They may not possess the global brand or mercurial talent of Barcelona, or the tradition or fame of Santos; but Esperance Sport de Tunis has one thing in common with these two great clubs: they are champions of their continent. A hot, sultry night in the Tunisian capital saw les Sang et Or defeat the visiting underdogs Wydad of Casablanca to win their second Champions League title, seventeen years after their first.
It has been a quite remarkable year in Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa. In January, Tunis became the crucible in which the so-called Arab Spring was forged. Demonstrations, riots and civil resistance led to the ousting of unpopular President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the first of the region’s leaders to fall in the movement. Unrest continued in the months following Ben Ali’s departure, until, in October, an election was won comfortably by the Islamist Nahdah Party.
Given a year of political upheaval and persistent, violent street disorder, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Champions League final was considered a high-risk event. A week previously, the first leg had finished in a scrappy goalless draw in Morocco, so all came down to the return leg in Tunis. Remarkable scenes could be witnessed outside Tunis’ Olympic Stadium in the days running up to the final, as supporters stood in mile-long queues for tickets. Waiting for many hours, supporters joined hands with the person in front of them to prevent queue-jumpers, giving the effect of an enormous, coiled snake wrapping around the stadium. By match day, the 65,000 with tickets, plus many thousands of others, took to the dense streets, in an atmosphere balanced precariously between excitement and violence.
1,500 supporters of Wydad Casablanca made the journey east, and, unfortunately, there is a history of disorder when fans from rival North African nations come together. Many, for example, will recall the chaos surrounding the World Cup playoff between Algeria and Egypt in 2010. Similar scenes were enacted in Tunis, with a bus carrying Wydad supporters attacked with stones and bottles on approaching the stadium. Inside the ground, the atmosphere was frenetic. Red and yellow, the club colours of Esperance, were everywhere in a sea of both choreographed and spontaneous displays of support. A vast banner depicting the champion team of 1994, interspersed with present players, hung from one end of the stadium. As kick off approached, the stadium shook to the noise of the crowd, red and yellow flags covered the stands; it was as though the Ali Sami Yen had been transported to Tunisia. From the upper tier of the northern tribune, deep red flares fizzed and fired, making the stand appear uncontrollably ablaze. This announced the presence of Ultras Winners, the main Wydad fan group, still strong in the belief that their team could cause an upset.
As is often the case in these situations, the match itself was rather a let down. The decisive moment came on 22 minutes, when Tunis’ Ghanaian fullback Harrison Afful provided a goal worthy of winning such a prestigious tie. Executing a perfect Cruyff turn on the edge of the penalty area, he curled a delightful shot into the far corner of the net. The Tunis management team leapt onto the field in delight, Afful sprinted along the athletics track ringing the field, thumping his chest; the crowd exploded with joy. Disorder sadly followed the goal; Wydad fans threw flares towards the field of play; Tunisian police exacerbated the situation by tearing down a Moroccan banner. A dozen arrests were made, Wydad fans seen to be unceremoniously dragged out by police in riot gear.
The remainder of the game was tense but lacking in goalmouth action, and the match concluded with Esperance de Tunis crowned champions of Africa. It was a cathartic moment, in view of both the political turmoil in Tunisia, and in light of their 6-1 defeat in the previous year’s final to Congolese giants TP Mazembe. North African teams continue to dominate the competition, having won 22 of the last 28 tournaments. This surely indicates a stronger structure and organisation in the region than in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as generally greater fiscal resources. No team from outside the North has challenged consistently; the occasional strong team from Nigeria, Congo or South Africa have come and gone, before players made the inevitable move to Europe and were not replaced.
Celebrations continued late into the night in Tunis; red and yellow tape was draped across the streets, cars drove slowly, horns blaring, flags waving. Esperance will proceed to the FIFA World Club Cup in Japan; a tournament considered a bit of a white elephant in Europe but taken very seriously in these parts. They have a chance, too; TP Mazembe reached the final in 2010, beating Copa Libertadores winners Internacional of Brazil along the way. It is surely inconceivable that Esperance will defeat the great Barcelona side; but if Harrison Afful recreates his goal from Sunday, he will at least give the Catalans cause to recall one of their greatest heroes. The Cruyff turn is alive and well in Tunisia.