yennega (Burkina Faso)
Vital’O (Burundi) - CotonSport Garoua (Cameroon)
Ocean View (Zanzibar) - AS Vita Club (DR Congo)
SuperSport United (South Africa) - Matlama (Lesotho)
Young Buffaloes (Swaziland) - St Michel United (Seychelles)
Zesco United (Zambia) - Liga Muculmana (Mozambique)

The return legs will be played on the weekend of 11-13 February. The following teams received byes into next round of the competition: E.S. Setif (Algeria), Al Ahly (Egypt), Ittihad (Libya), Stade Malien (Mali), TP Mazembe (DR Congo), Hilal and Merrikh (both Sudan), Esperance (Tunisia) and Dynamos (Zimbabwe).