Football’s Only Part of It
To prosper in the African Champions League you have to play the game off the pitch as well as on it
Here is a brave statement: the African Champions League is the most difficult club competition to win across all continents.
Is that the sound of a snigger? Well, save it until you read the stories of what clubs have to go through to climb that podium.
While it takes a great squad of players to win the African Champions League, just like its European equivalent, there are also a huge number of hurdles, both spiritual and temporal, that teams have to negotiate which have little bearing on the actual football.
While clubs from Europe and elsewhere usually only have to worry about matters on the pitch, and maybe pockets of fan violence and abuse every now and then, their counterparts competing in the African Champions League deal with matters ranging from officially-sanctioned discomfort to some very primordial dark arts.
To start with, here’s a story from 1994 involving the South African club Kaizer Chiefs as told by veteran journalist Thomas ‘TK’ Kwenaite. “I travelled with Kaizer Chiefs for a Champions League game in Burundi,” he said. “There was a tribal war going on, so the situation was quite tense when we arrived. About 60,000 people had packed into the stadium and there were quite a lot of soldiers.
“Chiefs raced into a 3-0 lead in the first half and were looking good to run up a big score. Then one of the Chiefs defenders brought down a local guy in the centre-circle. Before we knew what was happening, some of soldiers had run onto the field and were chasing the Chiefs players around the centre-circle. The referee then picked up the ball from the centre line and awarded the home side a penalty.
“Seeing the situation on the ground, the coach issued instructions to [the captain] Lucas Radebe to tell [the goalkeeper] Brian Baloyi to make sure he dived the other way and not to save the penalty. Then he instructed him to tell the rest of the team not to score again if they wanted us all to leave in one piece.”
Willy Opara, who played for another South African club, Orlando Pirates, when they won the competition in 1995, has many tales of their adventures, but perhaps none that he tells more often than what they faced in his home country Nigeria when they played BCC Lions.
At half-time, the players were heading into the dressing room when Opara says he called the team back. An official of the club went in first and was hit by an odour so pungent he almost passed out The squad ended up having to do their half-time team talk on the pitch. Pirates won that game and went on to be crowned champions.
Fast forward to 2003, when the Nigerian club Enyimba were in Senegal for a group match against Jeanne d’Arc. One of the team officials had a gallon of crude oil packed in his luggage on the flight from Nigeria. His amused response when he was asked why he was carrying it was, “Wait. When we get there, you’ll see.”
On match-day, before the team left the hotel, he headed to the stadium to check out the dressing room. What he met inside was what looked like fresh blood sprinkled underneath the seats. He calmly scrubbed off the blood, washed everything with detergent then proceeded to pour the oil all over the dressing room before locking it with a big padlock he had brought from Nigeria.
Only then did he call for the team, while he stood guard in front of the door. Enyimba drew that game 0-0.
Back at the hotel, he explained what he’d done with the oil. “Crude oil neutralises any kind of juju,” he said. “It’s a natural oil and it comes from what is already dead, so it takes everything down.”
Enyimba went on to win the African Champions League that year, but not before a major hiccup in the next fixture. Drawn against Egyptian club Ismaily in the first game of the group phase, Enyimba travelled with high expectations of a good result. In the dressing room, the players were told about the Egyptian club’s ‘spiritual forces’ and warned not to shake hands during the pre-match formalities.
Instead, they were asked to make fists and bump knuckles. The goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, a deeply religious Christian, was having none of that. He was the only player who shook hands.
Enyimba were absolutely torn apart by a 6-1 score, with Enyeama conceding the first four before he was hauled off for Dele Aiyenugba.
In the inquisition that followed, team officials heaped the blame on Enyeama’s refusal to heed the spiritual advice.
A player from Cameroon, who does not want to be named, speaks of how his club would bribe hotel staff to spike food and drinks of visiting teams during their stay to weaken them on match-day. Corroboration comes from Victor Ezeji, a striker who played for two Nigerian clubs, Enyimba and Dolphins, in the Champions League. “We never ate food from the hotels,” he said. “What the officials used to do would be to have someone look for a Nigerian living in that country who ran a restaurant, and they would bring us Nigerian food. Our water was usually purchased from stores far from the hotel.”
Ezeji then adds two stories of his own. “When I was with Dolphins, we went for a match in Togo against Maranatha. As we approached the dressing-room, we saw that they had sprinkled something that looked like palm oil mixed with some sort of creamy stuff. We avoided the dressing room after that. But going into the pitch for warm up, some fans poured smelly water on us from above. The stink kept us uncomfortable throughout the game. It was hard to go near your teammates because we all smelled so badly. But we won 1-0.
“And then when Enyimba went to play ASEC in Côte d’Ivoire, we met broken eggs in front of our dressing room while there was something like a red rag over the door. We just prayed outside, then went to play. We also won that game 1-0.”
As if these dark arts were not enough, administrators regularly conjure up more conventional methods of discomforting opponents. CAF rules make home teams responsible for local transportation and accommodation of the away sides. In reality, visiting clubs who choose to depend on the home team’s hospitality have already lost half the battle.
On arrival, teams are sometimes met with rickety buses, complete with make-shift wooden seats, no air-conditioning and the odd roach or resident rodent for good measure. As for the hotel, a point is made to book hotels located well within the city’s most cacophonous areas, proximity to the red-light district constituting an additional benefit.
“What we would do, is to send an advance party who would check out the hotel, then go and book a more upscale hotel in consultation with our embassy,” says Felix Anyansi-Agwu, who has been chairman of Enyimba since 1999. “Our travelling fans and media would then be put in the hotel booked by our hosts.”
One area home teams are not responsible for, but which provides a more troubling hurdle is travel times. The Congolese club TP Mazembe were forced to acquire their own aircraft as a result. “You want to play a game in Cameroon, which is one and half hours from Congo and we have to fly first to Europe, then back to Cameroon, a journey of more than 12 hours,” lamented the club president Moise Katumbi at the presentation of the second of two aircraft. “Four years ago, we were eliminated from a competition because we couldn’t make the trip down due to lack of flights. Now, that will be history. Our team can now travel more easily, more safely and more rapidly.”
Not many African clubs can splash out in that manner. But if they want to win, they have to find if not the means, then the strength of character to overcome hurdles that would, in all probability, traumatise a European player for life.
And so we return to our initial premise: the African Champions League is the most difficult club competition to win across all continents.
No snigger this time?