The biggest news from the conclusion of the Caf African Champions League final at the Stade Mohammed V stadium in Casablanca, Morocco was that it did not end in a farce. Morocco’s Wydad AC won the trophy by beating Egypt’s Al Ahly 2-0 and depriving them of being crowned champions in three consecutive years.
But the story was not the final game. Instead, for weeks, the story focused on a controversial build up that threatened to mar Africa’s premier club competition. The decision by the Confederation of African Football (Caf) to hold the final in Casablanca led to an online outcry over this giving a hometown advantage to Wydad, who are from Casablanca.
At one point the hashtag #StopCafCorruption was trending globally because of the venue announcement, with Al Ahly coach Pitso Mosimane adding to the fray. The Egyptian superclub took the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, who rejected their application to postpone the final. Ahly argued that the decision went against the principles of fair play and that the final should be held in a neutral venue.
After the final the mercurial Mosimane claimed that Ahly would have beaten the Moroccans if the championship had been concluded at a neutral venue. Mosimane’s comment on the venue will reverberate for years and Caf is already considering whether to go back to a two-legged final.
The African Champions League final historically involved a two-legged final with each team getting an opportunity to host a leg. In the event of a tie the winner is chosen on aggregate scores, away goals being doubled, or via penalty kicks if all else ends in a tie. But a temperamental final in 2019 between Wydad of Morocco and Esperance of Tunisia ended such a format.
Caf’s decision not to name the venue of the 2022 final until deep into the competition was a recipe for disaster. The venue should be announced before the start of the competition in order to ensure fairness. The delay gave room for heightened gamesmanship and this time the gamesmanship threatened to bring the competition into disrepute.
Ahly, winner in the previous year, was eager to win a third consecutive championship, but with Caf naming a Moroccan venue, the Egyptian side was at a decided disadvantage.
Caf explained that it had no choice but to use the only venue eligible to host the finals. It invited applications to host its premier final and only two met the criteria, despite multiple applications being received. The other qualifying venue was in Dakar, Senegal but the Senegalese Football Federation subsequently withdrew its application, leaving the Moroccan venue as the only qualifying application on the table. Ahly was miffed and had good reason to be.
North African rivalry
Games, especially between clubs from North African countries, have been temperamental and dogged for years – especially on occasions like this where nationalism is heightened.
Since 2017, all but one final of the championship has involved North African teams, which has helped stoke a long rivalry for supremacy in African club football. Morocco’s Wydad and Egypt’s Al Ahly have now heightened their rivalry.
Ruffled by the controversy of the 2019 final, Caf moved subsequent (one-legged) championships to a single venue intended to be neutral. The next two finals were played in Cairo and Casablanca. While the 2021 Casablanca final was a neutral venue between South Africa’s Sundowns and Egypt’s Al Ahly, the 2020 final involved two Egyptian clubs in Cairo. Thus, this year’s final was the first where one of the teams had a home advantage.
Caf says that the difficulty in attracting hosts for the championship is persuading them to rethink the one-leg final. A Caf official was quoted saying: “There are currently discussions underway within Caf to revert to the old two-legged home and away final.”
But it seemed Caf was not short of bids to host the final. It acknowledged that it also received bids from Nigeria and South Africa, but says that both venues failed to meet criteria listed by Caf. In recent years, Caf has tightened its criteria for venues to host its competition and this has forced countries, in certain cases, to host games outside its home territory. While Caf’s new criteria may force countries to improve facilities, it also means that some countries may not be able to host games, including hosting a premier championship like the African Champions League final.
But doing so will mean that Caf may entrench itself in another controversy when it reverts to a two-legged final, and if one of the finalist clubs fail to present a qualifying venue.
Caf clearly continues to struggle to emerge from decisions made by its previous administration. This controversy surrounding the final of the African Champions League marks a symptom of the struggle that includes sponsorship and governance issues, among others.