Esperance de Tunis’ continental dominance ended this weekend when they lost to Zamalek in the Quarter-Finals of the CAF Champions League 3-2 on aggregate. The loss ended any hopes they had of winning Africa’s premier continental competition for a third straight time.
Taraji won the 2018 CAFCL in heroic fashion by winning the second leg of the final 3-0 against Al Ahly after losing 3-1 in the first leg. It was at this point that Africans recognized the greatness of Esperance: their Tunisian core, excellent recruiting system, and excellent coaching.
That season, they won the 2017 Arab Club Championship, a tournament that provided them excellent prize money. They capped their season off by winning the Tunisian Ligue 1, finishing with 58 points and only two losses in 26 matches.
The next season saw the promotion of assistant coach Moïne Chaâbani to the head coaching position. Chaâbani is now regarded as one of the best African coaches for his triumphs with the Tunisian side.
They won the domestic league once again, although they were challenged by Etoile du Sahel – who finished two points behind.
It was their second consecutive Champions League victory that established the team as an African dynasty. Even though they won the final in controversial fashion, their dominance was respected and acknowledged by African journalists and fans.
Al Ahly were the only other team to win the CAFCL twice in a row (2012-13), and many wondered whether Moïne Chaâbani was at the helm of an all-time great team that would dominate African football for years to come.
With the prize money from tournaments continuing to come in, everything was set up for Taraji to continue their supremacy of Tunisian and African football.
So where did it all go wrong?
— CAF (@CAF_Online) February 28, 2020
Esperance’s downfall was caused by a country that wasn’t even an African competitor: Saudi Arabia. Money in the Gulf leagues has long attracted Africa’s best players, with many even deciding to go to Saudi Arabia or the UAE over Europe, but the appeal of the Saudi league had never hurt a team as much as it hurt Esperance.
It all started in the summer of 2019, when one of their best players, Youcef Belaïli, left for Al Ahli of the Saudi league, despite being courted by French side Marseille. The $3.3m transfer fee was huge for an African team, but they failed to replace him in the transfer market.
Earlier that summer they lost midfielder Saad Bguir, who was one of their top scorers, to Saudi side Abha on a free transfer. Additionally, they lost Cameroonian midfielder Franck Kom to Qatari side Al-Rayyan.
They broke the bank on Abdelraouf Benguit, who was great in their most recent CAFCL campaign. They also signed Abdelkader Bedrane and Kwame Bonsu. These signings were good additions, but not enough to replace their outgoing transfers in quality and experience.
Taraji began the next season on excellent form in the League and in the CAFCL. They were (and still are) undefeated in Ligue 1 and advanced to the knockout round of the Champions League after winning their group.
They faltered in other competitions though. They lost in the second round of the Arab Champions Cup, were eliminated from the Club World Cup in the first round after a disappointing 1-0 loss to Asian and Saudi champions Al Hilal. They lost the CAF Super Cup to Zamalek, a foreshadowing of their eventual loss to the Egyptian side in the CAFCL.
Their losses were exemplified in the January transfer window, when they lost Haythem Jouini to Saudi side Al Ain. The most important loss was that of Anice Badri, who was their best player in the league and in continental competitions.
If you couldn’t guess, Badri moved to Saudi Arabia. Al-Ittihad Jeddah payed a mere $500,000 for his services, which pales in comparison to the $3.3m fee Esperance received for Belaïli.
With no time to sign a replacement, Moïne Chaâbani was faced with the near-impossible task of winning the CAFCL for a third straight time without the players who made it possible the last two times.
A 3-1 loss in Cairo would always be tough to overcome, but the aftermath of the first leg was incredibly damning to Taraji’s chances of a comeback. After players and coaches confronted the referee at full time about a controversial penalty decision earlier in the match, CAF handed Esperance some very tough sanctions.
Chaâbani and assistant coach Mejdi Traoui were handed four-match bans. Veteran left-back Khalil Chammam was given a six-match ban for spitting on the referee and key player Abdelraouf Benguit was given a four match ban.
— CAF (@CAF_Online) March 6, 2020
With their coaching staff and two key players suspended for the second leg, Esperance were unable to come back in the second leg on Friday. They won the match 1-0, but lost 3-2 on aggregate, ending their hopes of a continental three peat.
It was the lure of the Gulf leagues that ended Esperance’s dynasty. Their management is to blame for selling their best players without signing suitable replacements. Their fall from glory will be a good lesson for African clubs in the future to keep their best players.