Mixed fortunes in Champions League

It’s all looking good for the Democratic Republic of Congo ‘ one of only two Southern African countries to provide a Champions League winner ‘ with their two representatives firmly on course to qualify. But it’s all gloomy in Zimbabwe after CAPS United were sensationally expelled from the tournament for alleged irregularities in the way they registered their two Malawian players ‘ George Martin and Gift Makoloni. The Harare side was disqualified from the tournament on Tuesday ‘ just three days after they had lost 0-1 to crack Moroccan side Raja Casablanca in the first leg of their first round tie in Casablanca. It was a dramatic end to an equally dramatic campaign that saw CAPS United being marooned in Johannesburg for 24 hours, during their trip to Morocco, because of visa complications. By the time that the last batch of their players arrived in Casablanca from Paris on Saturday night, there was just about 30 minutes before kick-off. To their credit, the Zimbabwean champions produced a solid defensive display and were just three minutes from holding on when Raja Casablanca struck the only goal. Now CAPS United’s campaign is in tatters following the club’s expulsion from the tournament. It’s the first time in the history of Zimbabwean football that a team has been expelled from the Champions League on the back of alleged irregularities. CAPS United have won the last two championships in this country and are widely regarded as a model club for the dawning era of professionalism in club football here. “It’s a disaster,” said club president Twine Phiri, a Harare businessman who bought the club five years ago and has transformed it into the strongest team in this country. “We were clearly on the verge of edging Raja into the next round and I believe we were powerful enough even to win this tournament for the first time. “But we have to fight to clear our names because we believe that we did not do anything wrong. “Hopefully, by the end of it all the dust would have settled and we will be given another chance to play the second leg.” CAPS United stand to lose massive income if Confederation of African Football upholds their disqualification given that they were on course for lucrative earnings if they had qualified for the mini-league phase. “The return leg had attracted massive interest in this country and we wanted to move it to Rufaro Stadium, which is more central. We were so sure that we would have got about 40 000 fans for this match, but it now seems that all has fallen apart,” said Phiri. It also appears that all is falling apart for Ferroviario Maputo. The Mozambican glamour club appears to have waved goodbye to the Champions League unless they can produce a miracle in the cauldron of the Ghanaian city of Kumasi ‘ a bastion of resistance where visiting teams have very little chance of winning. The little Madagascar club ‘ USCAFOOT ‘ has reason to believe after an impressive home performance earned them a credible draw against South African giants Mamelodi Sundowns on the Indian Ocean island. Sundowns ‘ owned by billionaire South African tycoon Patrice Motsepe ‘ are playing in this tournament on a technicality because champions Kaizer Chiefs are barred from the tournament. The Pretoria side invested heavily in star name players like former Zimbabwe senior soccer team captain Peter Ndlovu as they chased glory on both fronts ‘ the domestic and continental campaign. They were heavily favoured to win the league championship last year but they disappointed their faithful and could only manage to finish third. This year they launched a fresh bid to conquer Africa and make up for their disappointment on the domestic scene despite the heavy financial outlay injected by Motsepe to turn them into a dominant force. They should be favourites to beat the Indian Ocean islanders in Pretoria this coming weekend and progress to the next round ‘ the penultimate stage before the lucrative mini-league phase. Sundowns’ hero was Manqoba “Shakes” Ngwenya, who scored the goal that gave them the advantage on the Indian Ocean island. Ngwenya was on target twice when Sundowns beat Lesotho champions Likhopo in an earlier Champions League tie at Loftus. “We played very well against USCAFOOT and I was satisfied with the commitment and discipline displayed by the team,” said coach Neil Tovey, captain of the triumphant Bafana Bafana team in the Nations Cup finals on home soil in 1996. “We should have wrapped up the game quite easily and were never in trouble at any stage. We were so much in control but missed a succession of inviting opportunities and could have won much comfortably than the scoreline suggests.” According to the Sundowns’ official website, Tovey believes his team should be too strong for the second leg in Pretoria. “There is nothing to be concerned about going into the second leg. If the first leg match can be used as a yardstick, then I confidently predict that we shouldn’t have any problems during the second leg. “Yes, they are quite a useful side and pass the ball around with a lot of movement on and off the ball. But we contained them, squeezed them tight right in their backyard and even dictated terms for long periods. “In addition to that, we managed to score away from home which should come as a bonus for us. But above all, we are going to prepare thoroughly for the second leg match and approach the game like a cup final.” While there is still something to play for in the case of USCAFOOT, their Indian Ocean islanders’ neighbours ‘ ASPL 2000 of Mauritius ‘ appear down and out. ASPL 2000 will certainly be in Johannesburg this coming weekend but their second leg tie against Orlando Pirates is now just a mere formality. The 0-5 hiding that the Indian Ocean islanders suffered at the hands of the Buccaneers was the heaviest defeat by any team in the first leg of the first round matches. Congolese forward Blaise Lelo Mbele scored twice in the rout while South African international Gift Leremi was also on target. Pirates are chasing glory on both fronts as they are also involved heavily in the battle for their national league championship. They are the last Southern African club to win the African club title after they beat Asec Mimosas of Cote d’Ivoire in the final in 1995 ‘ Jerry Sikhosana scoring a priceless winner in Abidjan. Asec Mimosas then had their revenge on Southern African teams by beating Dynamos of Zimbabwe in the final of the Champions League in 1998. Now Mimosas are back to torment Southern Africa yet again. The Ivorian club appears to have ended the interests of Nambian fairy-tale writers Civics in the Champions League this year. Known as the Bethlehem Boys, Civics wrote the biggest story of the previous round of qualifiers by eliminating Angolan champions Sagrada Esperanca in a South-West African derby. But they will have to produce the scoring touch that saw them fire four goals past the Angolans in the first leg of their preliminary round tie. And all eyes will surely be on William Chilufya. Chilufya was the star of the show as Civics destroyed Sagrada with an attacking game that reaped them four goals without reply and all but booked their place in the next round. A 4-0 win for Civics, though remote, will take them through to the next round. That would be history. For no Namibian team has ever qualified for the second round of the Champions League. Civics have nothing to lose and that spirit should help them make it a fight. The Congolese teams are having fun and should all progress after impressive results in the first leg ties. Daring Motema Pembe held Tunisia side Club Sportif Saxien to a 1-1 draw in Tunisia ‘ a very good result for any team ‘ and they should complete the job back home in Congo. Their rivals FC Lupopo are also in safe waters after a 2-0 victory over Cameroon side Coton Sport ahead of the second leg this coming weekend. Zambian champions Zanaco face a tough away assignment against former champions JS Kabylie in the restive Kabylie region of Algeria. The Lusaka side carry a 1-0 lead into the second leg. Pirates should continue leading the way for Southern Africa, their rivals Sundowns should also go through and so should the two Congolese giants. But Zanaco will have to work very hard and the flame has faded for Mauritius. Namibia can dream of another miracle from the Bethlehem Boys. But it’s all over for Zimbabwe, now. Sadly.

March 2006
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