The baggage handlers at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg have been busy with silverware lately. The rugby union World Cup passed through their custody to be paraded before cheering crowds less than two weeks ago. There is cautious optimism South Africa’s in-form cricketers might soon be bringing home the equivalent trophy from India.
In between, football’s newest international prize has made its way through customs checks ready for presentation this weekend. The African Football League, AFL, launched this year as a pilot for what should become a fully-fledged African Super League will be lifted for the first time in Pretoria, its champions either Wydad of Casablanca, WAC, or the hosts of Sunday’s second leg of the final, Mamelodi Sundowns.
The main challenge for any fresh tournament is to eke out room for itself in football’s congested calendar and the AFL, whose slimline, inaugural version featured eight teams – one each from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria, Angola, DR Congo, Tanzania and South Africa – in a two-legged knockout system has realised quickly the difficulties of muscling into restricted space.
While football’s constituency in South Africa is far broader than rugby’s or cricket’s, an awkward clash of scheduling threatened to obscure Sunday’s final.
The local league has assigned a Soweto derby, Kaizer Chiefs versus Orlando Pirates, the standout fixture in South African football, to this weekend. Once Sundowns reached the AFL final, the national broadcaster, the SABC, was facing the possibility that the decisive leg – delicately poised at 2-1 to WAC from the Casablanca meeting – would be obscured.
The derby would be filling Soccer City, the continent’s biggest stadium, at the same time as Loftus Versfeld, an hour up the highway was the stage for what the Confederation of African Football (CAF) like to think will become an era-defining, spectacular new cup. The potential conflict was eased by a late decision to shift Sundowns-WAC to Sunday, a day after Chiefs-Pirates.
The SABC will broadcast both, and in the case of the AFL final, is among live rights holders who extend well beyond the African continent, one of them Abu Dhabi Sports. Global viewing figures will be analysed closely by Patrice Motsepe, the president of CAF and, until he took up that role, the chairman of Sundowns.
The tournament is one of the major initiatives Motsepe has overseen in his two-and-a-half years as head of African Football’s governing body, its intention to galvanise pan-African club football in a way the CAF Champions League has struggled to do.
In certain regions, South Africa among them, interest in it lags behind domestic football. Many clubs complain about the arduous travel it entails in pursuit of limited prize money.
The AFL, concentrated around the continent’s wealthier clubs, cannot eliminate all those problems, but it aims to offer ever greater rewards. WAC and Sundowns, who will have made 14,000-mile round trips to play the two-legged final, are contesting a $4 million cheque, a long way shy of the €100 million pot Motsepe targeted when he unveiled his plans for an African Super League, but 40 per cent more than WAC received for winning the 2022 Champions League.
That mission took 13 matches to achieve. Sunday’s second leg of the AFL final will be their sixth match in this competition, after a comfortable 4-0 aggregate victory over Enyimba of Nigeria and a tighter semi, settled on penalties against Tunisia’s Esperance.
Sundowns’ progress was perhaps tougher: Petro de Luanda were beaten in Angola before a notable victory over Al Ahly, the holders of the Champions League, against whom the South Africans defended a 1-0 first-leg lead with a goalless draw in Cairo.
In Pretoria, where tens of thousands of loyalists have been given free tickets, they expect loud backing. With the away goals rule in operation, they also hope that a mean defence – unbreached through their first four AFL games – can preserve any advantage that their Moroccan centre-back Abdelmounaim Boutouil’s penalty in Casablanca might give them. A 1-0 Sundowns victory would be enough.
But history and the geographical power balance in African football favour WAC. The Champions League has been in North African hands for the last seven years, WAC claiming it twice in the period since Sundowns were the most recent sub-Saharan winners. And Moroccan football has never had such a powerful momentum.
Last month, the country was named as a co-host of the 2030 World Cup. Less than a year ago, the Atlas Lions, with three of WAC’s African club champions in the squad, were playing in a World Cup semi-final.
All historic firsts for the nation. This weekend Morocco can add another, by taking home the maiden African Football League, a trophy that hopes to become ever more coveted and valuable.