It was in 1997 that the current format of the CAF Champions League was introduced, a radical change for the competition from decades of straight two-legged knockout rounds. The advent of television coverage, a single sponsor for the tournament and a dividend for the participating teams was a giant leap for African football into the modern age.
More than a decade on, the competition remains the top prize for African clubs. Nonetheless, it is a gruelling affair, comprised of three preliminary knockout rounds, then a group phase of six matches, a two-legged semi-final and a two-legged final before the identity of the continent’s top club for the year is revealed.
Over the years, the pendulum of dominance has swung back and forward between the clubs from the Arabic-speaking countries of north Africa and their challengers from west and central Africa. In the last decade, there have been breakthroughs for Nigeria, who waited an interminable amount of time before they could claim a club as African champion, a run of dominance by Egypt’s Al Ahly and the revival of the legendary TP Mazembe Englebert, who are again in this year’s final. FIFA.com looks back over 13 years of the CAF Champions League and the finals that have decided the winner of the coveted title.
1997: Halilhodzic proves a good addition
Both Raja Casablanca of Morocco and Ghana’s Goldfields squeezed through to the final. Raja won their group by a single goal and Goldfields by a single point. The first leg of the final was played in Obuasi, and on a dusty surface, Lawrence Adjei managed the only goal after 78 minutes, an aggregate lead that Goldfields held right through 70 minutes of the return match in Casablanca before Abdelkrim Nazir equalised. The match went straight to penalties and Raja, who had appointed Franco-Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic to take charge of their side only months before, triumphed 5-4 in the subsequent penalty shoot-out.
1998: ASEC brings glory to Côte d'Ivoire
ASEC Abidjan had come close several times before in their quest for continental glory, notably just three years earlier when they looked to have the title sewn up only to falter at home to Orlando Pirates. This time they were able to dominate the final against Dynamos of Zimbabwe, drawing away 0-0 in Harare and waltzing to a 4-0 advantage at home before the hour mark with two goals from Vassanogo Kamara and one each from Donald-Olivier Sie and John Zaki. But Dynamos kept fighting and pulled two back to make for a pulsating final ten minutes.
1999: Fullone and Raja make it two
ASEC’s coach Luis Oscar Fullone moved to Raja straight after his success with the Ivorian club and became the first coach to win a major African title back-to-back with two different teams. Raja again needed penalties to take the title after a bruising two-legged affair with Esperance of Tunisia that produced no goals. Raja were rock solid in defence in the second leg away, especially after captain Abdellatif Jrindrou was sent off after just 11 minutes.
2000: Hearts of Oak grow large
Arguably one of the strangest incidents in African football came in Accra in the final’s second leg as Ghana’s Hearts of Oak took on Esperance, having secured a shock 2-1 lead from the first leg in Tunis. Hassen Gabsi’s goal inside the opening 20 minutes suddenly revived the hopes of ‘Blood and Gold’ but as they pushed forward in the final ten minutes, Hearts struck three times to win 5-2 on aggregate. The game was stopped in the closing stages as Esperance goalkeeper Chokri El Ouaer was caught playacting over a bleeding face in an effort to get the match cancelled. El Ouaer was later given a stiff suspension by the Confederation of African Football.
2001: Ahly too bright for Sundowns
South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns made it to their first final against an Al Ahly team beginning a revival in their fortunes under Portuguese coach Manuel Jose. A 1-1 draw in Pretoria set the scene for a tight return in Cairo, but it proved a match with one-sided dominance and a one-sided score. Surprisingly, Sundowns had most of the ball, but Ahly stung them three times on the counter attack and Khaled Bebo’s hat trick ensured a 4-1 aggregate victory.
2002: Raja denied a hat-trick
This was the year CAF introduced a semi-final round after the conclusion of the group phase, but there was a familiar look about the final as Raja took on Zamalek of Egypt. Raja were seeking to win the title for a third time in just six years, but they could only muster a scoreless draw at home. Tamer Abdel Hamid got the decisive strike of the tie just before half-time of the second leg for Zamalek to win by a lone goal.
2003: Nigeria finally break their duck
Nigeria, in just under 40 years of participation, had never before produced a winner in Africa’s top club competition. However, Enyimba always looked a likely breakthrough from the group phase. Goals from Emeka Nwanna and Ndidi Anumnu gave them a 2-0 home win in the first leg of the final against Ismaily. A teenage Hosni Abd Rabou gave the Egyptian club, whose only previous triumph had come in 1969, hopes of clawing back by converting a penalty in the 27th minute, but there were no further goals.
2004: Aiyegnuba the hero for Enyimba
Enyimba became the only side since TP Mazembe Englebert (in 1967 and 1968) to retain their title despite having sold off several of their key players after the previous year’s success. Proficiency in penalties proved key for the Nigerians as they beat Esperance in a shootout in the semi-final and then another Tunisian club, Etoile Sahel, in the final after a 3-3 aggregate draw. They took off goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama in the last minute of the second leg in Abuja and replaced him with Dele Aiyenugba in a masterstroke by coach Okey Emordi. Aiyegnuba saved from Saber Ben Frej in the shoot-out to become an instant hero as Enyimba won 5-3 on penalties.
2005: Al Ahly start their run
With Manuel Jose back at the helm for a second stint at Al Ahly, they proved all-conquering in the competition, exemplified by their 3-0 aggregate win over Etoile Sahel in the final. For a second successive year, the Tunisians hosted the first leg of the final but were held to a goalless draw. Ahly dominated the return in Cairo in front of their delirious fans with goals from Mohamed Aboutrika, Osama Hosni and a last minute effort from star player Mohamed Barakat.
2006: A thrilling finish from Aboutrika
A riveting tie of high drama had the most extraordinary finish. Al Ahly were looking to retain their title but after former Enyimba star Joetex Frimpong got an all-important away goal for CS Sfaxien, the Egyptians went to Tunisia for the return game of the final precariously placed at 1-1. It was a tactical game, tight and uncompromising and looked headed for a goalless draw that would have given Sfaxien a shock triumph. That is, until Aboutrika popped up in stoppage time to drive home from the edge of the penalty area and crush home hearts.
2007: Etoile slow the party
Al Ahly were seeking a record-breaking third title on the trot and few would have bet against them after they drew 0-0 away in Sousse in the first leg of the final against Etoile Sahel. The return in Cairo was set for a massive celebration of their dominance of the club game on the continent, but they conceded just before half-time when Afoiuene Gharbi crashed home a brilliant long-range effort and suddenly had to contemplate the unthinkable. Defender Emad Al Nahhas equalised soon after half-time, but with Ahly pushing for a second goal to avoid defeat on the away goals rule, Amine Chermiti and Moussa Narry scored for Etoile. Their celebrations could be heard reverberating around an eerily silent, and stunned, stadium as they won 3-1 on the night and on aggregate.
2008: Ahly hold on for sixth star
Four finals in a row was a new feat to add to Al Ahly’s record books, and they topped it by winning a record sixth title, taking them above arch-rivals Zamalek on the competition’s roll of honour. However, their job was difficult against Coton Sport of Cameroon. Although they held a 2-0 lead going into the second leg in Garoua, and were first to score in the second leg, the Egyptians almost fell victim of one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of African football. Coton Sport threatened at times to engulf their opponents in a flood of goals but conjured up some horrible misses. They finally breached the Al Ahly goal on the stroke of half-time when Karim Abdoul scored and went 2-1 up in the 61st minute through Ousmaila Baba. But a last-minute penalty ensured a 2-2 draw and a 4-2 win overall for the history-making Ahly.
2009: The return of the crows
TP Mazembe Englebert’s victory was the first time the CAF Champions League final had been settled on the away goals rule. Known as The Crows, the club from Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo were back at the top of the pile in African club football 41 years on from the last of their two previous titles. After losing 2-1 away in Owerri a week previously, a Victor Ezuruike own-goal in the second leg handed them victory as they edged out Heartland FC of Nigeria.
This year, Mazembe will try to defend their title against Esperance. The first leg of the final is on Sunday in Lubumbashi.
List of the winners of the African Champions League:
1965 – Oryx Douala (Cameroon)
1966 – Stade Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire)
1967 – TP Mazembe Englebert (Congo-Kinshasa)
1968 – TP Mazembe Englebert (Congo-Kinshasa)
1969 – Ismaily (Egypt)
1970 – Asante Kotoko (Ghana)
1971 – Canon Yaounde (Cameroon)
1972 – Hafia Conakry (Guinea)
1973 – Vita Club (Zaire)
1974 – CARA Brazzaville (Congo)
1975 – Hafia Conakry (Guinea)
1976 – Mouloudia Alger (Algeria)
1977 – Hafia Conakry (Guinea)
1978 – Canon Yaounde (Cameroon)
1979 – Union Douala (Cameroon)
1980 – Canon Yaounde (Cameroon)
1981 – JE Tizi Ouzou (Algeria)
1982 – Al Ahly (Egypt)
1983 – Asante Kotoko (Ghana)
1984 – Zamalek (Egypt)
1985 – Royal Armed Forces Rabat (Morocco)
1986 – Zamalek (Egypt)
1987 – Al Ahly (Egypt)
1988 – Entente Setif (Algeria)
1989 – Raja Casablanca (Morocco)
1990 – JS Kabylie (Algeria)
1991 – Club Africain (Tunisia)
1992 – Wydad Casablanca (Morocco)
1993 – Zamalek (Egypt)
1994 – Esperance (Tunisia)
1995 – Orlando Pirates (South Africa)
1996 – Zamalek (Egypt)
1997 – Raja Casablanca (Morocco)
1998 – ASEC Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire)
1999 – Raja Casablanca (Morocco)
2000 – Hearts of Oak (Ghana)
2001 – Al Ahly (Egypt)
2002 – Zamalek (Egypt)
2003 – Enyimba (Nigeria)
2004 – Enyimba (Nigeria)
2005 – Al Ahly (Egypt)
2006 – Al Ahly (Egypt)
2007 – Etoile Sahel (Tunisia)
2008 – Al Ahly (Egypt)
2009 – TP Mazembe Englebert (DR Congo)
The tournament was known as the African Champions Cup until 1997.