Africa: the cradle of humanity. The world’s second most populous continent, and home to over a billion people. And, just as we can spot certain cultural differences across Europe – from the British Isles and Scandanavia, to the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe – so too are there quite evident distinctions amongst those living on this colourful continent.
The North of Africa has historically maintained close ties with the Arab world since the 7th century, when a period of rapid Muslim military expansion, which spread westwards from Egypt, would eventually lead to the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. This expansion did not, however, spread south past the Sahara Desert into Sub-Saharan Africa (sometimes also referred to as ‘Black Africa’).
These differing histories, and the fact that the Sahara itself is, was and always will be something which geographically separates these two regions, mean that, whether it matters or not, there are clear differences between countries in North Africa and those south of the world’s hottest desert. And one way of showing this is through an analysis of the respective fortunes of both regions’ football clubs in Africa’s premier continental competition.
Previously led by the now-retired Mohamed Aboutrika, without doubt one of the finest African players of the last decade, Egypt’s Al-Ahly are the unrivalled Kings of the African game. Winners of the last two instalments of the CAF Champions League, they have 8 titles in all, as well as having been runners-up on 2 occasions. The most staggering thing about those most recent accomplishments, however, is that they were achieved during a period of intense tragedy and instability in the Egyptian game. The Port Said Massacre, which took place during a league match between Al-Masry and Al-Ahly in February 2012, resulted in the death of 79 people. The Egyptian League was immediately cancelled by the FA, and the rest of the season was not played. The following season was once again suspended, this time after 15 games, due to the coup that resulted in Mohamed Morsi being removed from power. Al-Ahly, without regular league games, somehow managed to first win and then retain Africa’s biggest prize – a testament to the players’ desire and mental strength.
Since the tournament’s rebranding in 1997, Al-Ahly have been champions 6 times – which is as many times as Sub-Saharan African teams combined. In total, the new trophy has been won by North African sides on 11 occasions (2 wins for Raja Casablanca, and 1 each for Zamalek, Étoile du Sahel and ES Tunis). North Africa enjoys sustained success at continental level thanks in large part to the fiscal advantages its team hold over their southern brothers. Despite appearances in the Final from Cameroon’s Coton Sport, Nigeria’s Heartland and (most recently) South Africa’s Orlando Pirates, there is a general feeling that the only Sub-Saharan side that can comfortably and regularly compete with the North Africans at the moment are TP Mazembe. Winners in 2009 and 2010, the Congolese side are backed by businessman and politician Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, and are able to attract (and, more importantly, hold on to) some of the continent’s best players because of their healthy finances – something rare in football in this part of the world.
The figures reveal that, of the 17 Finals that have taken place, 7 have been all-North African affairs. Only 2 Finals, the 1998 game contested between ASEC Mimosas and Dynamos FC and the 2009 tie between TP Mazembe and Heartland, involved 2 Sub-Saharan sides. That is not to say that Sub-Saharan sides are failing to compete on an individual basis. Orlando Pirates’ progression to last year’s final was a welcome one, considering the huge underachievement of South African clubs in spite of the relative prosperity and high level facilities and infrastructure that they boast, compared to the majority of the continent. Similarly, Enyimba of Nigeria retained back-to-back trophies in 2003 and 2004 (beating North African sides on both occasions). However, they then subsequently failed to make it past the group stage in the next two years, and haven’t been involved in the competition at all since their Semi-Final appearance in 2011.
The problem isn’t an individual one. Currently, Sub-Saharan sides just do not possess a collective threat to North Africa. If we take a look at this year’s tournament, currently in its Second Round Phase, we’ll see that there are at least 8 competitors from both North and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, you’d be hard pressed to look past the strength of Al-Ahly, ES Tunis, Zamalek or CS Sfax. A scan of the Sub-Saharan contingent wouldn’t be as favourable. TP Mazembe are true candidates. After that, you could possibly see Coton Sport or AC Léopards pulling off an upset or two, but genuine title contenders seems a step too far. If I were to choose the eight to make it through to the group stage – a tough ask as there are always upsets in the qualifying rounds – I’d plump for Al-Ahly, ES Tunis, TP Mazembe, CS Sfax, Coton Sport, AC Léopards, Kaizer Chiefs and Zamalek. While that does represent four clubs each for North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the likelihood is that the 2014 trophy will remain in North Africa.
You’d have to take a journey back to the humble beginnings of the African Cup of Champions to find any evidence of Sub-Saharan dominance. From the first tournament in 1964 up until 1980, Sub-Saharan clubs won all but two of the competitions. This, however, is slightly misleading. A look through the participants of these early tournaments reveals a distinct lack of North African competitors. It is difficult to say why this was. Maybe football in the North wasn’t strong enough to qualify yet, or maybe they just simply weren’t invited. What is clear, however, is that once North African teams did start appearing the trophy very rarely returned south of the Sahara. Between 1980 and 1996, North African teams won 14 out of the 16 titles on offer. And this wasn’t just due to Egyptian dominance. Although Zamalek and Al-Ahly claimed their fair share, the cup also regularly went to Tunisia (ES Tunis and Club Africain), Morocco (FAR Rabat, Raja and Wydad Casablanca) and Algeria (JE Tizi-Ouzou, ES Sétif and JS Kabylie). Only Asante Kotoko (1983) and Orlando Pirates (1995) could break the North’s hold on Africa’s greatest prize.
It is intriguing to wonder whether Sub-Saharan sides will ever compete at an equal level with North African sides. One explanation could be that clubs below the Sahara are continually raided by European, Asian and American (North and South) teams for their best young talent. Players in this part of the world are very aware that, if they want to make a living from football, they will probably have to leave their home country at some point. This makes it hard for club sides to hold on to their best players, especially when the incoming transfer fees can go towards helping the club stay financially stable.
Yet North African players also regularly leave for Europe; France is a popular destination. The difference is that there isn’t always the same need to leave. There are also those who return home after ‘not making it’ per se. Oussama Darragi is a fine example. One of the top players in Africa, he finally left Tunisia at the age of 25 – relatively old compared to the age that Sub-Saharan Africans tend to move abroad. After one rather average season in Switzerland with Sion he returned to ES Tunis. This is rarely something that Sub-Saharan Africans can afford, or have the luxury, of doing. Furthermore, North African teams regularly sign some of the South’s better players, strengthening themselves while simultaneously weakening their rivals (in a similar fashion to how Bayern Munich have dominated the Bundesliga). It is unheard of for an Egyptian, Moroccan, Tunisian or Algerian to be bought by a club from, say, Ghana or Nigeria. However you look at it, Sub-Saharan African is at the bottom of the ladder. It’s hard to start climbing when everyone above is continually stepping on you in order to get higher themselves.
It will be interesting to see what the future holds. As I mentioned before, TP Mazembe are rightly considered as one of the continent’s strongest sides, and fly the flag for the Sub-Saharan region with a squad full of Congolese, Ghanaian, Malian, Zambian, Tanzanian and Malawian talent. Coton Sport, finalists in 2008, reached the semis last year and have a good, young squad. Orlando Pirates offered hope that South Africa might finally up its game and walk the walk, and Kaizer Chiefs will be hoping to build on their eternal rival’s performances this year. Nigeria has a competitive domestic league and throws in challengers every once in a while, as does Ghana. And AC Léopards, of The Congo, won Africa’s secondary prize, the CAF Confederation Cup in 2012 and performed admirably in their first appearance in the Champions League last year, missing out on qualification for the Semi-Finals by a point. Compared to the dark years between 1980 and 1996, one could even argue that Sub-Saharan Africa is finally making headway.
It remains doubtful for now, but if these sides can hold on to their best players for long enough, then perhaps the trophy will finally spend an extended period of time in the heart of Black Africa.