Kaizer Chiefs is now 50 years old. The team is firmly established as the glamour club of South African football. But there is a stain that diminishes the shine of Amakhosi. The club’s history in the CAF Champions League is thoroughly lacking. They have never even played in the CAFCL Group Stage.
There was a time when things did not look like they would end up as they are. This was back at the start of the 2000s. While Zamalek was crying about not being named the Club of the Century, Kaizer Chiefs won the PSL’s first continental title of the New Millenium. They beat Interclube, of Angola, to win the African Cup Winners Cup in 2001. Amakhosi had knocked out Ismaily and Club Africain to reach that final. This was a special season for Chiefs, immortalized as Operation Vat Alles. They also won the PSL, Top 8 Competition and the League Cup.
Unfortunately, things headed South immediately after. Kaizer Chiefs was banned by CAF after essentially refusing to defend their continental title. The side got their chance at the African adventure again in the 2005 CAF Champions League. They were knocked out, and demoted to the CAF Confederation Cup, by Esperance Tunis in the second round. Unbelievably, Chiefs yet again refused to honour their CAF match citing domestic fixture congestion. We know the real reason was the poor financial incentive of playing in the CAFCC. PSL was quickly becoming rich and CAF competitions looked like burdensome distractions.
Recent CAF Champions League appearances in 2014 and 2016 have not been fruitful either. Kaizer Chiefs’ African campaign ended at the hands of ASEC Mimosas in both CAFCL editions.
This failure to perform in the CAFCL goes up against Kaizer Chief’s self-image as the biggest club in Africa – this has nowadays changed to Sub-Saharan Africa but point stands. The club claims to have 16 million fans. This is hard to verify. The match attendances of Kaizer Chiefs do not really indicate such a dedicated following.
Their digital presence, though, does demonstrate Kaizer Chiefs to be as big as they think they are. Amakhosi is the fourth most popular football club in Africa. Data compiled by @resultsports and @DigiSportAfrica (Twitter) shows that they have a following of 5 million fans online – 3 million of these are on Facebook and a million on Twitter. Only Al Ahly, Zamalek and Raja Casablanca can claim to be bigger than Amakhosi (sorry Orlando Pirates). They do also play at Soccer City after all.
I can only imagine that these statistics present headaches to Jessica Motaung. She has been very visible in increasing the visibility of Kaizer Chiefs as Head of Marketing. She must see that their absence from the CAF Champions League conversation means that the club is not maximizing its potential. And the excuse about financial incentive cannot stand. Amakhosi should be part of CAFCL and be part of pushing for a change from within. We still do not have an association for the most important football clubs in Africa, would you believe?
The value and prestige of contending for, and even winning, the CAFCL title cannot be lost on Chiefs. Mamelodi Sundowns is case in point. The club saw Africa as an avenue to raise their profile considering the domestic presence of the two Soweto giants. Things have worked out so well for them that they have become the poster boy for the PSL when it comes to CAF Champions League conversation.
The brand exposure and financial benefit trappings for Sundowns will climax with participation in the new FIFA Club World Cup. Kaizer Chiefs have in the past actively courted Europeans teams for friendly matches and know what value such a competition presents. Chiefs no longer wins trophies as they used to and it has been said that they cannot compete in the transfer market anymore either. They cannot afford to fall further behind.
Time has come for Amakhosi to not only think about catching up but also aspire for even more ambitious goals like Al Ahly. They do not necessarily have to start buying players for $2 million. But they definitely have to start competing well in the CAF Champions League.