Soweto club Orlando Pirates are banking on veteran striker Benni McCarthy to trigger a strong challenge for the 2012 CAF Champions League title.
Pirates are the only South African team to conquer Africa at the highest level, winning the 1995 CAF Champions Cup with a stunning 1-0 victory over hot favourites ASEC Mimosas in Abidjan.
The Ivorians were so confident of success after a 2-2 Johannesburg draw that the government declared the Monday after the return match a public holiday in anticipation of national celebrations. But a Pirates rearguard marshalled by Mark Fish, Gavin Lane and Nigerian goalkeeper Williams Okpara survived a relentless onslaught and Jerry 'Legs of Thunder' Sikhosana grabbed the winner a rare incursion into the ASEC half.
A South African club has reached the final of the premier Pan-African club championship only once since and there was no happy ending second time round as Al Ahly of Egypt floored Mamelodi Sundowns 4-1 overall.
Pirates officials led by hyper-ambitious chairman Irvin Khoza believe the time has come for the country to make its mark on the competition again and Brazilian coach Julio Leal says mid-year signing McCarthy could be the catalyst. "We are counting on Benni in our plans to mount a strong Champions League challenge," said the South American who took over when the contract of former Dutch star Ruud Krol was not renewed despite a domestic treble last season.
"Benni is a footballer of superior quality and capable of bringing an extra dimension to the team. His strengths include holding up the ball, bringing team-mates into play and his scoring ability. There is pressure on him as a high-profile signing, but he is a fighter and a champion He must carry on working to improve his fitness, speed and agility," said the older brother of national team assistant coach Jairo Leal.
McCarthy has his eye on a historic Champions League double having helped Porto outclass Monaco 3-0 in Germany seven years ago to collect a European winners medal.
Pirates are among eight winners of the African title set to compete for a USD1.5 million first prize won by Esperance of Tunisia last month after a tense, two-leg showdown with Wydad Casablanca of Morocco.
Lengthy honour roll
Besides Pirates and Esperance, TP Mazembe and Vita Club from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Al Ahly and Zamalek of Egypt, Raja Casablanca from Morocco and Etoile Sahel of Tunisia have won the greatest African club football prize.
Ahly have claimed a record six titles, Zamalek five and Mazembe four and they appear the teams to beat along with Esperance, who face Al Sadd of Qatar on Sunday in a FIFA Club World Cup quarter-final.
Moghreb Fes of Morocco, winners of the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup last Sunday after a penalty shoot-out with Club Africain of Tunisia, are another team capable of going far.
African football governing body CAF do not reveal the official list of entrants before the mid-December Cairo draw for the three qualifying rounds and not all clubs eligible to compete are likely to do so. There is a USD5.7 million prize pot, but it kicks in only at the group stage by which time just eight clubs remain in contention for the USD1.5 million winners cheque.