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A clash of two contrasting decades: Trophy-rich Etoile against Kotoko’s atrophy

Kumasi Asante Kotoko’s home clash against Tunisia’s Etoile Sportif du Sahel (ESS) on September 15, 2019 is much more than a crucial CAF Champions League qualifying match. It is a contest that brings into focus the stark contrast of fortunes between two great clubs and two national leagues.

Although founded ten years before Kotoko in 1925, Etoile Sportif de Sahel side were simply anonymous in the 60’s-80’s when the Ghanaian giants established their legend as one of the most fearsome sides on the continent, winning the Champions League twice and ending as runners-up four times in that space of time.

While Kotoko have since gone on to lose three more finals in all CAF competitions, 1993 (Champions League); 2002 (Cup Winners Cup) and 2004 (Confederation Cup), Etoile du Sahel, on the other hand, have taken the African football stage by storm, winning nine CAF trophies in a space of two decades;1995-2015. The record is simply stunning;

CAF Champions League: 2007; Confederation Cup: 2006, 2015; Cup Winners Cup: 1997, 2003 CAF Cup: 1995, 1999; CAF Super Cup: 1998, 2008. They have thus won every continental trophy on offer in the past twenty years during which time Kotoko have also atrophied considerably.

Incidentally, the ten-time Tunisian Champions beat A.S. Kaloum of Guinea, Kotoko’s CAF Cup ¼ final conquerors, to win their first continental silverware in 1995. ESS went on to lose the final of the same competition to Morocco’s Kawkab Marrakech in 1996 before returning to win the Cup Winners Cup the following year, thumping Kotoko’s national rivals Accra Hearts of Oak 6-3 along the way. The Tunisian side also beat Hearts of Oak on penalties in the final qualifying round of the 2004 Champions League, forcing the Ghanaian side into the Confederation Cup which they eventually won in a fratricidal final against compatriots, Asante Kotoko.

Besides the triumphs, ESS have also been unlucky finalists on four occasions, losing to Kawkab Marakkech in the CAF Cup (1996); Enyimba in Champions League (2004); El Ahly in the Champions League (2005) and CS Sfaxien in the Confederations Cup (2008).

In another interesting coincidence, Kotoko were drawn in the same Group B with ESS in the 2008 Confederation Cup alongside Sudan’s El Merreikh and Algeria’s J.S. Kabylie. I am sorry to rattle nerves by mentioning the tempestuous group decider in Kumasi on October 4 and its aftermath. Kotoko were eventually sanctioned by CAF after some their fans attempted to attack Beninois referee, Kofi Codja whose performance on the day defied his towering reputation.

Ten years earlier (1998), ESS had shared spoils with Hearts of Oak, winning 2-1 and losing 2-3 in Tunis and Accra respectively in the Group stage of the CAF Champions League. The Tunisian outfit also eliminated Kotoko’s regional rivals, Ashgold, at the 2nd qualifying round of the CAF Confederation Cup in 2011, leaving their 2006 Champions League elimination by Accra Hearts of Oak as their only real misadventure against Ghanaian opposition in six two-legged encounters. The only other Tunisian falter against a Ghanaian club came in 2005 when King Faisal recorded 2-1 and 1-0 victories over A.S Marsa in the group stage the Confederation Cup.

Kumasi Asante Kotoko will therefore be battling not just a physical opponent but also a spell that often tilts Ghana-Tunisia club matches in favour of the latter. It makes matters more daunting, when one considers that North African sides, namely Olympique Bejaia (2013) and MC Eulma (2015), both from Algeria, have been responsible for Kotoko’s early elimination from Africa in recent campaigns. Barracks Young Controllers of Liberia (2014) and Cara Brazaville (2018) were the other two.

The North Africans will, however, not be counting exclusively on the favours of the horoscope to prevail in their upcoming clash against Kotoko. On the contrary, they have reorganised themselves for this year’s African campaign following a dry patch since their 2015 Confederation Cup triumph. It is a measure of ESS’s lofty ambitions that their four-year trophy drought in Africa is being felt like a disaster. And that sense of discontent in Sousse has been made even more acute by the back-to-back Champions League triumphs of arch rivals and reigning Champions, Esperance of Tunis.

In line the reorganisation for a fresh assault on Africa, ESS have brought in coach Faouzi Benzarti who led WAC to the final of the CAF Champions League which the Moroccans lost to Tunisia’s Esperance.

The Tunisian aristocrats have also dished out of $300,000 to acquire Karim Laribi from Guinea’s Hafia Club, while Kotoko are grappling with the truancy of their Burkinabe talisman, Sogne Yakuba.

ESS emphasised their awesome fire power and grim resolve with their 8-3 aggregate demolition of Hafia Club in the last qualifying match, as Kotoko scrapped through with a 4-3 win against Nigeria’s Kano Pillars. Normally, the above narrative should not bother a club of Kotoko’s stature and experience. But things are not normal for the once dominant Ghanaian side. The current campaign is only their sixth since 2009 when they suffered a first round elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Moroccan flyweights, Ittihad Khemisset. Kotoko have also been kicked out of Africa before the group stage in four of the past five campaigns, summing up the extent of the decline.

To add to Kotoko’s drawbacks, the Ghana Premier League has been grounded since August 2018 following the football corruption scandal provoked by investigative journalist Anas Aremayaw Anas’s Number 12 exposé. It was the final nail in the coffin of a league that was churning out “dead on arrival” representatives in the African club competitions. On the other hand, the Tunisian league has been very much alive. One of the most professional and competitive in Africa, Tunisia’s elite football league has delivered six African titles in the past ten years (three apiece in the Confederation Cup and the Champions League, including the last two). Three different clubs including ESS have been involved in the Tunisian success story.

In the light of the above, Kotoko have their work cut out as they gear up for the Etoile du Sahel challenge. Their two-legged games against Kano Pillars yielded a goal scoring average of 2 and a concession average of 1.5 per match. They must ensure a 100% improvement in effort and efficiency to maintain this record against the more accomplished Tunisians. The porcupine Warriors and their teeming fans must appreciate the size of the opposition and exercise patience throughout the 90 minutes in the hope of a narrow victory. Crucially the Ghanaian side must avoid ceding an away-goal advantage to their guests. Finally, they should be prepared to play a disciplined, focused and organised game in Sousse.

Source: Muheeb Saeed

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