We asked and you gave us your verdict that Al Ahly versus Esperance Tunis should be considered the CAF Champions League classico. This is in a manner similar to the continental rivalries that the UEFA Champions League sells like Chelsea against Barcelona and everytime Bayern Munich plays Real Madrid. The two giants from Cairo and Tunis respectively have given us more memorable CAFCL meetings than any other pair. No, forget Wydad Casablanca versus Sundowns.
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Among their high profile meetings include two CAFCL finals. They first met in the decider match in 2012. Esperance Tunis were hoping to give Youssef Msakni a winning send-off by winning the CAF Champions League in Rades but Walid Soliman ruined their plans. Taraji paid back their rivals 6 years later when they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to win the CAFCL 4-3 on aggregate.
These two sides are not the only ones to have met in two CAFCL finals. But they are the only ones to have also met in two semifinals, a quarterfinal and a few more group stage matches. We got the infamous hand-of-god goal by Eneramo when Ahly and Esperance met in the 2010 CAF Champions League semifinals.
Al Ahly and Esperance Tunis also Dominate Domestically
The dominance of these two sides is not just limited to the continental arena. Al Ahly and Esperance Tunis are even more overwhelming when it comes to their respective domestic football leagues.
Right now, Al Ahly are on course for a fifth consecutive Egyptian Premier League title. They have only dropped points in three matches after 23 rounds of league matches played. This is shocking when you consider that they play in the same league with Zamakek and Pyramids FC. In fact, their thorough dominance is historical as they have won practically every season of the Egyptian League save for a decade or so when Zamalek got to win the title. I do not know how Al Ahly fans even enjoy their league wins but they appear to do.
You would think that Tunisia would avoid a similar scenario since their league has the ‘Big Four‘. But Club Africain, Etoile Sahel and CS Sfaxien have proven to be incapable of presenting a consistent challenge to Esperance, the Ghoul of Africa. Taraji has won six of the last 10 Tunisia Ligue 1 titles. And the Parc B side is closing in on a fourth consecutive league title to add onto the 29 they have won before. Nobody comes close. Club Africain is a distant second with 13 Tunisia Ligue 1 titles won.
This combination of domestic and international success begs the question of whether they would extend the same dominance to every other league in Africa. Of course, many fans immediately reject the idea that this would happen. PSL fans like to mention that Al Ahly has never won on South African soil. But that could be because they only ever get to play the very best of the PSL. It is not like PSL sides win in Egypt either.
What Makes Al Ahly and Esperance Tunis Better?
Other leagues in Africa struggle to produce this double success. You may end up having the Sudan and DR Congo situation where Al Hilal, Al Merreikh and TP Mazembe do well in their respective leagues but are not consistently top dogs in Africa. Conversely, there are the likes of Sundowns and Wydad Casablanca who have to fight tooth and nail to qualify for CAFCL football every season. What do they lack that Ahly and Esperance seem to have in abundance?
First, the two African Classico contestants have a peerless culture of winning. I say this because they keep on winning domestically against equally capable opponents and extend this success to continental matches. It is no surprise that Al Ahly and Esperance Tunis have the most appearances in the CAF Champions League group stage.
The heritage in these two clubs is that winning the league title is a given and that winning the CAFCL is truly the measure of a successful season. This is why Ahly changed coaches despite reaching back-to-back CAFCL finals in 2017 and 2018. Mouine Chaabani, on his part, was not sure whether he would survive Taraji’s quarterfinal elimination this season.
Unlike other leading clubs, Al Ahly and Esperance Tunis have figured out that squad depth is the most important aspect of sustaining both domestic and league competitiveness. They have or come close to having two good players in every poistion. This allows them to brush off disruptions of a season campaign like injuries, travel and exhaustion. Pitso Mosimane’s Sundowns is the only other club attempting this approach and they have discovered that it works. The rest of CAFCL contender clubs will typically have a formidable starting XI and only three or four equally good players on the bench.
Another thing that keeps the Red Devils and Taraji is their institutional experience. They have been there and done it. They know how to mount successful challenges for both league and CAF Champions League titles. They know the kinds of players to recruit and what type of football to expect from whichever part of Africa. I get dissapointed when I see clubs in Southern Africa and Eastern Africa, like Simba SC, fail to recruit backroom staff from North Africa to impart knowledge on how to approach CAFCL.
I would say that on quality of players alone, Al Ahly and Esperance Tunis would win every league in Africa. Yes. even PSL and Botola! It is impossible to see Al Ahly struggling to beat Youssoufia Berrechid or Chippa United with all due respect. Our African Classico duo are very consistent at dispatching weak teams in the league – so to speak. They are also good at handling high stake matches as evidenced by their proud records in the CAF Champions League.
Let me know in the comments section below, how many players in your team would start for Al Ahly or Esperance?