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Sports Features of Thursday, 20 April 2017


Why Ghanaian and Nigerian clubs struggle in African club competitions

Nigeria and Ghana are two of the powerhouses of African football. Between them they have seven Nations Cup titles, nine runners-up spots, an Under-20 World Cup title and an Olympic Gold.

But when the CAF Champions League group stage draw is made on April 26, neither country will have a representative in the 16-team field.

In fact, looking back in the over four decades of Africa's premier club competition, Ghana have only had three champions and Nigeria two - and those came in successive years at the turn of the century courtesy of Enyimba.

So why is it that two countries with such riches continuously fail to shine in the Champions League? KweséESPN's West African editor Colin Udoh and Ghana expert Michael Oti Adjei have some theories ...

Colin Udoh
Growing attendance, improved broadcast, better football, more financing, and possibly a third of teams about to get quoted on the stock exchange ... all indices pointing to improvement in Nigerian league football.

Except in the one place where it really matters. On the field, and against their peers from around and across the continent.

For the last few years, Nigerian clubs - and these include the cream of the crop - have failed to make it to the group stages of the CAF Champions League, and it's not hard to see why.

When Enyimba announced themselves to the football world by winning back-to-back African titles, they did so on the back of single-minded determination by club owner Orji Uzor Kalu, and the focus to execute of the chairman Felix Anyansi-Agwu.

Kalu declared that his objective with his young, upstart club was to win the CAF Champions League, something no Nigerian club had done before. He was almost laughed off the podium.

But he set about his task with conviction, along with Anyansi-Agwu. Their template was simple: build a Real Madrid-style 'galactico' team composed of the best players from within (mostly) and without, pay them the best wage and bonus packages, identify and improve individual areas of weakness but, more importantly, keep them from running off abroad at the slightest opportunity.

That last part seems to be the major faultline for the rest ever since. Players play and excel one season, and are on the lookout for the next plane ticket out, leaving the clubs with little or no stability.

Last season, for instance, striker Chisom Egbuchulam and goalkeeper Emmanuel Daniel were two of the best performers for Rangers as the club won their first title in three decades. Within months they were off to pastures new.

Even as areas of weakness were not plugged, areas of strength were weakened.

Administratively, the club were in tatters. Preparations for both the new season and the Champions League were approached in scattergun fashion, with neither proper internal planning, nor scouting of prospective opponents; something Enyimba used to do as a matter of course.

It is an eerily similar story across the board for the others.

Nigerian clubs, for the moment at least, do not appear to have a clearly defined strategic objective of what they want to achieve in Africa beyond mouthing the slogan of 'playing continental'.

Until they do, this abysmal state of affairs will continue. And if they do somehow break the mound and do better, it will be more by chance rather than design.

Michael Oti Adjei
In Ghana, it is as if the Africa Champions League doesn't exist. Rarely is there mention of it on the radio, television or in the football frenzied world of social media. The reason is simple ... Ghanaian clubs don't matter in it anymore.

For years, Ghana's slot in the competition has remained one. When the draw for the group stages of this year's competition is held, there will be no Ghanaian club involved. In a way, it is business as usual.

Since Accra Hearts of Oak's remarkable triumph some 17 years ago, only three times have a Ghanaian club made it into the group stages. And the frightening thing from a Ghanaian perspective is that every season it gets worse.

Wa All Stars didn't even make it past the first qualifying stage this year, losing to Libya's Al Ahli Tripoli after two legs. The sum of the regular poor showing is that Ghanaian clubs continue to fall below the pecking order, which in turn affects their co-efficient in the ranking of countries in the competition and effectively the chances of having two clubs in the group phase.

That failure has also meant that a significant source of television revenue is cut off. And for cash-strapped Ghanaian clubs, that is even more devastating. They are effectively caught in a vicious cycle where failure to do well in Africa weakens their base even more and breeds more failure.

The lack of Ghanaian clubs in the competition has, however, not meant a lack of Ghanaian presence. TP Mazembe, the Congo DR side that has been a constant feature of the competition, have a strong taste for Ghanaian talent.

Harrison Afful played some memorable games for Esperance, including at least two Champions League finals.

Those players sum up one of the reasons why so many Ghanaian clubs struggle in Africa. Too many of their countries top players play away from home and despite it's famed production lines, there normally isn't the patience to let the talent mature before they are shipped off to DR Congo, Tunisia,

Tanzania or Zambia, which is emerging as a favourite destination.

And with clubs in no mood to give up on the revenues that transfers provide, it seems it will take a sugar daddy with deep pockets who says 'a Ghanaian club must do well in Africa' to reverse the trend. Until then the vicious cycle looks set to continue.