With this piece by new contributor Matthew Pentz, TSG kicks off it’s African soccer coverage.
The African Champions League exists mostly, if not completely, on the periphery of the soccer world. The tournament blends a strong history, passionate fans, and an up-and-coming class of young players, however, and its semifinalists each have a bit of the underdog in them.
The semis kicked off this weekend. Wydad Casablanca used their home crowd to their advantage and stunned favorites Enyimba with an 89th minute goal. In the other tie, last year’s runners up Espérance Sportive de Tunis jumped on Al-Hilal in the 4th minute and will carry a 1-0 advantage into their home leg.
The second legs are in a week and a half, and the tournament concludes with a two-leg final in mid-November. Though the games may only be available through grainy feeds on your computer, each team provides a unique reason to watch.
Wydad Casablanca (Morocco)
Nickname: The Reds and Whites
Titles: 1 (1992)
Drawing Enyimba was the first bit of bad luck that Wydad Casablanca has had in the tournament. They have the look of a team of destiny after barely scraping out of the past two rounds. The Reds and Whites were actually dumped out of the tournament in the second round by TP Mazembe, only to receive a lifeline when the defending champions were dismissed from the competition for using an eligible player. Wydad then progressed with a win over Simba, the side TP Mazembe had knocked out in the first round.
Wydad’s good fortune continued in the group stages. They were a point ahead of Egyptian power Al-Alhy heading into the final day, but fell 3-1 to MC Alger, a team that had already been eliminated. ES Tunis also had nothing to play for, having already clinched the group, but managed to hold Al-Alhy to a 1-1 draw. The result sent Wydad through on goal difference. Wydad Casablanca hadn’t progressed past the second round since their title run in the early 90s, but it’s hard to write off a team that has caught so many breaks already.
Player to watch: Congolese striker Fabrice N’Guessi was the man that finally broke the deadlock against Simba. Wydad had failed to break the Tanzanians down, and the game look set for penalties. The 23-year-old broke down in tears in celebration after the vital goal. Beninese midfielder Jean Louis Pascal Angan scored the crucial goal in the first leg, but if N’Guessi can break through in Nigeria, Enyimba will face the tall task of needing at least three goals to advance.
Enyimba International FC (Nigeria)
(shows that hooliganism didn’t just happen in 1980s Europe)
Nickname: The People’s Elephant
Titles: 2 (2003, 2004)
The People’s Elephant stampeded through the group stages, picking up 14 points and going unbeaten in the six matches. The youngest of the clubs still alive in the competition, Enyimba were formed in 1976. After an unimpressive first two decades, they rose to prominence in the early 2000s when their native Abia state started funneling money toward the local team. Enyimba’s first taste of international soccer was a 7-0 defeat to Inter Milan at the San Siro.
Despite the slow start and sparked by the rebuilding of their stadium into a 25,000 seater, the People’s Elephant quickly made their mark in Africa. The 2003 title marked the first time a Nigerian team had won the competition. Though Enyimba entered the semis as the favorite, a trip to Casablanca right after disappointing loss in Nigeria’s cup final on Sunday proved too tall of a task, and the squad now has their backs against the wall.
Player to watch: Otekpa Eneji is the latest in a line of strong Nigeria defensive midfielders, a John Obi Mikel, junior, if you will. Eneji does it all for the People’s Elephant, shoring up the front of the defense and pushing up field. He even takes free kicks for the side. At 22, Eneji may be a bit old to be tagged a rising star, but his recent pair of call-ups to the national team suggest that he might be a late bloomer just hitting his stride.
Espérance Sportive de Tunis (Tunisia)
Nickname: Blood & Gold
Titles: 1 (1994), Runners-up in 1999, 2000, 2010
EST is looking to erase the disappointment of a season ago, when they advanced to the final but fell 5-0 in the first leg to TP Mazembe, making their home leg all but a formality. The defending champions from the highest ranked league in Africa have ventured deep into this competition many times over the past decade – EST has reached at least the semifinals five times since their finals appearance in 1999.
EST has the most history, motivation from past close calls and intimidating nickname left in the tournament, and after a strong showing the first leg, the side appears to be on a crash course with Enyimba.
Player to watch: Tunisian midfielder Oussama Darragi may be the finest young playmaker in Africa. Equally adept at scoring goals as he is setting them up, the 2010 Tunisian player of the year has been tagged the African Cristiano Ronaldo, at least by YouTube users. Darraji also has a flair for the dramatic – his second goal with the senior Tunisian squad was an 89 minute strike to earn a crucial draw with Nigeria in World Cup Qualifying. He has drawn the interest of Portuguese side FC Braga, and many think this tournament with be his last with EST. Blood & Gold fans are hoping that he’ll go out with a bang.
(Mudathir scoring a goal)
Nickname: Blue Wave
Titles: 0, Runners-up in 1987, 1992
Al-Hilal is the only semifinalist yet to win the tournament, but they are also the only team left to boost one of the Toure brothers. Ibrahima, the younger brother of Kolo and Yaya, spent a year in France with Nice, and mixes an imposing 6-foot, 4-inch frame with a surprising deftness on the ball. Despite being the underdog of the quartet, Al-Hilal boosts a strong history.
The team’s motto, “God – The Nation – Al-Hilal,” is supposedly a priority list for fans, and they’ve had plenty to cheer about in recent years. In the last four years, the club has won three Sudanese titles – out of 26 total, tops in the country – and qualified for three Champions League semifinals. The Blue Wave now has its sights set on the one honor that has eluded them.
Player to watch: Sudanese striker Mudathir El Tahir is a leading light of a generation that hopes to raise the country out of the news as a genocide state and into its first World Cup. The 23-year-old’s 6-foot-1 size proves Al-Hilal with a towering front line when he is paired next to Toure, and the big goalscorers could be the X-factor in a push for the first title both for Al-Hilal and Sudan.
Schedule: Wydad vs. Enyimba, first leg 1-0, second leg Oct. 14-16
Al-Hilal vs. EST, first leg 0-1, second leg Oct. 14-16
Final, first leg Nov. 4-6, second leg Nov. 11-13