The vioence at Africa's Champions League final was the climax of a troubled year. Alan Duncan fears little will change as a result
The reputation of African football suffered yet another knock following December’s ill-fated second leg of the Champions League final between Tunisian outfit Espérance de Tunis and Ghana’s Hearts of Oak, in the west African country’s capital, Accra. The match, the climax of the continental club calendar, degenerated into scenes of pandemonium with 18 minutes of the second half remaining when security forces responded to a hostile, missile-throwing faction of Ghanaian fans by firing teargas up into the stadium’s north stand, with one canister landing above the VIP enclosure.
The lingering controversy, however, has centred less on the fact that the president of the Confederation of African Football, Issa Hayatou, was himself forced to scamper from the asphyxiating gas, but instead on the Espérance goalkeeper and captain Chokri El Ouaer. Amid the chaotic scenes, which lasted nearly 20 minutes, he ran to the centre of the pitch with blood streaming down his face before collapsing – claiming to have been struck by a projectile thrown from the crowd.
The atmosphere in the Accra Sports Stadium had begun to turn ugly ever since Espérance, who had lost the home leg 2-1, drew level on aggregate through Hassan Gabsi’s flying header in the 17th minute. At half-time South African referee Robin Williams and his two assistants were pelted with plastic bags full of water. The teargas was only used, albeit irresponsibly, when the rain of missiles on linesman Achmat Salie became so sustained that a human shield of police officers had to be formed around him.
These were disgraceful scenes by any standards. But there has been no evidence since, other than El Ouaer’s own mystifying account, to suggest that he was struck by anything more than the desperate idea of trying to get the match abandoned. Referee Williams and his assistant Salie both confirmed to journalists that they had seen El Ouaer, who played against England in France 98, inflict the injury upon himself. A sharp object is reported to have been handed to El Ouaer by a young Espérance fan, who promptly returned to the team bench.
After El Ouaer was stretchered off clutching his head, Hearts swiftly drew level through Ossei Kuffour in the 83rd minute. Then Espérance player Walid Aziez was sent off for headbutting an opponent. He refused to leave the pitch for three minutes and then punched a policeman in the face on his way out. Amid ecstatic scenes, a brace of goals by Kuffour and Ismail Addo in the dying minutes clinched the $500,000 title for Hearts and, most importantly, qualification for FIFA’s lucrative World Club Championship in Spain this August.
In Tunis there has been anger and bitterness. The local press is leading an unlikely campaign for CAF to replay the final. Journalist Ali Trabelsi wrote: “In Accra, Espérance were victims of an act of pre-meditated terrorism.” His colleague Nasser Derbal added: “This was sport at its lowest level, cheating, low blows, machinations behind the scenes.” Trabelsi concluded that “the credibility of CAF is now on the line”.
There has been less attention paid to the part played by Espérance in the bizarre events, and no close scrutiny of El Ouaer, whose heroic status within Tunisia was further endorsed with an overwhelming victory in the nation’s Sportsman of the Year contest. Instead, the Tunisians, who will host the 2004 African Nations Cup, have been busy extolling the virtues of their domestic game, their organisational excellence and their commitment to fair play.
Sadly, this war of words plays on the contrasts between haves and have-nots, the relatively wealthy north Africans and the largely impoverished countries south of the Sahara. Espérance, with their Brazilian imports, opulent club hotel and multi-surface training pitches, may lend a competitive edge and glamour to CAF’s flagship tournament, but its critics see it as a club which perceives itself as essentially European, trapped by geography in an African body.
The events in Accra bring to the fore a catalogue of violent incidents that have marred Africa’s flagship competitions in the past 12 months. Teargas was used to stop rioting in February’s Nations Cup quarter-final between Nigeria and Senegal in Lagos. In July, events took a tragic turn when 13 people died in Zimbabwe after a stampede of fans, again fleeing teargas, during a World Cup qualifier against South Africa in Harare. FIFA has since ratified the 2-0 result in favour of South Africa and offered the families of the dead $10,000 compensation each.
In November, the final of the African women’s championship in South Africa was abandoned after rioting broke out when the hosts conceded a second goal to Nigeria. The match was abandoned and Nigeria awarded the trophy. Punishment from CAF was expected on December 16, but the South Africans failed to turn up to give their version of events. Such trouble is not unknown in north Africa either. CAF fined the Algerian side JS Kabylie $10,000 after the chaotic scenes in which they won the CAF Cup (the African equivalent of the UEFA Cup) in December.
CAF must now be seen to act more decisively, above all against El Ouaer, who, if found guilty, would have done no less than Chile’s goalkeeper Roberto Rojas, who was banned for life in 1989 for feigning injury during a World Cup qualifier in Brazil. The astute Espérance president Slim Chiboub may yet do all a service by encouraging his 34-year-old keeper to retire rather than risk the ignominy of a ban.
Second, action should be taken against Hearts in a bid to stem the pattern of violence that has encouraged the “I told you so” whispers of those who opposed awarding the 2006 World Cup to Africa. Yet the complex network of relationships and reciprocal favours that make up the web of African football mean this is no simple mission. CAF rarely imposes bans on clubs or federations and Chiboub, a wealthy businessman who is married to the daughter of Tunisian president Ben Ali, holds considerable clout within the game. Even in the early stages of the Champions League, Espérance were reported to CAF for bribing the referee during a match against Djoliba of Mali. No investigation followed and the matter duly vanished.
Such examples only reinforce African football’s image of corruption and mismanagement. While issues of crowd control, stadium safety and poor organisation are clearly important, underlying everything is the deep-seated suspicion of fans and clubs alike about the manner in which the game is run. A few close off-side decisions are enough to give rise to hostile feelings, each camp believing, often unjustly, as in the case of the Hearts fans, that the other has somehow negotiated an unfair advantage.
Naturally, the wild celebrations in Accra paid little attention to the manner of the victory. Hearts, enriched beyond their wildest dreams by the experience, are already thinking of Roberto Carlos and co.
From WSC 168 February 2001. What was happening this month