The Road to Tunis

by Tom Clover

On Sunday evening, 55,000 people packed into the Stade Mohamed V in Casablanca, creating an astonishing atmosphere. Red flares danced across the stands, lighting up the Moroccan night, as a meticulously choreographed display began, supporters holding up coloured sheets to form a vast image of two great white lions, guarding the club logo of the home side, Wydad.

The fire and light show continued well into the football match, but as the 0-0 draw moved from possible to probable to inevitable, the only sounds came from a small pocket of Tunisians, red and yellow shirts recalling an exotic Partick Thistle. At the final whistle, the home fans drifted away, undefeated but clearly feeling that they had blown their best chance at a million dollar payout, and a place in the World Club Cup tournament. How different was this sombre mood to the scenes witnessed on the same streets three weeks earlier…

The busy traffic of Casablanca was brought to a standstill. Horns blared in a cacophony of appreciation for the spontaneous celebration which was delaying their journey. Hordes of people, clad in red and white, drifted across the highway, dancing, leaping and chanting into the sultry North African air. Flares shone, couples kissed, strangers embraced, youngsters sang, elders cried. It was the most good-natured celebration imaginable, and was sparked by a goalless draw six thousand kilometres away.

Aba is a thriving commercial city of rather less than a million people in the heart of the Christian south of Nigeria, a short distance upriver from the birthplace of President Goodluck Jonathan. It is hot, dusty, busy city; and an extremely difficult place in which to win football matches. The home team, Enyimba (“The People’s Elephant”) are a powerhouse of Nigerian football, and their International Stadium is considered a fortress.

The Moroccan League leaders, Wydad Casablanca, jetted into Aba clinging tenderly to a 1-0 lead which, if protected, would give them a place in the final of the African Champions League. This would prove a remarkable achievement, not least because they had already been eliminated from the tournament. In May, Wydad lost 2-1 on aggregate to defending champions TP Mazembe of Lubumbashi. The Congolese club, though, were subsequently thrown out of the tournament for fielding an ineligible player.

Wydad, reinstated, continued to ride their luck. They faced a special playoff against Simba of Tanzania; a side recently shorn not only of its two best players, but also their coach, and Wydad enjoyed an easy win in neutral Cairo. Wydad then squeezed through the group stage on goal difference ahead of perennial contenders Al Ahly of Egypt, thanks mainly to Mouhssine Iajour’s late equaliser in a crazy 3-3 draw in Cairo. Starting the semi final as underdogs, Wydad delighted a 55,000 crowd in Casablanca with a 1-0 win gained on an error from Enyimba goalkeeper Peter Godwin. Few expected them to cling on in Nigeria.

A hostile capacity crowd of 25,000 packed into the rickety blue and white stands of the international stadium in Aba for the return match. Security for the visitors was tight; even the travelling Moroccan media were guarded by soldiers in black berets. This was not without cause; the stadium had been closed for some months in 2008 after a referee was attacked following a local derby match. Aba expected a win: Enyimba’s progress to this stage had been much smoother. The crisis in Libya meant a tough two-legged qualifier against al-Ittihad became a much more negotiable home-only fixture. Drawn in the easier group, Enyimba dominated Sudanese side Al Hilal, Cotonsport of Cameroon, and Wydad’s rivals, Raja Casablanca. The home fans, reeling from the national side’s elimination in qualifying from the African Cup of Nations, wanted and needed a win.

It did not come. A desperate, scrappy game in intense heat saw few chances; certainly the best effort on goal was a thirty-yard Moroccan attempt which hit the crossbar. At full time, Casablanca began to celebrate, and Aba began to investigate. Things do not look good for coach Okey Emordi, who was given a less than resounding vote of confidence by chairman Felix Anyansi-Agwu: “He failed….a decision on him will be taken at the appropriate time.” Emordi, cryptically, told the media that the defeat should be considered “from a holistic perspective.”

The final, again a two-legged affair, pits Wydad against another giant of African football, ES Tunis. Tunis entered the game full of confidence: they topped the group both teams were in during qualifying, though both matches between the sides were drawn. Tunis won both legs of their semi-final against Al Hilal; comfortably at home after the tie was broken with a 1-0 victory under the hot Sudanese sun in Omdurman. Following the draw in Casablanca, Tunis will expect a victory in Saturday evening’s decisive match, moved from their d’El Menzah ground to the national Rades stadium in order to pack in an extra 20,000 supporters.

Interestingly, no UK bookmaker is yet offering betting on the major African club game of the year, a game which will be attended by 100,000 fans over the two legs, and watched by millions across the continent. There is a real pride and passion in African club football which is not generally recognised in Europe, where the continent is too often seen as an inconsequential collection of village teams from where the best players will be plucked to play in the French third division. The North African battle between Wydad and Tunis would provide strong and tangible evidence to the contrary, though sadly the fascinating tie will not be available on our TV screens. The writer believes that Tunis will sneak home in a low-scoring, nervy affair. Whatever happens, the CAF Champions League is a gloriously odd, unpredictable, entertaining, passionate competition, which deserves much wider exposure.

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