The first leg matches in the first round of the CAF Champions League, which are being played this weekend, have a classic feel about them as once again clubs from North African countries have the upper hand in numbers, while teams from some of the traditional powerhouses of African football are conspicuous by their absence. Amongst the countries that no longer have any local interest in the competition are Côte d'Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea – both of whom were in the semi-finals of the recent CAF Africa Cup of Nations just over a month ago.
For South African coach Roger De Sa, who took Orlando Pirates to the final of the Champions League two years ago, it is not surprising that the competition is once again dominated by clubs from north of the Sahara. Pirates lost the 2013 finals against Egyptian giants Al Ahly, and De Sa believes that clubs from the Maghreb region take the competition very seriously. “I think they put a lot of emphasis on the competition. They put a lot of effort into it and that is why they do so well. They like to be there,” he said.
Of the ten North African teams that entered the competition, only one is no longer involved – and that is Libyan club Al Ahly, who were beaten by Egyptian first-timers Smouha, who will be rewarded for their surprise exploits with a first round encounter against former winners Enyimba from Nigeria.
Retired Egyptian defender Wael Gomaa, who won an unprecedented six Champions League titles with Egyptian club Al Ahly, explains that North African countries have an advantage at club level because they are in a financial position to hold on to their best players, avoiding the exodus of their stars to European leagues.
But he explains that it's an interesting difference when it comes to the continental championship for national teams. “You will find that many countries whose clubs are not so rich do well because they mainly rely on foreign-based players. While on the other hand, countries who have strong clubs suffer because they are usually outshone by more experienced players in Europe. That's why there is a big gap between how North African clubs have been faring in African competitions and how they fare at the AFCON."
Stories from Algeria to South Africa
North African dominance is exemplified by the participation of three Algerian clubs in the first round – the first time-ever that a country has had a trio of representatives in the competition. USM Alger, who won the Algerian league, are facing Senegalese club AS Pikine, while MC El Eulma, who took the place of league runners-up JS Kabylie, are up against Ghanaian mainstays Asante Kotoko.
The captain of the Porcupines, Amos Frimpong, believes that the west Africans can beat their opponents. “Our fans have gone through a lot of sadness over the poor performance of the team in recent years, so now is the time to put up our best display and make them proud,” he said. The third Algerian club in the competition, ES Setif, who finished third in the league, qualify as holders and start off their campaign against Gambian club Real Banjul.
The two Tunisian clubs in the first round, CS Sfaxien and Esperance will be expecting to advance at the expense of Togolese club AC Semassi and Cosmos de Bafia from Cameroon respectively, while Al Ahly, who have won the competition a record eight times, have to travel to Rwanda for their first leg against APR. Ahly coach Juan Carlos Garrido is sweating over the availability of key player Walid Soliman, who injured himself during training on Monday.
South African clubs have traditionally disappointed in the competition and have only thrice made the final, with Pirates being the only club to win in 1995. South Africa will be involved with two clubs in the first round, but both Kaizer Chiefs and Sundowns face difficult opponents. Glamour club Chiefs will be without suspended Zimbabwean Matthew Rusike for their tie against Raja Casablanca.
Sundowns, who lost the 2001 final against Al Ahly, were drawn against four-time winners TP Mazembe, with De Sa warning the South African club that they will face a tough time in Congo DR. “When you play there, you've got to dig deep. It can be a terrific horror. You can get anything thrown your way and you've got to be prepared for it physically and mentally,” said the coach, who knocked out Mazembe with Pirates two years ago. “Sundowns have a good side. but that alone will not be enough because the atmosphere there is tough.”
The final North African team in the competition, Moghreb Tetouan, will have their work cut out for them as they take on three-time defending Nigerian champions Kano Pillars. They will, however, play their first leg a week later as CAF granted the Nigerians a postponement following an armed robbery attack that left five players injured.