Club Africain of Tunisia host Moghreb Fes of Morocco behind closed doors on Saturday in the first leg of an African Confederation Cup final overshadowed by tense relations between the countries.
Moroccan politicians were furious at the violent treatment of some Wydad Casablanca supporters who visited Tunis last weekend for the African Champions League decider against Esperance.
A diplomatic protest to their Tunisian counterparts said excessive force was used by police at the November 7 stadium during a match won by the home team and there was also trouble at the airport before fans flew home.
Playing behind closed doors this weekend is unconnected to these incidents as Club Africain are serving a two-match spectator ban for crowd trouble during a group game against ASEC Mimosas from Ivory Coast.
The 91-year-old Tunis club were also fined $100 000 and warned that they would be barred from Confederation of African Football competitions if supporters caused further trouble.
A solitary goal was scored in 180 tense minutes between Esperance and Wydad and it would be no surprise if the two-leg showdown of Club Africain and Moghreb proved equally close.
Form en route to the final of the second-tier African club competition with a $660 000 first prize suggests that the away-goal rule or even a penalty shoot-out might be necessary to separate the teams.
Both sides won and lost against InterClube of Angola and both won and drew against Sunshine Stars of Nigeria as they advanced toward the third Confederation Cup final involving the North African nations.
Etoile Sahel piped FAR Rabat of Morocco for the 2006 title on away goals after two draws and FUS Rabat shocked CS Sfaxien last year by winning 3-2 in Tunisia having been held goalless at home.
Tunisian clubs have won the competition three times and Moroccan clubs twice since it replaced the African Cup Winners Cup and CAF Cup championships seven years ago.
Midfielder Zouhaier Dhaouadi and Chad-born striker Ezechiel Ndouassel have been key figures for Club as they seek international glory 20 years after lifting the African Champions Cup — forerunner to the African Champions League.
Dhaouadi was a pivotal figure as Tunisia won the African Nations Championship for home-based footballers last February just weeks after the country celebrated the overthrow of long-time dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
The midfielder captains Africain and his contributions for club and country earned him a nomination for 2011 CAF African Footballer of the Year with the winner to be announced during December.
Physically imposing Ndouassel needs a boost after Chad were eliminated from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers this week and Sunshine Stars can vouch for his predatory instincts as he scored the goal that settled a semi-final last month.
Moghreb also boast a match-winner in Chemseddine Chtibi — a mid-year signing from FUS Rabat — whose unstoppable drive seven minutes into stoppage time took the Moroccans to the final at the expense of InterClube.
He has contributed four of the 24 goals scored by Fes in 16 African outings, one less than Hamza Abourazzouk and Tarik Sektioui, and 10 Moghreb players have been on target during a campaign that began last January in Benin.
The return match is scheduled for Fes on December 4 and apart from the prize money and prestige, the winning club take on Esperance next year for the African Super Cup and the chance of pocketing a further $75 000. — AFP