After Wydad Casablanca’s memorable triumph last term, the Caf Champions League is back, with the continent’s top sides kicking off the new campaign with the first legs of the Preliminary Round this weekend.
The competition, which pits Africa’s biggest and best against each other, has been in existence since 1964, and has undergone changes over the years. Last year’s Champions League saw an increase in teams in the group phase from eight to 16 divided in four groups, meaning for the first time ever, Africa’s premier club competition had the quarter-final stage.
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the two-legged final, with teams competing at the respective homes of the two finalists for every edition bar the first, and two in which the contest went to a third playoff match.
By contrast, the Uefa Champions League final, with an enormous global audience, is a one-legged affair, played in a neutral venue, with everything at stake in that one clash.
Critics argue that a two-legged Caf Champions League final needs to go because it gives advantage to the team playing the first leg at home, making the return leg less relevant if a solid lead is established. Home advantage traditionally plays a key role in African football, and rarely do away teams make the kind of comebacks that we see in Europe.
Playing in a neutral venue would negate the need to have a two-legged final across a week.
However, a two-legged final need not be a bad thing in itself.
The Copa Libertadores, which pitches South America’s biggest teams against each other, has its final played over two legs since it started in 1960, and is popular both across South America and beyond.
It’s a broad popularity not shared by the Caf Champions League, which doesn’t currently have traction across the African public in the same way the South American tournament resonates there.
Primarily, the tournament is only attractive in North Africa, where teams have dominated the competition down the years.
Indeed clubs from North Africa have a combined 29 Champions League titles and have won 22 of the last 28 editions. Egypt is the most successful country with 14 titles, eight of which have been won by Al-Ahly.
The football culture in North Africa is arguably the most developed on the continent, with infrastructure, structures and facilities similar to the levels of European leagues.
Some clubs, such as Egyptian outfits Al-Ahly and and Zamalek, are more than 100 years old and have built a tradition and cult following with their success down the years.
The Cairo Derby, contested between both sides, is one of the biggest games in the world, drawing a record attendance 120,000 spectators to the Cairo International Stadium.
Legends such as Amr Zaki, Mohamed Aboutrika, Essam El-Hadary, Ahmed Hassan, among others, built a reputation in Egypt have featured in the Champions League, thus giving it more prestige in the region.
Very few countries in sub-Saharan Africa can come close to demonstrating a significant culture of success in the competition.
The issue is that local football is not as popular as it should in the rest of Africa. It does have massive potential, but it hasn’t developed to the stage where it appeals to local audiences, meaning that club structures and resources are less than they are elsewere in the continent.
Many of Africa’s top sides will take to the field this weekend, but the matches won’t get the attention-even locally-as European fixtures such as Saturday’s North London Derby will.
This is not the case in North Africa, were fans cherish their football and come out in numbers to support their teams. Fixtures are often explosive events and genuine spectacles.
The Copa Libertadores proves that it’s not the two-legged final that is the problem for continental tournaments, but until infrastructure, economics and context ensure that African supporters embrace their teams in the tournament and are invested in their performances until the competition’s conclusion, the Caf Champions League won’t capture the imagination as it ought to.