What stirred the imagination of fans in this tournament – then, as now – was the fact that it regularly brought together teams whose reputations preceded them far and wide. These were the big guns, battling it out to be the biggest gun of all.
Today it remains the ‘holy grail’ of club football with no top team being considered to have truly succeeded unless it has either won, or at least made a sizeable impact, in this formidable tournament. For any team in any country to be taken seriously by the fans and media across Africa, it is in this competition that you need to make your mark.
Starting life as the African Champions Cup in 1964, the first team to lift the trophy was Cameroonian side Oryx Douala, who beat Stade Malien of Mali 2-1 in a one-off final. There was no tournament held the following year but the action resumed again in 1966, when the two-legged ‘home and away’ final was introduced, which saw another Malian team AS Real Bamako take on Stade Abidjan of the Ivory Coast. Bamako won the home leg 3-1 but it all came apart for them in the away game in Abidjan as the Ivorians went on to win 4-1 to take the title 5-4 on aggregate.
Drama followed in 1967 when Ghana’s Asante Kotoko met the DRC’s TP Mazembe, with both matches ending in draws (1-1 and 2-2 respectively). CAF suggested a play-off to resolve the impasse but the Ghanaian refused and the title was eventually handed to Mazembe. Just to prove they were deserving winners, TP Mazembe went on to win the title again the following year. However, the Ghanaians got their revenge in 1970, when Kotoko and Mazembe once again met in the final. Once again, the first game ended 1-1 but against expectation the Ghanaians ran out 2-1 winners in their away game to lift the title that had eluded them three years earlier.
The 1970s saw a remarkable rise in the fortunes of Cameroonian club football, which arguably created the platform of success enjoyed by Cameroonian football at international level today. Between 1971 and 1980 Cameroonian team won the cup four times, with Canon Yaounde taking three titles (1971, 1978 and 1980) and Union Douala lifting the cup in 1979. In between the Cameroonian victories the honor was shared with another team enjoying a golden age, Guinean side Hafia, who won it three times during this period (1972, 1975 and 1977).
Since the ‘80s, it has been the North African teams that have dominated, particularly Egyptian teams and Cairo arch-rivals, Zamalek and Al Ahly. It is significant that only one Egytpian team (Ismaili) had ever one the trophy between 1964 and 1982, when Al Ahly won it for the first time. Since then, the Cairo ‘Reds’ have won it on two other occasions (1987 and 2001) while the Cairo ‘Whites’ have gone on to set the record for Champions Cup victories, taking the honours on no less than five occasions – in 1984, 1986, 1993, 1996 and 2002. The other North African team that has made a big impression in this tournament is Morocco’s Raja Casablanca, who emerged victorious three times – in 1989, 1997 and 1999.
Apart from the introduction of the away goals rule (in which a goal scored by the team playing ‘away’ counts as double n the event of a tie in the aggregate score line over the two legs), very little changed in this competition until 1997. In this year, CAF took the bold step to follow the lead established a few years earlier in UEFA by creating a league stage in the tournament and changing the name to the CAF Champions League. CAF also introduced prize money for participants for the first time. With a purse of US$ 1 million on offer to the winners and US$ 750 000.00 to the losing finalist, the new Champions League had become far and away the richest club competition in Africa. In the new format, the league champions of the respective CAF member countries went through a series of preliminary rounds until a last 16 stage. The 8 winners of this round were then drawn into two mini-leagues of 4 teams each, with each team playing each other on a home and away basis. At the end of the league stage, the top two teams in each group meet in the semifinals, with the winners going through to contest the finals.
Undoubtedly, this format change has proved to be a big winner for both CAF and African football with the tournament now enjoying more sponsorship and greater TV coverage across the continent. With African cellular network MTN now on board as the tournament’s title sponsor, one can only expect the MTN CAF Champions League to truly establish itself as the pinnacle of club success on the African continent.