The CAF Champions League broke with recent tradition and shed itself of many of its top contenders in the early qualifying rounds, making the field for the 2009 title wide open. And after the dust had settled, this year's edition of the elite competition marked the return after a four-decade absence from the summit of the continental game for TP Mazembe Englebert of Congo DR, who edged Heartland FC of Nigeria on the away goals rule over two legs in the final. FIFA.com reflects on an engrossing competition.
TP Mazembe are back at the top of the pile in African club football, 41 years on from the last of their two previous titles. They won in 1967 and 1968 and were finalists in 1969 and 1970 but have never come close since, despite the investment of considerable resources by their owner, the Katanga governor Moise Katumbi. It was his cash that kept many key players at the club when they had opportunity to move elsewhere, keeping intact the backbone of team which had amassed considerable experience in pan-African competition.
French-Italian coach Diego Garzitto oversaw a campaign which had Mazembe growing in confidence as they overcame tough opposition in the early knockout stages. They won their group before recording a record five-goal haul away in their semi-final tie at Al Hilal of Sudan. The final was a lot closer but Mazembe always looked in command, with the quality of players like Tresor Mputu, Patou Kabangu, Narcisse Ekanga and Alain Kaluyitukadioko evident throughout.
This year's competition was full of shocks right from the off suggesting that the dominance of the north African clubs might be at an end. Egypt's Al Ahly were seeking to keep up their long-standing dominance but crashed out in the knockout phase to Kano Pillars of Nigeria. Other top contenders from Algeria, Ghana, Morocco and Tunisia also fell by the wayside early on and there were embarrassing eliminations at the hands of minnows for the two clubs from 2010 FIFA World Cup™ hosts South Africa. Last year's runners-up Coton Sport of Cameroon were also out of the running before the completion of the preliminary stages.
Hence, the group phase started with its most inexperienced line-up to date with only two of the eight clubs having won the title before - TP Mazembe and Etoile Sahel of Tunisia. Al Hilal of Sudan had been semi-finalists in 2007 and made the last eight last year, though five of the eight teams in this year's field had never been as far as the league stage. It all served to present the very real chance that a new name might be engraved on the trophy, though inconsistency and inexperience proved the main downfall of the aspirant contenders.
Kano Pillars' elimination of holders Al Ahly and subsequent run to the last four was a massive fillip for Nigerian football, countering the downturn in recent fortunes for their national side. Nigeria had two semi-finalists for the first time and the fact they were paired together ensured that the country was represented in the final. Meanwhile, for a second successive year a club from Zimbabwe reached the group phase. This time it was rookies Monomotapa who, like Dynamos in 2008, bravely overcame their country's economic meltdown, lack of foreign exchange and general paucity of resources.
The star men
Mputu was Mazembe's biggest name after finishing as the top scorer in African club competition for the two preceding years. This year, however, he was overshadowed somewhat by the likes of Kabangu, Guy Lusadisu and Ekanga, while team-mate and fellow forward Kaluyitukadioko ended as the Champions League's joint top goal scorer. Unheralded Uche Agba of Heartland FC will surely be snapped up by a club outside of Nigeria after his eight-goal haul in the tournament and could go the way of his compatriot Endurance Idahor, whose record in previous tournaments earned him a lucrative move to Al Merreikh of Sudan. Idahor scored seven goals for Al Merreikh, who otherwise had a far from impressive run in the league phase.
Did you know?
TP Mazembe's victory was the first time the African Champions League final has been settled on the away goals rule. In 1967, when Mazembe won it for the first time, the tie ended 3-3 after two legs against Asante Kotoko of Ghana but the away goals rule was then not in effect. The Confederation of African Football ordered a replay which Kotoko did not pitch for meaning that Mazembe won by default.
The numbers game
12 - The number of countries who have provided a CAF Champions League winner since the trophy was first introduced as the African Champions Cup in 1965. The number of football-playing nations in African football is 53, which means that winning clubs have come from less than quarter of the CAF membership. A further six countries have managed to provide a runner-up in the competition.
"The hard work of the players was the secret of our success. We have prepared feverishly the whole season and we were rewarded by the results. I tried to instil fighting spirit into my players and they accepted the challenge. We were not given any chance at the start of the season to win the Champions League but we dared to wonder what it would be like. It is a tremendous feat to have been able to achieve it." TP Mazembe coach Diego Garzitto.
1. TP Mazembe Englebert (COD)*
2. Heartland FC (NGA)
*Will take part in the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009
8 goals - Alain Kaluyitukadioko, TP Mazembe Englebert (COD); Uche Agba, Heartland FC (NGA)
7 goals - Endurance Idahor, Al Merreikh (SUD); Victor Namo, Kano Pillars (NGA)