The events of the final not only perpetuated negative stereotypes of African football, but I would go as far as to say that they even worsened them. On the biggest stage of African club football, everything that could have possibly gone wrong went wrong, and then some. Players protested, fans fought, and for the first time in the 55-year history of the elite African club competition, a final was abandoned.
The issues started well before the match started. Hawk-Eye Innovations, the company responsible for proving CAF with VAR Technology, wrote to CAF the morning of the game informing them that VAR would not be available. It seems that Hawk-Eye were incredibly unfortunate, as some of the mishaps were out of their control.
However, well-organized events are able to go on perfectly in spite of mishaps. The Champions League Final was clearly not well organized. Why did they not intend to send the VAR system until the week of the final? What happened to the system they used in Casablanca for the first leg? Why didn’t they just send that one to Tunis instead of relying on one from Riyadh?
CAF cannot be blamed completely for VAR not being there, but they can be blamed for how they dealt with the aftermath. Should they have delayed the game until they received the VAR system? Maybe. Looking back in hindsight, it would have been the right move considering the chaos that occurred afterwards. But it is unfair to judge CAF this way, and they likely wanted to avoid the backlash that would come with delaying the final on the day of.
It is still unclear whether the teams knew that there was no VAR. Some sources say they informed the captains, while other sources say neither teams knew. The referees clearly knew, but CAF should have announced that there was no VAR publicly before the game to absolve themselves from blame. At the time of watching, it seemed shady that the referee refused to consult VAR when he should have, but looking back it was clear what was happening. CAF was trying to cover their tracks and fool everyone into believing there was VAR. CAF knowingly brought a monitor without VAR technology to make it seem as if there was VAR. Even when Wydad scored and they had to review it on VAR, CAF claimed it was malfunctioning. The VAR system was not malfunctioning, it wasn’t there in the first place. Even without VAR, CAF could have avoided this issue had they announced that there was no VAR.
It is important to remember that controversy marred the first leg as well. Egyptian referee Gehad Grisha was suspended by CAF for six months after he disallowed a goal and failed to award a penalty to Casablanca– both after consulting VAR.
A great strike from Mohamed Youcef Belaïli gave Espérance de Tunis a 1-0 lead and a 2-1 lead on aggregate going into halftime. Everything was going rather smoothly until Walid El Karti’s header for Wydad Casablanca was disallowed by Gambian referee Bakary Gassama.
Replays showed the goal should have stood. It is understandable that the referee made a mistake, they are humans at the end of the day. But since the precedent of VAR had been set in the first leg the rest of the tournament, it is completely understandable that the Wydad players demanded to have the goal reviewed, especially considering that the goal should have stood.
All hell broke loose after Wydad players refused to continue playing after the goal was disallowed. Refusing to continue play could easily be deemed unsportsmanlike, and they ended up having to pay for their decision to do so by not getting a chance to finish the final. It is easy to place blame on the Wydad players, but imagine it was you in that situation. The final game of the season, all to play for, and they have a goal wrongfully disallowed. Add this to them being wronged in the first leg by the referee and the tension in the moment and it is easy to defend their decision to protest. The simple fact that the presence of VAR cost them the first leg and the absence of it cost them the second leg is enough to cause outrage among many football fans, not just Wydad supporters.
CAF should have expected this though. Going into a hotly contested final match without VAR and without telling anyone that VAR was missing is a recipe for disaster. Referee mistakes happen all the time, but it is VAR’s place to correct it.
Play was halted for over an hour because of the Wydad protest. Not only did they hold the match hostage, but they held African football hostage. Their protest was the culmination of not just Wydad feeling wronged, but countless other teams feeling mistreated in CAF competitions by refereeing errors.
Even CAF President Ahmad Ahmad spent nearly 30 minutes discussing possible solutions with officials in a futile effort to get the match restarted.
During the hour-long stoppage, the crowd of 60,000 deserved just as much blame as anyone else. Police foiled an attempted assault by a Taraji supporter on the pitch as fans fought and hurled heavy objects at players.
After over an hour, Gassama abandoned the game. For the first time in the 55-year history of the CAF Champions League, a two-legged final was not completed.
This Espérance de Tunis side will probably go down as one of the greatest African teams of all time. They are the fourth team to win back to back CAF Champions League titles and they won the competition undefeated. Their accomplishment was overshadowed by the scandal that surrounded the game. As Taraji lifted the trophy, fans and officials fought behind the scenes. The scenes of the final are clearly not a fair reflection of African football. It is not a reason to justify not supporting African football by any means whatsoever. What this match did represent though was what could (and did) go wrong when you combine a love for football as great as Africa’s and a confederation that mismanages as terribly as CAF does.
Changes need to be made but we all know none will. CAF confirmed it will hold a meeting of their executive committee on Tuesday to discuss the incident. It has been rumoured that CAF President Ahmad Ahmad could be removed from his position, but even if that were to happen, the next person to come into place will likely do no better. A committee of corrupt officials will never end corruption.
Wydad could face a two-year ban from competing in continental club competition but a long history of leniency from CAF to North African teams means that likely nothing will happen. Espérance might be forced to play some games in a closed stadium but it will amount to nothing. CAF has become toothless. No matter how harsh the punishment they give it never hurts the big clubs. Their supporters will always stick with their teams through thick and thin; no punishment can hurt these clubs. Africans’ love of football is both a blessing and a poison.