Etoile Sportive du Sahel
© FIFA.com

Etoile Sahel have overcome the tag of perpetual bridesmaids to claim the mantle of being the best club side in Africa. It has been a long, arduous and, at times, heartbreaking road for the club from the resort city of Sousse but finally their dream has been realised.

As winners of the 2007 CAF Champions League, their first success in the competition, they head to Japan as Africa's representatives to the FIFA Club World Cup 2007.

The club come from a region which has traditionally played second fiddle to Tunisia's capital, Tunis, both in terms of economic activity and sporting glory.

But Etoile Sahel have always been among the dominant forces in Tunisian football, evolving slowly after their founding in 1925 and, over the last decade, enjoying a period of remarkable success.

For a start, Etoile Sahel can now boast to be the only African club to have won all of the continental club titles. First it was the CAF Cup in 1995, followed by a triumph in the CAF Cup Winners' Cup in 1997.

In 1998 Etoile Sahel won the CAF Super Cup match over Raja Casablanca of Morocco on penalties and in 1999 continued their mazy run of five successive finals with another CAF Cup triumph. In 2003, in the last time the tournament was played, there was further Cup Winners' Cup success, and last year, Etoile Sahel beat Moroccan opposition once again to win the new-style CAF Confederations Cup.

But the big prize, that of the CAF Champions League, eluded them. For a start they could not get into the competition as they continually finished runners-up in the Tunisian league.

Once CAF allowed Tunisia two entries into the competition, starting with the 2004 edition, Etoile had their chance but lost in successive finals. Enyimba of Nigeria narrowly beat them on penalties and in 2005 Al Ahly handed them a 3-0 aggregate defeat.

Etoile have now achieved the breakthrough with their first-ever Champions League title coming in a surprise win in Cairo over the Egyptians giants Al Ahly. The 3-1 aggregate victory was sweet revenge for their defeat 24 months earlier and came less than six months after Etoile had won their own domestic championship.

That league success came after an astonishing nine consecutive seasons of finishing runners-up, eight times to Esperance Tunis and once, by the narrowest of margins, to CS Sfaxien.

An unlikely triumph
Etoile Sahel had little problem in the opening rounds of the 2007 edition of the Champions League, as their 2006 Confederation Cup win gave them a seeding for the group draw. That meant avoiding a clash with Al Ahly, the all-conquering Egyptian club widely expected to win a record sixth Champions League title and a unprecedented third in a row.

In Group A, Etoile Sahel set about their mission of winning a semi-final berth with some efficiency, winning away in Morocco and Algeria and making sure of their qualification berth before the penultimate round of matches was played. Indeed, they did not concede a single goal until their last group match in Libya against Al Ittihad when they fielded a weakened side, having already made sure of top place in the group.

In the semi-finals, Etoile Sahel were drawn against Al Hilal, and lost the first leg in Sudan. However, two wonderful headers from teenage sensation Amine Chermiti in the return fixture helped the Tunisians to 3-1 win on the night and a 4-3 aggregate victory. A place in the final against Al Ahly was assured.

The draw saw Etoile playing at home in the first leg and despite some fervent support at Sousse' Olympic stadium, the Tunisians failed to get going against their opponents. Mohamed Ali Nafka hit the woodwork but overall the Egyptians looked the more solid team and left neutrals with the impression that the return match in Cairo would be a mere formality.

How wrong they were. In the second leg in Cairo, Etoile scored first on the stroke of half-time and Al Ahly went down to 10 men with 30 minutes remaining. Late breakaway goals from Chermiti and Moussa Narry made sure of a famous 3-1 victory and a first touch of the CAF Champions League trophy.