It was almost a foregone conclusion that Ahly and Wydad would reach the final of this year’s African Champions League. The two North African football powerhouses had breezed past their opponents in the first leg of the semi-finals.
They did not do as well in the second leg but they were good enough to advance to the last game of the continent’s most prestigious club soccer championship.
Ahly of Egypt saw off Algeria’s Entente Setif 6-2 on aggregate. Ahly had won the first leg of their last-four tie 4-0, and secured a 2-2 draw in Algeria on Saturday to progress.
Two-time winners Wydad booked their place in the final on Friday, with a 1-1 home draw against Petro Atletico which completed a 4-2 win on aggregate.
However, what should have been a celebration of the two giants of African and Arab football preparing to challenge for the title has instead degenerated over where the final will be held. A possible African record being set as Ahly shoot for an unprecedented three crowns in a row, not to mention their bid for a record-extending 11th overall triumph, has been eclipsed by a bitter dispute over the site of this quintessential match.
As of writing, the final is supposed to be held in the Moroccan city Casablanca, Wydad’s hometown, on Monday 30 May.
But Ahly want the venue changed, arguing that the decision by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to award the game to Morocco “violates laws and regulations” and will give Wydad home advantage.
The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) said on 12 May that it requested to host the final but CAF said a day later, in paraphrasing, “nothing doing”.
Ahly has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and also called for the issue to go all the way up to world football’s governing body FIFA.
Still, Ahly confirmed on Sunday that the team will take part in the Champions League final against Wydad despite the ongoing row.
At an emergency board meeting, Ahly said that despite being in dispute with CAF over the “unfair [decision] that was announced at a late stage of the competition, the club will play in the CAF Champions League final no matter where the game is held.” A statement read on the club’s website also said Ahly will continue proceeding with their complaint to the CAS.
Egyptian reaction to the decision has been fierce, with insinuations that African football’s ruling body had purposely selected Morocco to boost Wydad’s chances should they reach the final, a charge CAF has vehemently rejected.
In its defence, CAF insists Morocco were the only candidates to host the match after Senegal, the other bidder, withdrew from the running. BBC Sport Africa understands that the original deadline for bid submissions passed at the start of the year.
Because Morocco hosted last year’s final, CAF said it had encouraged other countries to stage the match but, despite “expressions of interest” from Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa (Egypt not among them) only Morocco remained when it came to decision time.
“A few months ago, four to five countries expressed interest in hosting the final but only two candidates properly came through,” a CAF source told BBC Sport Africa.
“We wanted more countries to bid, because the final is often between those from Morocco and Egypt. So it was fantastic to receive the Senegal bid, but they withdrew.”
A sparkling new stadium in Diamniadio that can hold up to 50,000, Senegal was considered a likely candidate to win the bid but withdrew last week. Dakar has not explained why it pulled out at such a late stage.
The CAF source said it costs “a significant amount” to host the final and “if it was easy, we’d be discussing candidacies from 10 countries or so.”
CAF claims it leaves the decision late in a bid to ensure the final takes place in a country that could attract a decent crowd for the continent’s showpiece club event.
“It is our intention in taking time to announce the final venue to give more opportunity to countries to bid,” the CAF source explained.
“We also want different countries to organise in order to involve fans as much as possible. People in Europe have money to travel to a final and pay the match ticket, but in Africa it is not the same.”
CAF’s explanation as to why it leaves the decision late does not square with the fact that Africa is football crazy and has large stadiums across the continent. A “decent crowd” for a Champions League final is certain.
In addition, any professional sports tournament, football or otherwise, chooses the venue of its final game before the tournament even starts, obviously to prevent any hint of bias that CAF is now so desperately trying to deny.
CAF not only decided not to announce a finals stadium early but decided to make the announcement when the tournament had reached the semi-final, and the first leg at that. CAF was playing favourites, especially that following the first leg of the semi-final Ahly and Wydad had all but sewn up a finals date.
And when Morocco was left all alone, CAF apparently did not make it clear then, at the beginning of the year when the championship was still in its infancy, that Morocco would host.
Even if CAF had awarded Cairo the right to host the final when it protested last week, it would still have been a wrong decision.
Egypt can very easily host a Champions League. In 2019 it hosted the much more difficult Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). But that’s not the issue. If CAF was going to wait until the late stages of the tournament to make its announcement, it should have stayed completely away from semi-finalists Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Angola. None of them could have hosted the final without CAF’s partiality showing all over the place.
Egypt, too, made a mistake it is now regretting. It passed up the opportunity to have the final staged in Cairo when it did not bid for it at the time it should have. They won’t say it but it is possible that the EFA waited to see how far Ahly would go in the championship before taking the decision to host. The reasoning could have been why throw so much money into a final if an Egyptian team won’t be there.
It does not appear that CAS will have the time to issue a ruling before the final, meaning the show will go on, in Mohamed V Stadium, in Morocco. Until then and after, there should be lessons learnt. CAF should from here on in pick a finals city before a championship gets underway. The more the delay the more it smacks of prejudice. And an Egyptian club need not reach the final of a Champions League for the EFA to want to host it. The EFA should want to play host to an event as seminal as an African final, no matter the finals participants.
It doesn’t help CAF that Morocco hosted last year’s final when Ahly beat Kaizer Chiefs of South Africa 3-0. Fans and media will now want to know the exact nature of CAF’s bromance with Morocco.
Meantime, CAF says talks are under way to have the Champions League return to the previous home-and-away format for future finals. A one-off final format was introduced in 2020.
But before tackling two games, CAF had better decide how to handle one.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.