Legs of Thunders
The redemption of Jerry Sikhosana and Orlando Pirates' Champions League glory
It is assumed in South African football that an ambitious, talented young player will aspire to play for one of the traditional heavyweight clubs. In the early 1990s, as the National Soccer League (NSL) title shifted back and forth between Kaizer Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns and, after a pause, to Orlando Pirates, everybody recognised the hierarchy. To move upwards was to join the ‘Glamour Boys’, the ‘Brazilians’ or the ‘Buccaneers’.
Jerry Sikhosana took a contrary view. At 25, he was approaching the peak of his powers as a muscular centre-forward, nimble on the turn and with a ferocious finish. He had come to appreciate his leader’s role in a tight community, the devotion of supporters. As old South Africa turned into New South Africa, Sikhosana felt very much at home at Witbank Aces, mid-table but ambitious, in a team where he, as he puts it, “was part of the clan”.
Word reached him that Pirates, on their way to the 1994 league title, had it in mind that he might be a useful addition to their forward line. Sikhosana shrugged the notion off as idle gossip, a whim based on his having scored – in his words – a “cracker of a goal against them” in his home territory, Tembisa. He was genuinely taken aback when, early the following year, it seemed not only had the so-called People’s Club targeted Sikhosana, but also that their people would make it happen whether he liked it or not.
Sikhosana tells the story of his transfer from Aces to Pirates as a velvet-gloved abduction. “It was the January of ’95, I think,” he recalls, “and I got caught by surprise at my mother’s house in Tembisa. I was heading off to training with Aces, waiting for the kombi to come pick us up, and my mother asked: ‘Where are you going? You know there is a car with a Pirates slogan on it looking for you outside.’”
The swanky car, with its skull-and- crossbones logo, drew attention. “In my township, a few people had seen this nice Pirates car with all the branding. So they were coming out towards my yard. Everybody was surprised. At first, I thought: ‘What are these people here for?’” He quickly had his answer. “Jerry, I’m here to pick you up,” the driver explained. “The chairman, Irvin Khoza, is waiting for us at the office.”
And that was that, a done deal, which was the way things still worked at the tail end of an era in professional football when the professional footballer could still be one of the last to know he had been headhunted. Barely had Sikhosana started to say, “No, I’m going to training with Aces,” than the messenger from chairman Khoza was telling him, “Don’t worry, that’s been sorted. You’re now a Pirates player.” It was a fait accompli, confirmed by a call to the Aces office in Witbank.
Sikhosana did feel persuaded that he was extending his horizons after Khoza sat down with him and outlined his plans to restore Pirates – a fabled, enduring institution in the country’s favourite sport – to the summit of the domestic game. The pay was okay, by the lower standards of the era, and Pirates had just won their first league title for a long while. The attacking thrust of a side whose strengths were in defence, the chairman said, would be all the better with Jerry ‘Legs of Thunder’ Sikhosana on board.
What Khoza could not promise was how far Pirates might go in the brave new world into which South African football was tentatively stepping following the country’s readmission into Fifa. The 1994 league triumph meant Pirates entering the African Champions Cup, a prestigious competition full of long, arduous journeys, hostile away grounds and, for the South African newcomers, all sorts of mysteries.
Truth is, Sikhosana turned his thoughts to the here and now, to establishing his place in a strong Pirates first XI, and winning over a vast and sometimes unforgiving constituency of fans, aka ‘The Ghost’. Adventures across Africa would have to wait, because he had joined Pirates too late to register on their roster with CAF, the Confederation of African Football, for the early rounds of the Champions Cup. About those he would simply have to hear the stories, told in captivating detail, from his new teammates; among them Gavin Lane, the straight-backed, barrel-chested central defender from Boksburg, whose sobriquet among Pirates fans still makes Sikhosana smile, 25 years after he first heard it. Lane will forever be Gavin ‘Stability Unit’ Lane to the Ghost, a sign- of-the-times nickname that Sikhosana sometimes finds he has to explain to millennials. A Stability Unit was a fortified vehicle, manned by armed police or army personnel, a menace-on-wheels in the hotspots of inflamed ’80s and ’90s South Africa. “Here you have Gavin, a white person with his big chest,” says Sikhosana, “and, you know, when a big white man comes in the township, it’s with the Stability Unit. You know this guy comes here meaning business, and we get scared.”
Lane laughed at the nickname. He took it as a compliment, a badge of his belonging as a Pirates player – a popular and a key figure in a Buccaneers side who had not been an especially buccaneering set of NSL winners but knew how to protect their goal.
They were a diverse crew. Khoza, who assumed control of the club only two years earlier, had assembled much of his squad scouring for footballers with potential yet to be explored. Lane, who had served in the South African Air Force during his conscription, was combining his sport with a job in sales when he first joined Pirates, in his mid-twenties. The elegant winger Helman ‘Midnight Express’ Mkhalele and the young defender Mark Fish had been scooped away from recently relegated Jomo Cosmos. The midfielder John Moeti came from Dynamos, also demoted from the top division, as did the striker Marks Maponyane, once an idol of Kaizer Chiefs and deemed, perhaps, to be a year or two beyond his illustrious peak.
There was also Willy Okpara, the Nigerian goalkeeper, who would become one of the most admired foreign footballers in the mosaic of the South African club game. There was speed and strength at full-back in Oupa Mabuza, Phiri Tsotetsi and Edward ‘Magents’ Motale. There were complementary skills in the heart of the back four, and Lane or Bernard ‘Shooz’ Lushozi were the secure backstops to the intrepid Fish, a dynamic 21-year-old with a taste for decorative sideburns, unscheduled forays up the pitch and, occasionally, safaris a little too deep into Johannesburg’s nightlife.
At the beginning of 1995, Khoza and the Pirates players regarded the defence of their league title as a priority. But the prospect of representing a newly democratic South Africa in the most elite competition on offer to them was intriguing. The African Champions Cup presents physical, logistical and climatic demands far beyond those of its equivalents in, say, Europe or South America. A two-legged tie might mean one in which 90 minutes could be played in snow-flecked winter in Algiers and the next 90 in baking Windhoek. As for getting from one corner of the continent to the other swiftly, well, Pirates were to discover that there was no such thing as a straight line by aeroplane from south to west.
For the clubs of the southern tip, the bar was also set low. The Zambian team Nkana Red Devils had reached the Champions Cup final in 1990, but they looked like freakish outliers. Sundowns and Chiefs had both crashed out before the quarter-finals in the two years since South Africa’s readmission to Fifa. The Champions Cup roll of honour spelled out precisely what the national team, Bafana Bafana, had learned of its debut expeditions north: Africa’s real power base spread across the Arabic-speaking north and to the west of the continent. In its 30 years of existence, there had been no African club champion from anywhere further south than Kinshasa; in the decade to 1995, the cup had been the exclusive preserve of clubs from the Mediterranean, from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria.
Pirates had been granted a gentle enough introduction in the regionalised first round, against Eleven Men in Flight, holders of the Swaziland league title. The trip over the border reminded Pirates that, novices though they were in Africa’s pre-eminent cup, theirs is a club with an aura; its long, storied past carrying Pirates’ fame well beyond Orlando or Soweto or South Africa. Peering out of the windows of the team bus, Lane thought: “There are more Pirates fans here than Eleven Men in Flight fans.” Many were Swazis. The atmosphere scarcely intimidated, with the Mbabane chapter of the Ghost in good voice at a picturesque venue, rolling hills as its backdrop. Pirates strolled, the young, lively striker Bruce Ramokadi scoring twice and Motale adding a third goal. Eleven Men in Flight had been all but grounded, with the Johannesburg leg still to come.
In that second leg, in late March, they would be drenched, Pirates finishing off a 5–0 aggregate rout under a Highveld rainstorm, their two home goals featuring one trademark: the startling transformation of Stability Unit into Penalty Box Predator. Lane opened the scoring, sliding through the rain to score his first pan-African goal. Maponyane, 34, also rolled back the years with his first Champions Cup goal, a minute from full-time.
The preludes completed, Pirates prepared for the longer haul. Surveying the last 16 of the competition, they saw plenty to provoke trepidation. There were some middleweights left, but what might look like a more straightforward opponent in terms of pedigree – the champions of Mauritius, perhaps, or of the island of Réunion – would mean a lengthy trip. Ismaily were the strong Egyptian league’s flag-bearers, while Espérance of Tunis, the title-holders, were still in too, as well as a formidable range of West African clubs. When
the draw was announced, it was not greeted with glee: Pirates would have to travel to Nigeria to play the Gboko club BCC Lions.
Okpara, the sage between the sticks, offered wise counsel: be very wary. He had been away from the Nigerian league for some years, but knew the stadium Pirates would be playing at as well as some of their individual opponents. Scouting opportunities, in a pre-digital age, were limited and, as Lane remembers, the Pirates players were acutely aware of how unworldly they were. “There was nobody saying: ‘This is who we are playing, the striker is good, they tend to attack strongly down the left’ or anything like that. No one knew what to expect. It was all new, even having to get vaccinations and stuff – some of the okes were shit scared of needles, so they said they’d had the jabs already.”
The 90 minutes of the away leg in Benue State, eastern Nigeria, turned out to take the better part of a week, there and back. On the way, a stop-off in Harare, then Douala, Cameroon – “boiling hot,” remembers Lane – and then a very long, draining night in Lagos. First, the case of the missing case. “We landed and they said they couldn’t find our big trommel, the trunk where we kept all our bags and kit, so we sat at the airport until what must’ve been midnight,” says Lane. “And we had to fly out and play the next day.”
These irritants come with the territory, but are always laced with the suspicion that lost luggage or broken air conditioning or faulty hotel plumbing are all part of a plan to demoralise and exhaust visitors for the benefit of the home team. As it turned out, the missing trommel was merely a taster.
Overnight in Lagos, Lane recalls that his sleep was disturbed by a knock on the door of his hotel room. “Someone offering you toilet paper! Then I’m learning these guys are just here to make kak for us! Next morning we get ready to fly north from Lagos, and the driver of a dilapidated bus, windows missing, suddenly says, ‘Oh, there’s no petrol!’ Next thing: the flight we’re supposed to be on, we can’t get on.” With a matter of hours left until kick-off in a city some 800km from Lagos, the Pirates players and coach Mike Makaab found themselves on an airport runway sheltering from the sun shimmering off the tarmac, beneath the wing of an aeroplane, waiting.
As it happened, they reached the lair of BCC Lions with what turned out to be more than enough time. The fixture, they learned on arrival, had been postponed for 24 hours to make way for a political rally to be addressed by the wife of Nigerian President General Sani Abacha. “What the hell?” thought
Lane, with a powerful sense that all the kerfuffle had left him both weary and very, very thirsty. “We had had a long day, we needed to relax,” says Lane, “so I needed a beer to calm down.
“I have to admit I like my beer, and in those days I always turned to Eddie Motale and Mark Fish.” After Okpara had pointed the three musketeers in the right direction, a bar was found, bottles cracked open, and the mood lightened. Lane quietly promised himself that however long this cup run lasted, wherever it ended up taking Pirates, he would always find somewhere, after a long day’s sweat, where a man could grab a cold beer.
The pitch for BCC Lions versus Pirates seemed dry and uneven. Not surprisingly, the hosts had it mastered, taking an early lead. But Pirates weathered the setback and, come the second half, Okpara saved a penalty and, launching a counter-attack, set up the handy away goal that would embolden the South African champions. It had been scored by Ramokadi, enhancing his growing reputation and presenting Makaab with some genuine dilemmas about Pirates’ best options in attack in a squad that included Maponyane, plus the experienced target man Marc Batchelor and now with the effective Sikhosana ready to be registered in the Champions Cup if they could make the next round.
Or, indeed, if they ever got home. All the delays in Nigeria meant that the expedition turned into something of an odyssey. A scheduled return flight via Addis Ababa was missed, so the party flew via London, where a two-night stop-over allowed a trip to Highbury Stadium, an evening sojourn in Soho, meals out and a touchdown in Johannesburg a full seven days after the team had initially set off for Lagos. On such extended adventures bonds are formed, friendships enriched, and relationships built. “We became a close- knit group,” says Lane.
That counted for a good deal. In the course of the campaign, Pirates’ senior players learned that the most dependable leadership would have to come from within their band of musketeers. The management of Pirates had its idiosyncrasies. At the top, the ‘Iron Duke’, as Khoza was known. Beneath him, a more mercurial structure. Makaab’s run as head coach was shortly to come to an end. In the following seven months, two individuals, the veteran Joe Frickleton, and longer-serving deputy, Ronald Mkandawire, would assume the role.
The players took a sanguine view of coaches coming and going. “One day Mike was there, then not. So you come to training and you ask: ‘Mike Makaab, why’s he gone?’” says Lane. “Someone tells you, ‘It’s politics.’ Next thing you know Joe arrives, then, oh, Ronald is now the head coach. You just carry on. It’s strange, but in the nucleus of the squad, we all knew each other well.”
What they knew expertly was how to close up when they had a lead. Once Brandon ‘Sgcebhezane’ Silent, a midfielder appreciated for his precise passing and his knack with a dead ball, had scored after five minutes of the Johannesburg leg against BCC Lions, Pirates had all but confirmed their place in the quarter-finals. At which point, enter the new centre-forward, a big cannon to fire the competition’s freshmen boldly through the last eight of Africa’s elite. Jerry Sikhosana was now eligible to play in the Champions Cup, following his spiriting away from Witbank Aces and, at practice and in domestic run-outs, now knew he could thrive in this company. At the same time, there were moments when he felt like the outsider, a threat to the hierarchy of forwards.
He felt it strongly in Gabon, where Pirates, pleased to have avoided the holders Espérance and Ismaily in the draw for the quarters, were obliged to go next, to play Mbilinga. Another logistical ordeal? Quite the opposite. They found their accommodation in coastal Libreville most agreeable. Fish and Motale, the big buddies of the back four, even hired surfboards.
Sikhosana and Ramokadi, the strutting strikers, meanwhile duelled. “Bruce and I had a little bit of a confrontation,” remembers Sikhosana, “with a bit of swearing. It had to do with tactics; he had been playing with the team in Africa and I had come in late, chosen ahead of him. Differences, you know, not too personal, just me as an elder saying, ‘I’m older than you and I’m the first choice over you, even if I might not have the experience of playing against these teams.’”
Frickleton, having replaced Makaab, had other issues to deal with. Mbilinga, on a well-manicured playing surface, took the lead after 10 minutes. Pirates were on the back foot. Sikhosana went into a challenge and emerged with his lip bloodied and, irate, pointed out to the referee the gory evidence of what he thought was an infringement. “I had got an elbow to my mouth and, to be honest, it was a wake-up call. In these games in Africa, you were up against strong defenders, with huge muscles. You need to be physically strong as a striker. So here I am bleeding, and I go to the referee, who is supposed to protect me.” Sikhosana then heard the match official tell him bluntly: “Blood? So what? Drink it.”
It was a rite of passage, for the player and for Pirates. “That’s where I got the courage to say to myself: ‘Look, I’m not in South Africa. This is a different environment where you need to have guts and you have to be arrogant.’ But I did not play well and the team as a whole did not play well.” Maponyane, the elder of the elders, did steal an equaliser, but, late in the game, Mbilinga earned themselves a 2-1 lead to take south a fortnight later.
Pirates’ answer to that would be emphatic. At home, galvanised, and swashbuckling at times, they won the second leg against the Gabonese 3–0. Mkhalele and Silent scored a goal each, with Sikhosana putting the tie beyond argument in the last minute. Up the Bucs! They had progressed further in Africa’s elite competition than any South African club ever had, thanks to ‘Midnight Express’, to ‘Sgcebhezane’ and to ‘Legs of Thunder’.
“We used to live by these nicknames,” says Sikhosana. “I got mine because of the power, the aggression, the way I used to run. It was how people used to classify me, galloping like a horse, turning like I had a tail, so they used to say, and the thunder when I hit the ball. ‘Legs of Thunder’: it was a whole mixture. Then you had Eddie ‘Magents’ Motale, and Helman was ‘Midnight Express’ because of the way he bolted. Brandon was ‘Sgcebhezane’ because of his stature and the way he ran: sgcebhezane were little skirts people wore.”
The Sgcebhezane strike that turned that quarter-final was as spectacular as any in the campaign, a missile launched from outside the opposition penalty area. Sikhosana was on a roll too. Quietly, Pirates began to believe in the possibility of making the final. The draw for the last four steered them clear of Ismaily and Côte d’Ivoire’s admired ASEC Mimosas; they would meet Express, from Uganda, with the first leg in Johannesburg, where they extended their inviolable home record with another clean sheet and won 1-0 via a well-taken Sikhosana goal.
They flew to Kampala with that narrow advantage but scant clues about what to expect. Something entirely unexpected was waiting for Mkhalele, a startling incident in which what he believes was a smattering of high-grade itching powder was flicked on him as he emerged from beneath the spectators at the Nakivubo Stadium in the Ugandan capital. A gradually increasing pain over his back affected his focus. For the rest, the attacks on concentration had, Pirates felt, been sustained from the moment they touched down, from the all-night racket of Express supporters outside their hotel the night before the second leg to the echoey beats of drums improvised from plastic petrol barrels in the arena.
The volume increased as Express, nimble going forward, piled on the pressure right from kick-off. Pirates absorbed it, their posture defensive, conservative. The itchy Mkhalele had been moved into a central striking position, as sidekick to Sikhosana, rather than on the wing. It meant that there was little outlet besides the long ball through the middle, and once the Express substitute, Andrew Arinaitwe, had roused the drummers with a goal from his first touch with less than half an hour of the tie remaining, some Pirates’ minds turned to a possible penalty shootout. The aggregate score stood at 1–1, the tie-breaker via spot kicks coming into play if it remained that way on 90 minutes.
To the rescue came an old Pirates ally: the set-piece. A corner, met by Fish, had already given Pirates their best opportunity of the first half, Motale miscuing his shot. With 89 minutes on the clock, Pirates won a free-kick, a little way into the Express half. Innocent Mncwango, who had a metronome of a right foot, arched it towards the near post, towards the well-rehearsed runs of Fish and Lane. “A lot of the guys were good on free-kicks,” recalls Lane, “and with this one I saw Fishy at the other side of the post, wide open. But I headed it first, at the near post, and it just slid under the arm of the keeper.” At which, the drumming ceased, and the loudest sound in Kampala was from Fish, screaming, “Gavin Lane! Gavin Lane!” as the Pirates players and coaching staff sprinted after the goalscorer, his victory run taking him hurtling from one side of the pitch to the other. With that goal, Pirates, flag-bearers for a nation outlawed in African football through the apartheid years, had reached the Champions Cup final at their first attempt.
On the banks of Ébrié lagoon in Cocody, Abidjan, the news was greeted with mild curiosity. ASEC Mimosas, the dominant club of Côte d’Ivoire and nursery of several of the players who had three years earlier won the African Cup of Nations, would be Pirates’ last barrier to gold medals, and at their bucolic headquarters they knew they were obliged to be regarded as favourites. The Bucs scraped their way past Express of Uganda; the heavyweight semi-final had meanwhile been played out in West and North Africa. Ismaily had won the first leg 1–0; what happened to them in Abidjan, though, looked very ominous indeed. ASEC thrashed the Egyptians 5–1.
And ASEC were rising. Roger Ouegnin, the urbane president of the club, looks back on the mid-90s as a breakthrough time. It was then that the club established the academy that, for a period in the new millennium, would be funnelling superstars to the highest echelons of the sport in numbers comparable to, say, Barcelona, or Manchester United. By the time the seniors reached the 1995 Champions Cup final, they were nurturing teenage up-and-comers such as Kolo Touré, his brother Yaya soon to follow him there, and dozens more who would go on to play at several World Cups with Côte d’Ivoire and in the garlanded clubs of Europe. Nine ASEC men had triumphed with Côte d’Ivoire at the last Nations Cup, including the powerful goalscorer Abdoulaye Traoré, but one, the attacking midfielder Donald Sié, had techniques with a dead ball that even the set-piece specialists of Orlando watched wide- eyed. Sié had finessed the art of scoring directly from corners. “In 1995, we were going from strength to strength,” says Ouegnin, “and then along came Pirates.”
Along came Pirates with their dramatic tales of intimidating conditions abroad. But they had their own fierce accompaniment, too. The Ghost turned up in numbers for the first leg of the final, staged at Soccer City, and a section of them tossed projectiles, including bottles, at ASEC fans, who had voyaged south dressed in their bright yellow paraphernalia, colours faintly reminiscent of Kaizer Chiefs. The match was held up for security officers to restore an uneasy peace. It was not the best start to the showpiece final. On the pitch, Pirates had made a spectacular start, Mkhalele, snake-hipped and agile, combining with Sikhosana to cut in, left to right, and putting the underdogs ahead after five minutes. Then the wheels came off, the mood around the stadium shifting to menace. Mkhalele squandered a chance for a second goal. John Zaki, ASEC’s Nigeria international forward, equalised, invited to pounce on a frail back pass by Tsotetsi. Just after the half-hour, Sié took his magic wand to a corner kick and the Bucs were 2-1 behind.
It got worse before the recovery. Mncwango, captaining the team, was sent off by the Congolese referee Omer Yengo for an apparent stamp on an opponent. The decision agitated the crowd, delaying the restart.
The Ghost was certainly soothed by what happened next. Many would also have foreseen it: a corner, a cross to the back post, an airborne Stability Unit. They knew the drill. Lane headed in his third goal of the competition, and Pirates – down to 10 men for the remainder of a tense encounter – held on to their 2-2 lifeline, frayed though it was. They could all see that the ASEC players were buoyant about their two away goals, knowing they would count double in the event of a stalemate or a 1-1 draw in the second leg, two weeks later. Pirates were fined by CAF for the disorder, with Mncwango banned for the second leg. An injury sustained by his fellow midfielder Moeti was a deep concern. To add to this catalogue, as they made plans for the return leg in Abidjan the head coach, Frickleton, was relieved of his duties. Midway through the most important tie in the club’s history, Mkandawire again stepped in as caretaker coach.
All of this added to the gloom of the club’s best centre-forward. Sikhosana had left Soccer City after the first leg, weaving through the traffic of grumpy Pirates supporters and fearful Ivorians, in a mood of pure thunder. He had set up one goal and won the corner that led to another, but he wanted to have made a greater impact. Lane’s battle cry during the game – “Are you guys going to be sissies up front, while we’re working hard at the back?” – still lingered in his head, the taunts from the crowd also ringing in his ears. “I could hear them booing me and when I came towards the tunnel they were shouting, ‘Uyasidlisa’, ‘It’s you making us lose!’ They were shouting, ‘You were brought to Pirates to score goals, you know!’”
The journey home brought no respite. “I had a friend and my wife in my car, and we were listening to this radio. People were calling in as I drove, saying, ‘Yeah, it’s because of Jerry Sikhosana. He’s selfish. He’s a bit arrogant.’ That disturbed me. Actually, it angered me, big time. I had tried my utmost. So we switched off the radio. The next day, I stayed home. And I read the newspapers saying we were doomed, and that Jerry Sikhosana was at fault.” Sikhosana spent several days in what he calls a “big introspection”. It was a largely private one. He missed training sessions, felt even more miffed at the sacking of Frickleton, went to see old friends in Tembisa, to where Pirates dispatched an emissary, just as they had at the beginning of the year to recruit him. But Sikhosana had begun to resign himself to the fact that he would not be going to Abidjan for the second leg. Enter Khoza. “I had a call from the chairman, who promised me that he would be travelling with the team and everything was going to be cool. He said, ‘Jerry, please don’t let your teammates down, because they feel like you have abandoned them.’”
That struck a chord. With cliffhanger drama, Sikhosana arrived late for check- in for the flight to Abidjan. By the time he boarded, most of the Pirates squad were in their seats. They greeted Legs of Thunder with a collective cheer as he walked down the aisle of the aircraft, but also gave him his space. He might, they knew, turn grizzly. “When I’m angry and they know I’m pissed off,” says Sikhosana, “even the likes of Gavin Lane wouldn’t want to come too close.”
Even before the Pirates team bus had passed under the ornate, sculpted elephant tusks that form the entrance to Abidjan Airport, they had heard what the score in the second leg of the Champions Cup final was to be dozens of times. “People were hammering the sides of our bus and they kept saying, ‘Pirates nil, Mimosas five!’” recalls Lane. When they reached their hotel, they were instantly spooked. A swarm of bats circled and screeched at low altitude while a storm brewed at reception. The Pirates delegation, led by Khoza, had inspected the premises and decided this was not where the players should spend their nights. After some delay, rooms for the whole party were found in a superior establishment.
The good news was that Sikhosana had begun to recover from his angst, responding to the solemn, brink-of- greatness tone of the team talks. “Irvin Khoza kept on reminding us that this meant a lot not just for Orlando Pirates, not just for South Africa, but for the whole of southern Africa,” remembers Sikhosana. “I trained well, but the night before the game, the night of Friday December 15, was still a long night.”
The weight of the challenge hit Pirates as they neared the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium. “It still gives me goosebumps,” says Lane.
“People had started going in at nine or 10 in the morning,” Sikhosana says. “We got there two hours before kick-off, and it was vibrating.” Then he spotted the ASEC players. “You could see the facial expression on these guys and how serious they were. But what an experience. It was one of the toughest games I have ever had in my life.”
Sikhosana reflects that he touched the ball no more than four or five times in the entire first half. Lane recalls “one-way traffic”, Pirates hemmed in, facing “an onslaught”. ASEC were stymied only by the feline agility of the outstanding Okpara, the resolution of Motale, Tsotetsi, Fish and Lane, and Moeti staving off the discomforts of his injury to supplement an overworked defence. Traoré put a header over the crossbar with four minutes gone, one of a series of opportunities for the Ivorian striker, while again and again Pirates’ blocks and clearances offered Sié the chance to test them in the air with his boomerang corners. Just once in the opening 45 minutes did Pirates, the team who needed to score to claim the cup, even glimpse the possibility of a goal, Vincent Sokhela holding off challenges to shoot, but without troubling the ASEC goalkeeper Seydou Diarra.
It was exhausting. It could have turned dispiriting. “But we were fighters,” remembers Lane, “and we were there to fight. We weren’t going to just easily roll over.” Proud though Pirates were of their stubborn resistance, they knew full well they needed more. And as the second half followed the same pattern, there was no sign of it. “We defended, defended and defended, but, as for getting a goal, we could hardly get the ball. Their defenders were so bored. They had nothing to do.”
The goal came from nowhere. 17 minutes from full-time, still 0-0, ASEC took their umpteenth corner. Lane leaped to challenge for it, and the loose ball fell to Fish, level with the Pirates penalty spot. Fish controlled the ball deftly with his first touch and, with a moment to compose himself, shaped his body for maximum backlift, to heave out a clearance that might at least buy precious moments to catch some breath. It was a rugby full-back’s up-and-under, a punt skywards. The ball bounced down just inside the Pirates half, where nobody met it. It bounced again just inside the ASEC half of the pitch where two yellow-shirted defenders anticipated returning it, with impetus, towards the wearying South Africans.
“It was just a hoof upfield, really, from Fishy,” says Lane. From the VIP seats, Ouegnin watched unconcerned, until the split second of what, years later, he still calls “the accident”.
The accident: a moment of misjudgement, followed by a slapstick collision. Two ASEC defenders, Ghislain Akassou and Lassina Dao, converged on the Fish clearance, one from the left, the other from the right. They were nearer to the ball than anybody; only the goalkeeper, Diarra, and Sikhosana, lone Pirate up front, were even in the ASEC half of the field. Akassou and Dao, both swift, both accomplished, figured on meeting the ball with a header or perhaps cushioning it on the chest.
Either nobody called “Mine!” or nobody heard the call. The two Ivorian defenders slammed, comically, into one another like fairground dodgems, one left floored by the impact, the other awkwardly trying to step over his grounded colleague. Neither had connected with the ball; Sikhosana, beady-eyed, had meanwhile tracked its path and, approaching the sceneof the collision, instinctively dropped his shoulder to shimmy away from the debris and give chase, as Diarra started an emergency dash from his line. “To this day, I don’t know what made me move just a little towards the left,” Sikhosana says of his first instinct, as Fish launched the ball in no particular direction other than upfield. “As a striker, I should have gone in between the defenders. If I did that I was going to collide with them. And that slight movement, before the ball bounced, meant I got to it.”
Sikhosana, so surly a week earlier, now found himself 25 yards from goal, with one man between him and the clean strike that would win the African Champions Cup. Diarra charged towards him, but Sikhosana did not blink. He accelerated, prodded the ball to his left, taking the goalkeeper out of the duel. All that was required now was a cool finish, from a tightened angle and still from some distance. And with his weaker left foot. In those Legs of Thunder, it turned out, were sinews of steel. Sikhosana rolled his low shot firmly enough that it was rippling the netting of Diarra’s goal by the time the nearest Ivorian defender had reached the six-yard box.
The stadium went mute. “You could have heard a pin drop,” remembers Lane, before rousing Pirates to hold their lead for the 20-odd remaining minutes. ASEC pounded them again, Sié striking the crossbar. But these Buccaneers would not buckle, hanging onto the prize forever commemorated with the small golden star on their jersey, the mark of a title that no South African club would emulate for 21 years.
Come the final whistle, the first South African champions of their continent, the surprise 1–0 winners in Abidjan, were urged to celebrate discreetly. “The people from CAF told us, ‘Look, don’t run around the pitch because these guys are angry,’” recalls Lane. “The ASEC okes were visibly upset, tossing things at us. We just had time to get a picture of Eddie Motale holding the cup, a quick up and down, and then to get back on the bus.”
Given the unrest at Soccer City in the first leg, the Pirates entourage could scarcely complain about the antagonism of the home supporters. For Lane, the really vexing memory was the spoilsport act that greeted the team back at the hotel. “They wouldn’t even serve us a beer!” Lane being Lane, he found some eventually, courtesy of a South African embassy official. “When he opened up his fridge stocked with Castles, I just thought, ‘Aaah, this is beautiful.’ That night, we all had a really good jol.”
This is an extract from Vuvuzela Dawn by Ian Hawkey and Luke Alfred, published by Pan Macmillan