The CAF Champions League final between Esperance Tunis and Wydad Casablanca was a fitting end to the 2018/2019 season. These two teams have been the most fearsome CAFCL contestants in the last half-decade or so.
Unfortunately, their CAFCL final meeting will go down in history for all the wrong reasons. Long story short, Wydad refused to resume play after a goal they scored was disallowed in the second leg at Rades stadium. CAF, FIFA and CAS got involved before Esperance Tunis was recognized as champion.
It portrayed a bad image of African football – as if we needed any more of that. But every cloud has a silver lining as they say. In Africa’s case, it was the decision to have the CAF Champions League final henceforth played at a single venue. Japoma Stadium, in Douala, was picked to be the first host of a “neutral” CAFCL final. This may or may not go on to be so depending on how things Covid-19 pan out.
Changing CAF Champions League final format
This wonderful news was surprisingly not met with jubilation from all CAFCL fans. Many fans raise two valid concerns on whether this change of format is the right decision. One, there is a feeling that CAF effected a “European solution” to an African problem. Not quite.
South America’s, Copa Libertadores also changed the final format to a single venue in 2019. CONMEBOL had been having publicized discussions about the switch from 2017 but they too saw their hands forced by fan violence. It is a logical evolution for any contintental club football competition.
A second argument is that fan attendance in CAFCL finals will take a huge blow. It is not just because a two-legged final ensures up to 120,000 people watch the matches at the respective stadiums, but also because Africans tend to shun other African teams that they do not actively support. We see this all the time at the Africa Cup of Nations. The failed decision to hold the CAF Super Cup at neutral venues around Africa back in the mid 1990s is another piece of evidence for naysayers.
And since air travel in Africa is difficult and expensive, it is easy to be convinced that the CAF Champions League final will be played in an empty stadium. I will address this criticism by, first, stating that this change of format is a necessary step for Africa. It is another gain in the forward momentum of a culture shift for the CAFCL.
We will get to convenient TV broadcast in part of efforts to clean up image of this competition.
We can no longer tolerate issues like match stoppages and violence on the stands. A two-legged CAF Champions League adds to these problems. 2019 was a clincher but we can go back to years like 2007 when we saw violence by journalists (yes!) after Al Ahly lost the final in Cairo.
We also had underwhelming conclusions to the CAFCL in 2010 and 2016 when the hosts refused to light fireworks after TP Mazembe and Sundowns were crowned African champions away from home. It is a shame because these two were some of the strongest CAFCL winners ever.
Single venue for fair play reasons
Playing the second leg of the CAF Champions League final at home is as heavily contested as any little refereeing mistake we see in Africa. This renders the first leg worthless and it is easy to see why.
We have had 23 finals since the introduction of the group stage in 1997. During this time, 15 out of 23 CAF Champions League final winners have been the teams that hosted the second leg. This proves that hosting the second leg advantages one team in the CAFCL final. Is that fair play? You should also consider the disparity of having the whole stadium support just one team as is the case in a two-legged final.
A single CAFCL final venue can in fact be a tool towards promotion of this competition in Africa.
This is how CAF can get the stadium full inspite of where the final is held in this massive continent of Africa. CAF can have countries not actively involved in the competition still be interested in it by rotating hosting rights by regional federations. Thinking of CECAFA having a turn followed by COSAFA and so forth. This will lead to an added benefit of knowledge-sharing across Africa in terms of event organization, matchday security and match promotion.
Critics need to stop being so hamstrung by our deficiencies. The bitterness held against anything European does not help either. Rather, let us focus on our capacity to move forward. Recent improvements on the CAF Champions League are a demonstration of this.