Tunisia’s Esperance narrowly overcame Wydad Casablanca to win the CAF Champions League over the weekend thanks to a sensational first-half goal from right back Harrison Afful. The 1-0 win on Saturday outside of Tunis handed the Blood and Gold their first victory in this tournament in 17 years, breaking a losing streak in the final that included a 6-1 thumping by TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo last season.
Esperance had previously drawn with Wydad three times in this edition of the Champions League, and it took a special effort from Afful to separate the two teams. The Ghanaian international, who also scored Esperance’s only goal in the final last year, cut the ball back into the box from the right wing after a probing pass picked him out in space in the 21st minute. He then curled an unstoppable left-footed effort past outstretched stand-in goalkeeper Yassine Bounou into the top left corner of the net, as the crowd at the Rades Stadium exploded in relief to get their noses in front.
However, a scoreless first leg meant that any slip up from the home defence might see the Red and Whites sneak an away goal to change the complexion of the match. So after Afful again almost immediately set up captain Oussama Darragi for a missed chance in the box, Esperance responded with caution and almost paid for it. Just after the half-hour mark, Wydad’s Fabrice Nguessi Ondama had an opportunity to even the match one-on-one in front of goal, but goalkeeper Moez Ben Cherifa saved dramatically with his foot to preserve the lead. How different things might have been if that had gone in, but as it stood, an increasingly frustrated Wydad saw Mourad El Massane sent off at the end of the half for an off-the-ball foul.
Down to ten men, the visitors were all-but powerless to prevent the scrappy match from becoming a stalemate, although they fought bravely in the second period. Ondama ran himself ragged at the point of the Wydad attack, and their defence was solidly organised, but it was the hosts that came closest to adding to the scoresheet with quarter of an hour to go. The hero in that instance was Moroccan goalkeeper Bounou, who was standing in for Wydad captain Lamyaghri Nadir, and did well to get down and deny Joseph Yannick Ndjeng from making it two.
History made in historic times
As the time ticked out from the match, Esperance’s celebrations could barely be contained, and at the final whistle coach Nabil Maaloul, who has indicated he could leave the club at the end of the year, was in the middle of the festivities. The former Blood and Gold player has now helped erase the club’s label as ‘bridesmaids’, which was inevitably attached to them after three unsuccessful appearances in the two-legged final over the last 11 years. They had also fallen in the semi-final stage three further times in that same period, but Tunisia’s most successful club now join the elite and become the tenth side to win the Africa’s top club prize twice. “We proved our superiority over the continent this year. No African team can beat us,” said Maaloul after the contest.
Esperance also earn the right to represent Africa at the FIFA Club World Cup, which is in Japan next month. Last year, TP Mazembe became the first CAF team to reach the final of that competition, and the event was clearly on the minds of the Esperance players after the win. “Having the opportunity to play in the Club World Cup is a good thing, every player dreams about chances like this," said Ndjeng, who was a key figure in attack for the team since arriving on a transfer from Algeria this summer. Afful agreed that the ambitious club had at least one eye looking forward, saying: "[Winning the Champions League] is a dream come true, but the task ahead of us now is very big.”
This was further joy for the people of Tunisia, who had a revolution earlier in the year and now can celebrate Champions League glory to go along with their national team qualifying for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Tunisian side Club Africain are also in the final of the CAF Confederation Cup, where they will face another Moroccan team MAS Fez.
Ndjeng emphasised the significance of the moment, saying: "This is an historic day for Esperance. I'm happy for the Tunisian people. This cup is great for the country and for the club.” Maaloul’s team completed a famous treble this year, which the coach said he was especially proud of. “We clinched an historic trio of the Tunisian League, Cup and African Champions League amid difficult circumstances in our country.”