Rabat – If anything, the second leg CAF champion’s league final between Morocco’s Casablanca’s Wydad and Tunis’ Esperance at the Rades stadium in Tunisia was an unforgettably scandalous night.
For those who were left utterly disappointed at the injustice Wydad of Casablanca suffered last Friday in Rabat, where does yesterday’s sabotage stand in comparison? How does one even start to recount the unfolding of what looked like a deliberate, planned footballing fiasco?
At the kick off time, yesterday’s second leg confrontation between Tunisia’s Esperance de Tunis and Morocco’s Wydad de Casablanca, there was already a palpable sense of tension and frustration in the air.
Nerves were high, even mercurial, on both sides—courtesy of a battle to emerge from the stained first leg, where an untold number of refereeing mistakes robbed the Moroccan side of a significant home victory. Both sides, in this sense, went in yesterday’s game to rise from the lingering bruises of that grandly controversial first leg.
By the time yesterday’s game reached minute 60, however, it was clear that hearts would be broken and dreams shattered.
As Bakari Gassama, the Gambian referee of the game, stubbornly refused to yield to Wydad’s rightful demands that VAR be consulted to deliberate on whether the goal that had just been ruled out was valid (it was), there was a feeling that here, too, all had been set up for Wydad to end up on the losing end.
By all means, what happened yesterday was an emphatic stain on the honor, or respectability, of Africa’s most revered football contest for clubs. Or, as Wydad’s chairman put it, it was a “total shame for African football,” perhaps the most outrageous African Champions League final.
To put it briefly into context: Esperance had been leading the game by 1-0, courtesy of a first half in which they were slightly superior. But like in the second half in Rabat, Wydad came back from the 15-minute respite more spirited, more driven.
Like in Rabat, Wydad was more present and far more dominant in the second half, leaving their Tunisian hosts with the sole option of defending their goal advantage while playing on counters. And like in Rabat, Wydad pressed higher and scored the equalizer in the first minutes of the second half, at minute 49.
But, somewhat unsurprisingly, like in Rabat, too, Wydad’s goal was ruled out. In that moment, it felt as though last week’s refereeing fiasco was after all a prelude to an even grander, vastly dishonorable show.
After over an hour of deliberation, the game was stopped. Somehow, unexplainably, with nearly 30 minutes to go, the referee blew the final whistle, declaring the Tunisians the winners of the 2019 African champions League. It was brilliantly laughable, the result monstrously unjust to a Wydad squad which, given how they had been playing, could have won the game.
Only after the game was it revealed that, actually, the referee rejected Wydad’s call to use VAR because the system was out of order. But the problem is that Wydad, according to their chairman, Said Naciri, did not know about VAR not being operational.
“Why would we have asked for VAR to be used if we were informed that it was not operational in the first place?” Naciri insistently lamented in his post-match interview. While the decision to declare Esperance champions was unfair by all definitions of the word, the revelation that VAR was defective compounded the frustration, leaving space to suggestions the game had been rigged all along, skewed in Esperance’s favor.
And no, this wasn’t some kind of one-off. It had little to do with those grotesquely disappointing moments when football can feel understandably painful, bearably unbearable. No, this was deliberate, offensively cunning, planned outrage. How can anyone explain that VAR was not functional on a night of the continental Champions League final? Was it deliberate? The answer, reports have it, is a resounding yes. In fact, this was hardly the first time that Esperance “deliberately broke VAR,” according to former CAF Secretary-General Amr Fahmy.
“This is unfair,” Naciri lamented after CAF decided that Esperance were the victors. He said his club “will not keep silent” and “will file complaints with FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sports.” He called the match a “failure for African football” and a display of “refereeing massacre.”
Putting aside the human propensity to sympathize with the indescribable pain of undeserved defeat, it is difficult to argue against the crux of Naciri’s point. The Wydad chairman was not only right in his assessment of the game as a disgrace and a dishonor to African football just days ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations.
Though his outbursts—which were legitimate, anyway—reverberated with the biting, unforgettable aches of undeserved loss, Naciri was actually pointing to something many of us can sympathize with. When, twice in a row, and in the space of just one week, the same team is outrageously denied a fair chance to win a victory it would have deserved, pointing to conspiracy is perfectly warranted. This is no conspiracy theory.
After the thoroughly disappointing first leg, it was almost unbelievable that the scene that unfolded before our eyes at the Rades stadium was actually happening. Even the Tunisian press, usually fiery and fervent when it comes to defending their teams, has conceded, somewhat in spite of themselves, that this was “shameful” and “scandalous” for the image of African football days ahead of the continental footballing showpiece.
Perhaps the complaints in the Tunisian media are genuine. But they won’t soothe the Wydadi players and fans. The CAF board, meanwhile, has called for an urgent meeting to “discuss a controversial final.” Wydad fans can be pardoned if that “urgent meeting” comes across like a joke: little will come from the meeting.
At this point, perhaps, the onus is on the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF). There will be calls among Moroccan fans that, like its Tunisian counterpart, the Moroccan federation should from now on show more aggressiveness and resolve in defending the interests of Moroccan teams at the continental level.
Sending post-match letters, however damning and solemn their tone, will do little to reverse the blatant injustice that marred the experience of Moroccan clubs in this year’s CAF tournaments. (RS Berkane, another Moroccan team, was controversially beaten in the second leg of the CAF Cup final against Egypt’s Zamalek.)
While FRMF should, as they have said they would, express their legitimate anger and frustration at the CAF board for such scandalous errors of judgment in the course of two season-defining games, they should really consider being more present in the behind-the-scenes, off-the-pitch battles which sometimes dictate much of what happens on the pitch.
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