There were two continental club finals in the space of 48 hours over the end of the last week and the start of this. Real Madrid won the first one, defeating Liverpool 1-0 in Paris on Saturday. Then on Monday, it was time for the African version.
It wasn’t that dissimilar.
Instead of Al-Ahly winning a third CAF African Champions League in a row to make history, Wydad AC won Monday’s final 2-0 to capture their third continental title. Zouhair El-Moutaraji scored a goal in each half to send around 50,000 fans in the Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca into raptures.
If Al-Ahly, who have already won the competition 10 times, have been called “Africa’s Real Madrid” — a team that has a special pedigree in the competition — it was the Moroccans who channeled the aura of the Spanish giants.
“Today, we were Real Madrid, not Liverpool. We learned the lesson from Real Madrid’s win,” said Wydad coach Walid Regragui after the game. The club now equal Raja Casablanca as the most successful Moroccan team in the competition’s history.
In Paris, Liverpool may have had more of the ball but couldn’t make it count. In Casablanca, the Egyptians had plenty of possession but struggled to create clear chances in the face of a disciplined and effective defensive performance from Wydad.
“We let them have the ball, and we knew that they would send balls upfield to Percy Tau, so we focused on controlling him,” Regragui added. “The game was very tough, but we produced a strong performance and deserved to win.”
Many would agree, but Al-Ahly were unhappy about the choice of Wydad’s home stadium as the venue for the final, with CAF making the decision between the first and second legs of the semifinals. Mahmoud Al-Khatib, the president of Al-Ahly, looked to be complaining to FIFA boss Gianni Infantino ahead of the trophy presentation about the unfair timing of the decision, which was made when it looked almost certain that Wydad would be in the final.
He has a point. While, in theory, 10,000 tickets were allocated to each set of fans and the rest put on general sale, in practice, only a couple of thousand made the trip from Cairo with the rest snapped up by Wydad fans. In effect, this was a home game, and the Moroccan supporters created an unforgettable atmosphere — inspiring for their team and intimidating and hostile for Al-Ahly, who must have wished that there was a second leg back in Egypt. It was not a surprise that they looked a little shaken in the early stages and soon found themselves behind.
Al-Ahly boss Pitso Mosimane complained about the whole arrangement.
“I think that everyone behind this decision feels happy,” he said. “The best team lost today. When you play at a neutral ground and there is an equal number of fans between the two teams, then you can talk about winning and losing.”
The Cairo club had taken the issue to the Court of Arbitration for Sport but had lost, predictably. There was genuine anger at the decision, but perhaps the whole situation became too big in their minds. It could be that, when the dust settles, the focus on complaining about the venue will be seen as counterproductive.
Going with the example of Liverpool once again, the Reds beat AS Roma in Rome in the 1984 final, and Chelsea triumphed against Bayern Munich in Munich a decade ago. These venues may have been known long in advance, and there may have been more English fans present, but playing a one-off game at the home of the final opponent was not seen as that big of a deal. Al-Ahly made sure that it was a major talking point before it all started.
It remains to be seen what happens to the losers now. They are accustomed to winning in Africa but also know what it is like to get to the final and fall short as this is a third runners-up place in the space of six years. There is, at least, plenty to occupy the team at home as they have slipped into third in the league though have four games in hand on the leaders Zamalek due to continental commitments.
The Red Giants have what it takes to close the gap, but then there is the question of coach Mosimane. The South African was on course to make history by becoming the first to win the title three times in a row and only the second to win four in total. To win in such a hostile environment would have been his biggest success yet.
According to reports, Al-Ahly’s board will meet to determine his future, though this has been denied by the club. Former players and Egypt manager Taha Ismail speaking on television called for Mosimane’s early departure, blaming the tactician for the loss and a run that has seen the club win just one league game in the last five. Whatever Mosimane’s future in the coming weeks, long-term, it should be a bright one.
Whatever happens, Al-Ahly will be back but for now, it is Casablanca, not Cairo, celebrating.