Why expansion of CAF Champions League group stage is the best idea
During the 1990s when commercialization of football became increasingly important, CAF made it clear that they would prioritize international football. Europe and South America expanded their premier club competition tournaments in that decade. CAF opted to expand the Africa Cup of Nations instead. They did this in 1992 and 1996.
One might say that CAF did introduce a Champions League group stage in 1997 but it didn’t have semifinal fixtures until 2001. After that, CAF barely made improvements on this competition for two decades. The confederation even launched a second international tournament, CHAN, in the name of giving Africa-based players a continental platform. An expansion of the CAF Champions League group stage had been long overdue.
On 11th May, 2016, this reform was finally made. Issa Hayatou, the then CAF President, announced in his speech at the Ordinary General Assembly of CAF that the group stage of the CAF Champions League would be expanded to 16 teams, as from 2017.
This great move has hopefully come in the nick of time. Countries like Algeria and Zambia have undergone reforms in their domestic football in recent past and are now becoming stronger participants in the CAF Champions League. South Africa, whose public had a general disinterest in matters CAF, is now pushing its clubs to do well in the CAF Champions League. Maybe, Kaizer Chiefs will one day reach the final like its domestic peers.
The great benefit of expanding this competition is raising the interest of Africans to the competition. It never made sense for the best phase of the tournament to be dominated by a region of 5 countries. Change has been immediate. For the first time in a long time, North African clubs are the minority in the group stage and it is likely this will remain so until, perhaps, the next expansion.
How will interest be raised? In the previous format, you had clubs with as massive support as the celebrated North African teams knocked out after two or four matches. Fans are rubbing their hands for the 2017 group stage even without clubs like Simba (Tanzania), MC Alger, ES Setif (Algeria), Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs (South Africa), Raja Casablanca (Morocco), Asante Kotoko, Hearts of Oak (Ghana), among others. We are not even considering other big clubs with decent following from countries like Angola or Kenya. If you keep these teams longer in the competition, you generate more interest.
They will want to be regulars in the tournament because it is now appears to be much more within reach; even though only two matches have been done away with. This writer also cannot wait to see more clubs from the same country meet each other in the CAF Champions League; except the Soweto Derby duo, who meet way too much.
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