The CAF Champions League gets back underway at the weekend with the eight top clubs in Africa beginning the group format of the competition. It is a field with a familiar look and feel as all but two of the clubs involved are previous winners.
The odd two out that are still seeking that honour are Al Hilal of Sudan and Cameroon’s Coton Sport, both of whom have come close in the past by reaching the final but never got their hands on the trophy. There will be high hopes of changing that, particularly for the Sudanese club, who are desperate for a breakthrough under Serbian coach Milutin Sredojevich, who took over last summer. The 41-year-old has been busy preparing his side for the Group A opener away against 2003 and 2004 winners Enyimba of Nigeria on Sunday.
Do you feel Al Hilal have been given a good draw?
Milutin Sredojevich: Given that there are only eight teams left, we were always going to have a difficult draw. In our group there are two tough teams from west Africa in Enyimba and Coton Sport and a very good North African side, Raja Casablanca. Each of these teams demands a special approach and we have tried hard to get to know their style of play, their strong points and weaknesses. But in this competition you have to approach every match as if it were a final because it will be hard to earn every point.
How far can your team go?
In the last five years, there has been success and we have kept the backbone of the team together with small changes and reinforcements. In today’s football, little details make a big difference. We have learnt a lot in recent years how those details took away our chances of winning the trophy. The test now will be whether we have learnt enough and to bring those small but crucial details to our side and reap the reward by winning the trophy. I don’t want to be seen to be talking big or making any promises, but we are working to the standards which could help us achieve our dreams. Once we achieve those standards, then you need only ‘Lady Luck’ on your side and you will be there. Every success starts with a dream, and it is an 80-year-old dream since Hilal was established to win an African title. That dream is so big, and it is the fuel that is pushing us to go all the way and win the trophy.
Al Hilal reached the Champions League semi-final recently and in the last few years the two big Sudan clubs have suddenly shown themselves to be a strength on the continent. Why has there been this big improvement?
Al Hilal has been to the group stage of Champions League three times in the last four years and reached the semi-final three times - twice in the Champions League and once in the Confederation Cup. Al Merreikh has also been in the group stage of the Champions League recently and reached the Confederation Cup final. If you ask me how to explain that football phenomenon, I would tell you that this comes from the soul of Sudanese people, who have a genuinely unbelievable love for the game of football. I have been to 48 out of 53 African countries in the last ten years, and I can tell you everyone loves football, but the Sudanese have a special expression of that love that can only be called ‘football-mania’. Sudanese people are kind, polite, friendly, known for their hospitality and they have a sincere wish to change the perception of their country through football. All of us at Al Hilal, Al Merreikh and the national team of Sudan are working hard to send a different and beautiful football picture of Sudan to the rest of the world.
What are the strengths of your team and what style of play can we expect?
We believe in iron-clad defending, creative passing in midfield and a sharp goal-minded attack. This is what I have targeted since I took over. We have in our team players that answer the demands of the modern game, but because of the talent we have, we mostly rely on a fast, ground-passing game.
How exciting is it for you as a coach to be involved in the Champions League?
I came to Africa ten years ago, and I have been coach of big teams in different countries: SC Villa [in Uganda], St George [in Ethiopia], Young Africans [in Tanzania], Orlando Pirates [in South Africa] and Al Hilal. Every year I have been in the Champions League. I was a semi-finalist with Pirates in 2006, the best result by a South African side in the last decade, and that fairytale continued with Al Hilal last year. Going into this year’s competition, I now feel like a fish in the water, having learnt so much over the last ten years. I have studied all of the styles of play across countries, their weaknesses and their strong points. African football is different to any other football in the world because of its unique circumstances, and it has stirred my passion.