We will be concluding another CAF Champions League season in a couple of weeks. Yes to the excitement of a Cairo Derby CAFCL Final. No to that feeling that the competition is getting a little stale. There are people who find Al Ahly, Wydad Casablanca and Zamalek reaching the final stages of the competition yet again to be boring. The fact that the usual faces of Sundowns, TP Mazembe and Esperance Tunis are the prime candidates to replace the aforementioned trio pains me.
In fact, this season was one of the worst in this regard as the CAFCL quarterfinal teams ended up being the eight we predicted would qualify from the group stage. What can be done about this?
CAF is sitting on the obvious solution of expanding the CAF Champions League group stage again; this time to 32 teams. They first did it in 2017, increasing the number of CAFCL group stage participants from eight to 16 teams, after years of being hesitant to implement the idea. It turned out to be a good idea as we have ended up having one-season wonder clubs like KCCA FC reach the group stage for the first time plus we have enjoyed the extra round of knockout matches.
Not everyone is supportive of the call to expand the CAFCL group stage to 32 teams. The main reason these antagonists give is that such a move will dilute the quality of the tournament. How will allowing a club from Ghana to play six group stage matches affect Al Ahly’s chances of reaching the semifinal again?
This kind of argument is faulty in two ways. It denies the fact that there are really good teams that are locked out of the CAFCL because there simply isn’t enough room for everyone. Secondly, it is blind to the holistic need of developing club football in Africa. If only North African clubs get to play many matches in the CAFCL then only North Africans will watch the CAFCL.
The More the Merrier
I have said so many times, more countries need to have an extended time in the CAF Champions League for it to become popular among football fans in Africa. You cannot give Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania only two matches in your year-long competition and then act surprised at the fact that football fans from these countries to do not care for your competition.
I came up with the 10-countries test for the CAF Champions League. What is that? I have been checking whether at least 10 countries are represented in the CAFCL group stage since 2017. I am happy to report that indeed we have always had at least 10 countries represented in the group stage since the expansion to 16 teams.
But only 18 teams have been represented in the group stage within that period. This is way less than the number of teams in the Africa Cup of Nations. And we did not have a new country represented in the 2019/2020 season. This goes against the spirit of developing club football in Africa. A group stage of 32 teams will give us a new benchmark of 20 teams and go a longer way in improving the state of club football in Africa. I think the benchmark that Sundowns has set in South Africa is proof of what regular competition with the CAFCL bigwigs can lead to.
UEFA, CONMEBOL and AFC are other Confederations running their Champions Leagues with group stages of 32 teams. They understand that this is the optimal way to ensure that all the big clubs in the respective continents are part of the festivities and as such raise the profile of their competition.
CAF is lucky to have more “big clubs” than any other continent. But CAF is not taking advantage of the fact. Teams like Orlando Pirates, Gor Mahia, Simba SC, Asante Kotoko, etc. can fill any stadium in Africa – okay, except the very large ones. Therefore, it is embarassing that they can only participate in the CAFCL intermittently because only league winners and runner-ups are allowed to qualify.
It is even more dissapointing to see clubs like RS Berkane, Pyramids FC and your pick of a Tunisian Big Four Club waste their days in the CAF Confederation Cup. Expansion of the group stage to 32 teams will create room for the very best leagues to get three qualification slots, the mid-tier leagues to get two qualification slots and for everyone to end up happy.
What do We do with the CAFCC?
I know you may be thinking that “stealing” high profile clubs from the CAF Confederation Cup will kill the competition. It will not. The rightful place of the CAFCC is in giving the second-tier clubs access to continental football, as is the case with the Europa League in Europe. Giving clubs like Mbeya City, Supersport United and Ismaily SC the opportunity to play “in Africa” will improve quality of the domestic leagues.
This is in line with the mindset of having club football be the showcase of football talent based in Africa rather than funny competitions like CHAN or even AFCON, which usually features players who spend a few weeks a year playing in Africa.
There is no good excuse for CAF to continue delaying taking the step of expanding the CAF Champions League group stage to 32 teams. All the big football clubs in Africa should be a part of it for it attain its goal of becoming front and center in the minds of football fans in Africa.
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