BAFANA Bafana coach Gordon Igesund yesterday praised Black Leopards for their brave run in the CAF (Confederation of African Football) Confederation Cup.

Leopards are one victory away - against Sudan's Al-Merreikh at Ellis Park on Saturday - from entering the lucrative group stages of the continental competition.

"They campaigned here while still fighting for relegation last season, and we need to applaud them for that," said Igesund.

"Our players don't realise the importance and the harsh realities of playing in Africa. It gives the country a chance to understand how to play on the continent."

The number of spots available to South African clubs in the continental club competition have fallen to two because of poor performances over the past decade. Teams sometimes opted to withdraw from the competition, citing the costs of travelling and their busy schedules.

Orlando Pirates were eliminated in the first round of the Champions League earlier this year. Apart from their triumph in the CAF Champions League in 1995 and Kaizer Chiefs' win in the Confed Cup in 2001, the South African showing on the continent has been dismal.

"We need to change our mind-set on these competitions," Igesund said. "Leopards are leading by example, and we need to set the standards. When players are called up (to the national team), they will come carrying experience of having played in Africa."

Cash-strapped Leopards have been outspoken about the costs of taking part in the competition, and have pleaded for help from sponsors and the sports ministry. According to the club, the logistics of going to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the first round alone, where they had to change from a shoddy hotel, cost R600000.

While club chairman David Thidiela praised the South African Football Association (Safa) for its support, it was not in monetary terms. "Our support is value in kind," said Safa president Kirsten Nematandani. "That is why we are here and we are calling corporate SA to help." From the last-eight stage onwards, there will be a financial gain from CAF for both the team as well as the association.

Leopards arrive in Johannesburg today, where they hope to reverse a 3-2 loss from the first-round away leg of the competition.

Sapa