For consistency in continental competition, few clubs can beat Esperance Sportive Tunis. The Sang et Or (Blood and Gold) are this year again living up to their reputation as perennial contenders for the top prize in African football, the CAF Champions League. Since the group stage of the competition was introduced in 1997, the club from the Tunisian capital has made it to the lucrative last eight a total of 10 times in 15 years. It is a record they share with Egyptian giants Al Ahly.
But there is a major difference between the two in achievement for while Al Ahly have won four titles over the last 14 editions and gone on to set a new record for the most number of continental titles, Esperance’s haul has been none. In that time, however, they have reached the final three times but come out on the losing end in 1999, 2000 and last year. So the club’s consistency has not translated into any podium success and in spite of a record number of group appearances, they fight on for a breakthrough.
Esperance did take the continent’s top prize in 1994 when the African Champions Cup was played in a traditional knockout format. But the Champions League remains an unfulfilled quest and this year again they have come a long way in their attempt to break their duck. Last year they came up second best as they were handsomely beaten in a bitter final with TP Mazembe Englebert of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
They lost too in the deciding match in 1999 to Raja Casablanca, and also a year after that in an infamous final in Accra against Hearts of Oak where the attempted subterfuge of some Esperance players and officials resulted in several lengthy bans. There have also been a succession of heart-breaking semi-final exits as well, but as the Champions League gathers momentum towards its decisive stages, so Esperance carry high hopes again.
They are the reigning champions of Tunisia, coming first in the standings at the end of a long, extended season interrupted by the country’s political and social revolution at the start of the year. That success has translated into performances of confidence in the first matches in Group B, including a draw in Algeria and a home win over Al Ahly.
Past great looking to replicate success
Former Tunisia international Nabil Maaloul is the latest incumbent of one of African football’s hottest coaching positions, but at least has something of an advantage over many of his predecessors in that he was part of Esperance's previous success.
Maaloul was hitting the tail end of his career at Esperance and just out of the team when they beat Zamalek of Egypt 3-1 on aggregate to claim the 1994 Cup of Champions Clubs trophy. He watched as team-mates like Mohammed Ali Majhoubi, Ali Ben Neji, Hedi Benrekhissa, Sirajeddine Chihi, Kenneth Malitoli and Ayad Hamrouni helped secure a historic win for the club – arguably still their greatest day, but one they continually seek to replicate.
Maaloul says he wants the modern generation to taste the same glory and admits quite candidly: “The Champions League is the number one objective of all Esperantistes.” The coach, who played in the Bundesliga and later assisted Roger Lemerre when he coached the Tunisia national team, knows what is at stake.
“African competition is not the same as the Tunisian championship because we play against opponents who are physically tougher and stronger. There needs to be a mental toughness to go out there and prove yourself,” said the coach, who is ambitious for being able to win in spectacular fashion, playing an entertaining game and yet bringing home the trophies.
His new signings reflect some of that ambition. In recent weeks Esperance have bought the Cameroonian marksman Joseph Yannick Ndjeng, signed from JSM Bejaia in Algeria, and Malian international Idrissa Coulibaly. Players like Oussama Darragi, Youssef Msakni and Wajdi Bouazzi have been the creative force that Maaloul has at the pivot of his plans. “We can win if we have a squad that is disciplined, that is talented, brave and strong,” added the coach.
The club now sit at a crucial juncture. The coming weeks will tell if they are to make it past the group phase and into the final four of the CAF Champions League. And then, from there will they be able to finally lift the Champions League trophy? It is a question every fan of the Tunis club is perpetually asking.