How would FC Barcelona fare in Lubumbashi?
The African Champions League is a heck of a tough ride
There is a school of thought that says the African Champions League is a harder competition to win than its European counterpart, which sounds like an outrageous claim at first glance until you delve deeper into the issue.
Certainly there are no teams of anywhere near the quality of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester City to contend with, but the strain that the competition places on teams far exceeds that of the Uefa version.
The European tournament is played in full stadiums, on carpet-like pitches, with teams staying in five-star hotels and with excellent training facilities on which to prepare. Travel is easy, usually done on a private plane either owned by or chartered by the team, and their time away from their own base is limited.
All of that makes for much better preparation for matches in terms of time and facilities, and the officiating in matches is generally of a high and fair standard. That is not to say that match officials don’t make mistakes at Uefa Champions League level; they do, but these are relatively rare.The African Champions League is, for many of the top sides even, the complete opposite – an expensive hardship that is as much a test of mental strength as it is skill.
The skulduggery attempted by hosting sides is widespread across most of the continent – from not providing adequate transportation, to poor (or no) training facilities, hotels without hot water, or even water at all in some instances.
Home fans often chant or sing and bang drums outside the hotel while visiting teams are trying to sleep, leaving body and mind tired in the morning.
Mamelodi Sundowns endured such shenanigans on their recent trip to Rwanda to face Rayon Sports, where the stadium lights were switched off just as they began their training on the eve of the game. They had to abandon practice.
That is a mild incident compared to what has gone before, where away trips can be hellish as everything possible is done to make visiting teams feel uncomfortable, unwelcome and in some instances, even afraid for their safety.Travel can be long, with teams at times marooned for days because there are no flights out, or if they can get out the next day after the game their return journeys still take 36 hours or longer, sitting on hard airport floors in remote locations.
The games themselves can be played on cabbage-patch pitches in front of hostile fans, with match officials who feel as intimidated as the visiting players.
Former top South African referee Jerome Damon told me that on an away assignment in Africa he found a bag of cash on the bed in his hotel room, the insinuation being he should assist the home side. So not only had someone gained access to his room, seemingly with ease, but they left a bag of money there in a brazen attempt to bribe. Damon was having none of it, though, and placed the bag in the hotel corridor outside his room.
It is a near certainty that match officials have been bribed in the past, though few have been found guilty of this. But there are two other aspects at play – the intimidation they feel to give 50-50 calls in the favour of the home side, and also just plain incompetence.There are some excellent referees on the African continent who could officiate anywhere in the world. But there are also too many poor ones who ruin games – not by taking bribes or because they feel fear, but just because they are not very good. It is another hurdle for teams to overcome if they are to lift the trophy at the end of the competition.
And so it makes you wonder how would Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester City, with all of their immense quality and players at the very top of the game, fare on away trips to Lubumbashi, Freetown, Bangui or Kigali?
Surely they would have too much skill on the park, but would the pitch allow them to play their usual game, would they be mentally shattered by the journey, could they overcome the crunching, overzealous tackles from the home side that go unpunished by match officials? Or just the blatant cheating?
We will never know, but what is for sure is that if a team has lifted the African Champions League, they have come through a lot of hardships and showed huge mental fortitude, to go with a good dollop of skill.