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HomeCAF Champions LeagueRulani Discusses North African CAFCL Dominance

Rulani Discusses North African CAFCL Dominance

Mamelodi Sundowns head coach Rulani Mokwena broke down the complexities of the CAF Champions League and why it’s been dominated by North African clubs.

Al Ahly, record 11-time champions, will face Esperance Sportive de Tunis, who has have won four titles in their history.

They were two of eight clubs in the quarter-final, where discussions where taking place about a new dawn of continental dominance.

However, Simba SC, Young Africans, Mamelodi Sundowns, TP Mazembe, Petro de Luanda and ASEC Mimosas have all been eliminated now.

“It’s a good question but it’s so complex, it’s not one that you just answer with one answer and everything makes sense, you first have to accept the profile of the competition, and the profile of the competition means that you play home and away,” Mokwena said.

“And because there is also the law or the rule, which the Europeans have taken out now [away goals] to try to stimulate the level playing grounds from a technical and tactical perspective of approach from teams; is the away goals rule.

“So in the Champions League in Africa, the away goals rule is so important, then you find how influential the crowd is in relation to creating the conditions to support the whole team and influence maybe a level of intimidation on the away team.

“And that’s important, whether people believe it or not, it’s important, it’s a psychological benefit and if it could give one percent benefit, it’s there. If you look at us for Sundowns, our supporters are only now learning to play the Champions League.

“You can feel in certain moments how they drive the team, how they… but they still are a group that suffers with the team – but if you look at the North African sides, the supporters, in difficult moments, don’t suffer with the team.

“In fact, they are the ones giving energy to the team, to push them, to suffer more, and they enjoy suffering because in South Africa we clap for a chance created or a skill – in North Africa, they clap for a block, for a tackle for a player on the ground bleeding. They clap. That type of mentality is one that says we can do more of this, it’s what makes our people happy.”

Mokwena suggested fatigue plays a crucial role, as the travel distances for sub-saharan African teams, are potentially much more.

“The other thing is the distances in flights, if you have more North Africans, it means you travel from Southern Africa to the Northern point of Africa,” he explained.

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“It’s less complex when you have more North African teams, where you are in the group stages. The accumulation of fatigue in travels eventually catches up with you in the semi-finals and finals. In the group, you might have four teams – two from North Africa.

“We had Mazembe, a stretch to travel, Pyramids, it’s a stretch to travel, now unlike Europe for example, from Germany to London is like two-and-a-half hours, sometimes less depending on the mode of transport – that is a factor.

“Sometimes our schedule and calendar don’t go together, it’s difficult to try and manage a season where you have an objective to try and play a league game – [we were] the only side in the Last-Four who had a league game mid-week, nobody else had one.

“Al Ahly maybe only played seven (sic, 11) games in their league, the rest is a postponement, postponement to prepare for their games in the Champions League – there are so many dynamics, then you get experience.

“Not just playing for your club in games of consequence but also your national team – and your national team doing well, getting into semi-finals and finals with the players who are coming from Mamelodi Sundowns or Al Ahly, for example.

“If you look at the tide [changing], go to AFCON, we had South Africa, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Congo – no North African sides. In the Champions League, we had two North African sides, a team from Congo, South Africa [in the semi-finals].

“So if you ask me if the gap is closing or widening, I would say based on the results and what I see in the immediate – is that there’s possibilities that we’re closing the gap but it is a big gap because there’s football heritage, years of doing these things.

“The more you do something – the more skilled you are at doing it, you know what works and what doesn’t work, at times this is what we’re trying to get through to say what works in the Champions League, what doesn’t work?”

However, in directly addressing the question of whether the gap is being closed on North African dominance, Mokwena suggested it was, as more experienced is gained in that space with clubs outside of the Northern region.

And that perhaps, the style of football needs to adapt to the demands as he’s now failed to win the coveted title in his attempts with an offensive brand of the game.

“It’s not only about tactics, but preparation, what time do you play? The pitch, how do you fly? Which hotel do you stay in? That’s why we have an advanced group over the years trying to find solutions – so it’s a broad question which has a lot more to do than tactics,” he continued.

“Many will talk about tactics and the dark arts and sitting back – I don’t want… I grew up in a family where they produced a Jomo Sono, and my family produced a KK Sono, for example, so that’s how I feel about football, from an offensive sense.

“In the township when we played football, the players admired the most weren’t ones like me at centre-back, and just defended in the five-a-side were the guys who could make the difference offensively, dribbled two or three players and make something happen.

“I feel football should be played in a certain way to evoke certain emotions and when I watch it, would my late grandfather Scara Sono watch that game, would he be proud to see a team I coach, play the way it plays, would I be proud sitting on top playing a team I support as a Sundowns fan? I am a Sundowns supporter.

“That’s the first thing I ask myself, maybe that’s the question – is that enough to win you the Champions League? And so far, clearly, it’s not enough.”

Lorenz Kohler
Lorenz Kohler
Lorenz Köhler is an award-winning South African football journalist. Having cut his teeth in the industry working at Kick-Off Magazine, he is now iDiski Times' senior digital content writer. He specialises in breaking top African football stories and transfers with a major focus on the 'big-three' Mamelodi Sundowns, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates and CAF inter-club and international competitions. In 2021 he was listed amongst the top-five journalists under 30 in Print Media for the AIPS Awards.