CAF Champions League gets underway

Posted by Firdose Moonda

Its European counterpart can boast that their final is the most watched annual sporting event in the world but the CAF Champions League commands nowhere near the same amount of interest. Even in countries that participate in the event, it can remain a non-entity until it gets to the crunch stages when those involved may show a little more enthusiasm.

Unlike even the African Nations Cup, the Champions League flies under the radar for most of its duration, particularly in the qualifying stages. But, with football and players from the continent catching many eyes at the ANC, this year's event may be able to bounce off that success and draw more interest. Football Africa has put together a basic guide after the first weekend of action.

Who is already through and why

As many as 56 member associations can enter the qualifying phase with the top 12 countries allowed to enter two teams. A ranking system which takes into account clubs' performances over the last five years allows eight teams to move directly into the first round of qualifying. The main draw consists of only eight sides, so nobody, not even the champions, are guaranteed an appearance there. Qualifying has three phases: a preliminary, first and second round which all take place over two legs, after which the groups are drawn.

In 2013, two Sudanese sides (whose league is rated highest on the continent), Al Hilal and Al Merreikh; two Malian teams Djoliba and Stade Malien; Egypt's Al-Ahly; Tunisia's Esperance; TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Algeria's ES Setif were given byes in the preliminary round.

The big winners

There were two 7-0 thrashing this weekend. Egypt's Zamalek beat Gazelle from Chad, while Ghana's Asante Kotoko triumphed over Equatoguinean side CD Ela Nguema. The margin is a record for both teams. Both victories were earned at home but it remains unlikely they will be overturned. Zamalek's was particularly unexpected after members of the team boycotted training two days before the match because of unpaid salaries.

South African champions Orlando Pirates also did well at home. They beat Djabal Club from the Comores 5-0. Nigeria's Kano Pillars overcame the only entrant from the Central African Republic, Olympic Real de Bangui, 5-1. Ivorian runners-up AFAD Djekanou were also 5-1 winners over Diamond Stars from Sierra Leone.

Kenya's Tusker FC earned an big away win when they beat St Michel United 4-1 in the Seychelles. Ethiopia's Saint George SA were also successful away from home with a 3-0 victory over Zanzibar's Jamhuri.

Other 3-0 scorelines were achieved by DRC AS Vita Club over Togo's Dynamic Togolais, by Zimbabwe's Dynamos over Lesotho Correctional Services and Algeria's JSM Bejaia over Niger's Olympic FC.

The walkover

One team who will not have to worry about a return leg is Nigerian runners-up Enugu Rangers. They were given an automatic 3-0 win after their opponents from Sao Tome and Principe, Sporting do Principe failed to arrive for their match on Sunday evening. CAF needs to officially confirm the decision but it should mean Rangers are through to the first round. Rangers' fans were so disappointed by the non-fixture that the opposition decided to give them a show anyway and divided themselves up to contest a friendly. It ended 1-1.

The tough contests

The weekend's biggest surprise came from Swazi side Mbabane Swallows. Although they lost 3-2 to Zambian champions Zanaco, they scored two away goals which could be crucial in the return leg next month. Zanaco coach, Keagan Mumba, blamed the performance on a lack of match fitness because his team are currently in their off-season and conceded that they will have to turn out much stronger when they head to Swaziland. By contrasts, Swallows manager, Nyanga Hlope, was not happy with his team defeat, saying they are "not used to losing," and that he expects more from them at home.

The other eyebrow raiser was one of the two goalless draws. Cameroon's Coton Sport were held by URA from Uganda who had their goalkeeper Allan Owiny to thank for making second half saves and keeping them in the match. It was a moral victory for the East Africans who lost 3-0 the last time they played in Cameroon in 2007.

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