Sports · June 24, 2022

African Champions League at a crossroads

The biggest news since the conclusion of the Caf African Champions League final at the Stade Mohammed V stadium in Casablanca, Morocco was that it didn’t end in a farce. Moroccan Wydad AC won the trophy by beating Egyptians Al Ahly 2-0 and depriving them of the crown of champions for three consecutive years.

But the story wasn’t the final game. Instead, for weeks, the story focused on a controversial buildup that threatened to ruin Africa’s premier club competition. The decision by the Confederation of African Football (Caf) to hold the final in Casablanca sparked online protests over it, giving Wydad’s hometown, which is Casablanca, an edge.

At some point the hashtag #StopCafCorruption was trending globally due to the announcement of the venue, with Al Ahly coach Pitso Mosimane adding to the fray. The Egyptian superclub took the matter to the Sports Arbitration Court, which rejected the request for postponement of the final. Ahly argued that the decision went against fair play principles and that the final should take place in a neutral venue.

After the final the fickle Mosimane claimed Ahly would have beaten the Moroccans if the championship ended on neutral ground. Mosimane’s comment on the venue will reverberate for years and the Caf is already considering whether to return to a double final.

The coffee dilemma

The African Champions League final historically featured a double final in which each team had the opportunity to host a stage. In the event of a tie, the winner is chosen based on overall scores, doubling away goals or penalties if all else ends up in tie. But a capricious final in 2019 between Wydad of Morocco and Esperance of Tunisia put an end to such a format.

Caf’s decision not to name the venue for the 2022 final until the competition was deep inside was a recipe for disaster. The venue should be announced prior to the start of the competition to ensure fairness. The delay gave way for more playing skill, and this time around the playing ability threatened to discredit the competition.

A bald man in a blue shirt holds both hands above his head, looking anxious.
Al Ahly manager Pitso Mosimane sparked the debate on the venue for the final. SEBASTIAN FREJ / MB Media / Getty Images

The previous year’s winner Ahly was eager to win their third consecutive championship, but with the CAF naming a Moroccan venue, the Egyptian team was at a marked disadvantage.

Caf explained that he had no choice but to use the only suitable venue to host the finals. She invited entries to host her first final and only two met the criteria, despite multiple entries being received. The other qualifying venue was in Dakar, Senegal, but the Senegalese Football Association subsequently withdrew the application, leaving the Moroccan venue as the only qualification application on the table. Ahly was annoyed and had good reason to be.

North African rivalry

The games, especially between clubs from North African countries, have been temperamental and stubborn for years, especially on occasions like this when nationalism is heightened.

Since 2017, all but one of the league finals have involved North African teams, which has helped fuel a longstanding rivalry for supremacy in African club football. The Wydad of Morocco and the Al Ahly of Egypt have now intensified their rivalry.

Shocked by the controversy of the 2019 final, the Caf has moved the subsequent championships (one-legged) into a single location destined to be neutral. The next two finals were played in Cairo and Casablanca. While the 2021 Casablanca final was a neutral venue between South Africa’s Sundowns and Egypt’s Al Ahly, the 2020 final involved two Egyptian clubs in Cairo. Therefore, this year’s final was the first in which one of the teams had a home advantage.

The future

Caf says the difficulty in attracting the hosts for the championship is persuading them to rethink the first leg. A Caf official was quoted as saying: “There are currently clandestine discussions within the Caf to return to the old two-legged home and away final.”

But it seemed Caf wasn’t short of offers to host the final. He acknowledged that he had also received offers from Nigeria and South Africa, but said that both locations did not meet the criteria listed by the Caf. In recent years, Caf has tightened the criteria for the venues in which to host its competition and this has forced countries, in some cases, to host matches outside their home territory. While Caf’s new criteria may force countries to improve facilities, it also means that some countries may not be able to host matches, including hosting a premier league such as the African Champions League final.

But doing so will mean the CAF could entrench itself in another controversy when it returns to a double final and if one of the finalist clubs does not present a qualifying venue.

Caf clearly continues to struggle to emerge from the decisions made by its previous administration. This controversy surrounding the African Champions League final marks a symptom of the struggle that includes sponsorship and governance issues among others.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.