May 19, 2022

Mark Gleeson column: CAF not big on learning lessons

It didn’t take long for the penny to drop. It was January 1994 and Soccer City was virtually empty. The Egyptians were aghast. Their top two clubs Al Ahly and Zamalek were going toe-to-toe for the African Super Cup and there was no-one there to watch.

Usually, the pair pack in crowds close to 100 000 at the Cairo International Stadium, but spectators in South Africa proved ambivalent … nay, disinterested.

The Super Cup was new and this was the first time they had hosted it at a neutral venue. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) planned to have the Super Cup move around the continent, giving all a chance to watch the two best clubs from the previous year go head-to-head.

CAF were mortified as the continent’s fiercest derby played out to empty stands, but they gave the concept of a neutral game one more opportunity the following year.

This time, it was hosted in the ancient Egyptian port city of Alexandria, pitting Champions Cup winners Esperance of Tunisia against Daring Club Motema Pembe of the then Zaire, who had won the African Cup Winners’ cup. Again, hardly anyone turned up.

And so the concept of a neutral venue was shelved and future Super Cups (until recently being moved to Qatar) were played at the home of the Champions League winner. CAF had learnt its lesson.

But after almost 30 years of rule by Issa Hayatou, African football’s governing body voted in as its new president a former Malagasy fisheries minister.

Ahmad attempted to position himself as a reformer (while quickly digging his hands into the organisation’s coffers) and proposed a raft of changes to African competitions – some necessary, others without due

One that was not properly thought through was the concept of a single final. Ahmad and his new executive committee were entranced by the worldwide appeal of the UEFA Champions League and sought to replicate as much of it as they could. One of which, the concept of a one-off final in a predesignated city.

But African football should know by now that not everything copied from Europe fits in an Africa context.

Those who could recall the calamity of an empty Soccer City in 1994 were no longer around to advise against taking the CAF Champions League final, and indeed the CAF Confederation Cup, to a single match. So CAF changed away from the time-honoured tradition of deciding its club competitions over two legs. Silly idea.

After a half century, the first one-off final was set for the new stadium in Douala, but then canned because they were not ready. Fortunately, Ahly and Zamalek reached the 2020 final and so Cairo was the logical choice.

Last year Casablanca was chosen, just weeks ahead of the semifinal featuring Wydad Casablanca, as Morocco sought to give their side an advantage in their quest to win the cup.

Those best laid plans, however, were unhinged by the shock exit of Wydad at the hands of an
underperforming Kaizer Chiefs, ensuring no controversy over the venue for the final, which then pitted Ahly and Chiefs in a neutral city.

But this year’s polemic over Casablanca again hosting the final, with Wydad looking almost assured of a place, is of CAF’s own making. The new Patrice Motsepe regime says it is going to go back to a two-legged home-and- away final from next year and rightly so.

But in the meantime, they have made a proper mess of this year’s venue by delaying the choice when it should be made long before the final is even in sight.

Motsepe promised a world-class CAF when he took over but it has proven anything but, bungling even more than the two previous administrations.

But at least by going back to home and away finals he will have fixed a glaring error.

By Mark Gleeson

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