Sports Features Tue, 11 Jun 2019
It will only really become apparent, in time, just how seismic, and potentially damaging, the past week has been for the Confederation of African Football.It is not so much what happens as how one handles it, but it is important to establish what came before.
On the 31st of June, the Caf Champions League final second leg took place in Rades, Tunis. Defending champions Esperance, fresh from a 1-1 result from the first leg in Rabat, welcomed Wydad Casablanca with the odds firmly stacked in their favour, thanks to the away goal.
However, behind the scenes, trouble had already begun to brew.
Hawk-Eye innovations, tasked with providing the equipment for the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system, had been unable to get it across to Tunisia in time. This meant that the second leg would have to be played without it, in contrast to the first.
It is unclear whether or not this state of affairs was relayed to both teams, and whether that would have forestalled what was about to happen. In any case, the match kicked off with the VAR monitor propped up, in what now appears to have been a face-saving move on the part of CAF.
Esperance took the lead five minutes before the break, taking the advantage in the tie, but it did not really change Wydad’s mandate: they had come into the game needing to score anyway. It was all set up for a cracker of a second half.
On the hour mark, however, it all blew up.
Wydad thought they had got an equalizer when midfielder Walid El-Karti darted into the box to head home from across. The linesman’s flag, however, went up to annul the goal, a decision which incensed the Moroccan side.
It then returns to what report one believes as to whether both teams were advised beforehand of the absence of VAR. If, as Esperance claim, they were, then what followed by Wydad was gamesmanship of the highest order: they insisted, vehemently, that the goal be reviewed by the system.
Even if one were to believe Wydad’s claim that they were not informed of the technical issues beforehand, it displayed an ignorance of the workings of VAR, as it is not the players’ place to demand a review, as is the case in, say, tennis.
Their protests would hold up the game, pulling CAF President Ahmad Ahmad from the stands and onto the pitch itself in search of a solution to the ensuing mayhem. After a wait that lasted well over 30 minutes, the decision was apparently reached that Wydad’s actions constituted a forfeit, and so the game was awarded to Esperance, as was the trophy.
A presentation took place, and captain Khalil Chemmam held the trophy aloft, celebrating a second Caf Champions League triumph in a row.
That, however, was only the beginning and set the stage for what could potentially become one of the most damaging decisions in the history of African football.
Wydad, smouldering still at the perceived injustice of it all, decided they would appeal, and after consultations, the president of the Morocco FA, Fouzi Lekjaa, indicated they would be throwing their entire weight behind the complaint. Four days after the final, in Paris, Caf ruled that the second leg should be replayed at a neutral venue and that Esperance would be required to return the trophy, as well as the medals they had received in the presentation ceremony.
For a number of reasons, it was a worrying decision. For one thing, there has been a suspicion that Ahmad enjoys a lot of support from Morocco, and so this is already being construed as the president of Caf dancing to the tune of his benefactor.
Also, in keeping with the theme but in a broader sense, sub-Saharan Africa has, over time, grown increasingly irritated with North Africa’s entitlement where Caf competition is concerned. That they are now seen to be dictating to Caf does nothing to improve that perception, and will only stoke that resentment.
Optics aside, the precedent it all sets is a concern.
VAR, for all that it is the future, is only a recent addition to the African game and was only in place for the finals. Surely, the integrity of the event should not hinge and turn upon its presence; indeed, it is not stated in the laws of the game that, in its absence, a game should not take place. This makes Wydad’s refusal to continue tantamount to a forfeit, and as such the initial decision to award the trophy was the correct one, even acknowledging that the Moroccan side has a legitimate grievance (the goal, as TV replays would show, should have been allowed to stand).
The sense of farce would only deepen.
Twelve hours after that decision was reached, Ahmad was arrested and taken in for questioning by the French police.
There were no details released, but reportedly this was to do with a sports equipment procurement contract for the Championship of African Nations in 2018 that was awarded to French company Tactical Steel at a huge mark-up, despite an agreement already being in place with the manufacturers.
While he was eventually released without charge – as Caf have been particularly eager to stress through their various communication channels – it does heighten the sense that Africa’s football leadership is constantly teetering on the brink of chaos, and all it takes is the slightest gust to send it over the edge.
What it does seem like, as each day passes, is that Ahmad’s lack of capacity and suitability for the job will inevitably do him in...the only question is when.