Southern Africa launch four-club pronged attack to defend CAF champions league title
By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – Southern Africa will launch a four-club pronged assault for the 2017 CAF Champions League title, when the group phase of the tournament gets underway next week, amid soaring optimism that the region has the capacity to keep Africa’s most prestigious inter-club trophy in this part of the continent for the second successive year.
Defending champions Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa will lead that charge while representatives from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique will also be in action when the revamped and expanded 16-team four-group stage of the CAF Champions League explodes into life with some mouth-watering battles.
Sundowns, the Pretoria giants owned by one of the continent’s richest men, mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, ended Southern Africa’s lengthy wait for the title, stretching more than two decades, when they beat five-time champions Zamalek of Egypt to be crowned champions of African club football last year. Their local rivals Orlando Pirates had been the last team from this part of the continent to be crowned African champions when they beat ASEC Mimosas of Cote d’Ivoire in the final in 1995.
When, viewed in terms of the Southern African Development Community, clubs from this regional gathering have ended the dominance of teams from West and North Africa in this tournament with four victories – including three victories for Congolese giants TP Mazembe – in the past eight years.
For the first time, in the history of both the Champions League and Confederation Cup tournaments, were won by SADC clubs last year with Sundowns bieng crowned champions of Africa while Mazembe took the Confederation Cup and, remarkably, both sides beat North African opposition in the final.
Two Southern African clubs – Sundowns and Zesco United of Zambia – made it to the semi-finals of the 2016 CAF Champions League tournament with the Pretoria giants knocking out their regional rivals to book a place in the final where they accounted for Zamalek.
This year, four Southern African clubs – Sundowns, CAPS United, Zanaco and Ferroviario de Beira – have made it into the group stages of the CAF Champions League.
CAPS United president Farai Jere, whose team reached this stage of the tournament for the first time in their history after knocking out Mazembe in the final elimination round, believes Southern African clubs have come of age and are no longer weighed down by the inferiority complex which used to burden them in the past, every time they were paired against either North or West African opposition.
‘’Those days when we were considered to be lightweights are long gone and things have changed,’’ said the Harare businessman whose club will get their group stage campaign underway against Zamalek in Egypt.
‘’We now believe that we can not only match them but we can also beat them and the results, in the last few years, show that there has been a change and that is now providing a club like ours with the inspiration that we can do very, very well in this tournament.
‘’Before we started our campaign I told people that we would go all the way into the group stages and many people doubted my declaration because we had TP Mazembe along the way but we proved those people wrong by knocking the Congolese side out and I can tell you that we are ready for any team that we will face.’’
CAPS United will also battle Al Ahli Tripoli, who play their home matches in Tunisia because of unrest at home in Libya, and Algeria giants USM Alger in Group B.
‘’Zamalek, to start with, is a big team, we have a lot of respect for Zamalek, five-time champions and they are the big boys of our African football,’’ Jere told The Southern Times.
‘’We need to respect them, to give them due respect but one thing which we want to do is warn them that they can underrate us at their own peril. They are five-time champions, TP Mazembe are five-time champions and we beat TP Mazembe and we are not worried about whoever we are paired against.
‘’We are in bullish mood and as much as we respect them, on the field of play it’s going to be very different and there will be 90 minutes where we are not gonna fear anyone in this group and that is the spirit that I have told my players, there should be no respect for anybody.
‘’In this group, it’s going to be two teams (to qualify for the quarter-finals) which are CAPS United and another team. We are not going to be intimidated by the armour which one is going to come putting on, like five-time champions who have done this and that, it’s not going to intimidate us.
‘’We have told our boys, our target is very clear, we are going to be one of the last two teams standing and we are going to build our campaign at our stadium, which will be our fortress, where we have not lost a game in a very, very long time.’’
Sundowns will face old rivals AS Vita of the DRC in a Group C which also features Saint George of Ethiopia and Espérance of Tunisia.
The meeting between Sundowns and AS Vita come just a year after the two teams clashed in the same tournament with the Congolese giants knocking out their South African rivals only for the Kinshasa side to be disqualified for having used an ineligible player in the previous round when they beat Tanzanian side Mafunzo.
Handed a lifeline, Sundowns accepted it with both hands and went all the way to the final where they won the tournament.
Former Sundowns midfielder Roger Feutmba of Cameroon believes his old club can do very well again this year.
‘’It’s a tricky group. Most of the teams in the group have quality players, but I think Sundowns are on top of their game at the moment, even though, they’ve shown signs of fatigue at times,” Feutmba told Goal.com.
“I think Sundowns have recuperated very well and everybody can see the results. They are the defending African champions and I believe that going into the group stages they will show what they have in terms of quality players.
“I think they have a chance to go through. They have what it takes to top the group. Esperance are not what they used to be. That’s the reality. Sundowns have shown they are capable of beating any team in Africa by winning this competition. By saying so, it doesn’t mean they have to go into the group stages taking things lightly.’’
Zanaco will be under pressure to emulate local rivals Zesco United who reached the semi-finals of this tournament last year and coach Numba Mumamba has described Group D, where they will meet record winners Al Ahly of Egypt, as fair.
“It’s a fair draw though we need to work extra hard than we did during the qualifying matches,” Mumamba told The Daily Nation. “I’m not worried because football is played on the pitch. We are meeting very experienced teams which requires a lot of hard work from everyone.’’
Ferroviaro de Beira will play in Group A against Tunisian powerhouse Etoile du Sahel and the two Sudanese giants Al Hilal, and Al-Merrikh.