Uninteresting as the Orange CAF Champions League may be to some followers of African football, it remains the de jure elite club competition on the continent. It is a source of pride for some nations especially those whose national teams do not perform well in the continent’s tournaments such as the Africa Cup of Nations, the Africa U-17 Championship and the Africa Youth Championship. For certain countries, it is a dependable fount of players for the Championship of African Nations introduced in 2009. Of course, the winner of the CAF Champions League represents the continent in FIFA’s annual Club World Cup. It is in this light that it got worrying in recent years as Ghanaian clubs failed in reaching the so-called ‘money zone’ of the CAF Champions League. Ghanaian clubs withdrew from playing in the competition citing financial burdens, and the few who subscribed to play, only performed as good as preliminary campaigners. The situation worsened when Ghana’s two concessions in each of the Champions League and the Confederation Cup were reduced to one because of poor performance.
Debutant Ghanaian clubs
For Ghanaian football lovers, if it is not Kumasi Asante Kotoko FC or Accra Hearts of Oak SC, and to a large extent Obuasi Ashanti Gold SC, then one could bet on a preliminary exit or, at best, clubs teetering on the brinks of making the group stage. They scarcely make it into the group stage.
For debutant Ghanaian league winners like Aduana Stars in 2010 and Berekum Chelsea in 2011, nothing but a plunging baptism of fire is what is expected. As such, Aduana Stars brought no surprise to pundits when they exited the CAF Champions League at just the preliminary round. Indeed, the group stage of the League comes along as an unreachable horizon for clubs without any record in Africa. They simply play more matches to get there. Fortunately, their financial burdens are lessened as more clubs withdraw from playing in Africa’s club completion than any other continent’s. It is in this light that many patted Aduana Stars on the back for at least playing in the competition giving the club an experience of some sort. They even recorded a 1-0 home win over Wydad Casablanca.
The expectation that greeted Aduana Stars’ campaign was the same that did Berekum Chelsea’s initially. Reaching the competition’s group stage was going to be a long journey as they had not played in it before. In fact, they had not even engaged in any continental club competition before. As a result, qualifying to the group stage was not an expected destination for Berekum Chelsea.
Berekum Chelsea’s campaign
First in the preliminary round came Liberia’s LISCR FC. The Ghanaians won 2-0 at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in Monrovia and shut out the Liberians here in a 5-0 aggregate win. It was even to get tougher for them in the next round as they were drawn against former champions Raja Casablanca of Morocco. Even a 5-0 win in the first leg did not convince sympathizers of the club that they would survive the salvos in North Africa. Though they lost 3-0 in Casablanca, they scraped through to the next stage to meet one of the competition’s many losing finalists, Coton Sport Garoua of Cameroon. A goalless drawn game at the Berekum Golden City Park was just seen as a drawn hammer for the Cameroonians to just nail the coffin on the Ghanaians. But the unexpected happened! Bechem Chelsea, as they were previously called, went to the northern part of Cameroon to pull the surprise. They beat Coton Sport 2-1 to book a place in the group stages of the 2012 Orange CAF Champions League. In the cast of qualified teams for the draw, Berekum Chelsea became the only side without any CAF inter-club competition experience whatsoever. Worse still, they were drawn in Group B with three former champions including the competitions’ record winners, Nady Al Ahly. Al Ahly, Zamalek and TP Mazembe easily dropped on the lips of connoisseurs asked for their picks of potential semi-finalists. Berekum Chelsea was only predicted to place last in the group. Indeed, pundits were right with the first but fluffed the latter. Berekum Chelsea did not place last in the group.
Proving the doubters wrong
Berekum Chelsea did not only go past Zamalek but also teetered on the brink of a semi-final berth. They lost only one match in the campaign, which is in no small measure an enviable record. They just drew more matches giving TP Mazembe the leeway into the semi-finals at the expense of the Ghanaians. In fact, Berekum Chelsea kept an unbeaten record at their adopted home, the Accra Sports Stadium. What is more, Berekum Chelsea will have its name mentioned in the competition as the club with the leading goal scorer, at least, for sometime. Though Emmanuel Clottey is no more with the Berekum club, his 12 goals will continue to be mentioned until it is surpassed. But that is far from reach as the second joint-top scorers, Tresor Mputu Mabi, Mbwana Samata and Mohamed Abutrika, have six each. Clottey’s 12 goals broke Ghana’s record of 10 set by Hearts of Oak’s Emmanuel Osei Kufour in 2000. I am left to wonder why officials of the club could not let the ex-Odense Boldklub striker Clottey break the African record before leaving. Given this golden opportunity to break the ice at this level, Berekum Chelsea officials could have negotiated for the Black Stars striker to play the last game against TP Mazembe with the hope of becoming the first African player to score more goals in the CAF Champions League. He could have at least equaled Nigerian Stephen Worgu’s record of 13 goals. Well, it only comes down to what Ghanaian footballers cherish more – money over name/record.
Having stated my concern over Berekum Chelsea not etching their name in the annals of the competition as the club whose player has the most goals, I would also want to lament a golden opportunity Chelsea blew to the smithereens in this year’s Champions League though on any day, the club’s officials will attribute their venue switch as a major setback to their performance.
First of all, Chelsea’s drawing of two Egyptian clubs without recourse to their record was a priceless opportunity given the dormancy in Egyptian football at that period. Footballing activities had been completely banned in Egypt six months prior to the Champions League due to crowd violence which resulted in
the loss of 73 lives. Aside Al Ahly being directly involved in the mayhem, Zamalek were deprived of competitive football during that period. Hard as it might have seemed going for the 12 points from the Egyptian clubs, Chelsea only amassed less than half of that. Precisely, they screwed only 5 points (in one win and two draws).
Secondly, a purposeful club cannot get a better start to a CAF Champions League campaign than what Berekum Chelsea had. Four points from a possible six from opponents who were ranked light years ahead of Chelsea should have spurred them on to still get a semi-final berth. Even when they lost to Al Ahly in Egypt, Chelsea still had their destiny in their own hands to make it to the next round. Their undoing was the 1-1 respective draws against Al Ahly in Accra and Zamalek in Cairo.
What I expected Chelsea to make out of the Egyptian clubs (at that point in their country’s football history), was rather perfectly executed on TP Mazembe. The DR Congolese were also returning to the League from previous year’s nightmare of disqualification. They may have been rusty. More so, they were changing their traditional (and dreaded) venue to a 15, 000 capacity newly built stadium in Lubumbashi. A respectable 4 points were picked from the possible 6 between them. Had results in Accra against Al Ahly and, more crucially, against Zamalek in Cairo gone their way, Berekum Chelsea will still have been in the Champions League. But let me point out that on a normal season when Egyptian football was in full flight and TP Mazembe were playing at the erstwhile dreaded venue in Lubumbashi, Berekum Chelsea would have found themselves wanting.
Perhaps, the long journey from the preliminary stage to the group games may have worn Chelsea down. The club has indisputably put Ghana’s waning club football reputation on an invigorated pedestal as Kumasi Asante Kotoko takes the mantle next. But until the Porcupine Warriors launch their continental campaign next year, a little push from the Blues could have seen them in the semi-finals of the competition. They only succumbed to ‘experience’ (especially in Al Ahly’s 0-2 loss to TP Mazembe in DR Congo).