These days, perhaps more so than ever, African football is a land of opportunity, both at a national and continental level.
In recent years, some of the continent’s less heralded sides have enjoyed exhilarating and unexpected runs in Caf’s two Africa-wide competitions, with the extended format allowing the likes of Ferroviario Beira, last season’s fairytale outfit, to experience the kind of altitude that had previously been unattainable.
Similarly, Africa’s major leagues have thrown up surprise winners in recent years, with some of the continent’s top footballing nations subsequently boasting unfamiliar representatives in Caf’s major club tournament.
This year, more than ever, the ripples of change across the continent are beginning to change the face of the new and extended Champions League, although not all of the new boys’ dreams are falling on fertile ground.
Which of the unfamiliar CAF Champions League representatives representing big(ish) nations do you think will go the furthest in the tournament this year?— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) February 20, 2018
For the former, their victory represented a first title triumph by a team from the Centre Province since Canon Yaounde in 2002.
In the intervening decade and a half, Cameroon’s top flight—and subsequently their Caf CL representatives—have come from Littoral or the North, with the one exception being Tiko United in 2008-09.
Like Eding Sport, FC Platinum were first-time winners of their domestic title last term, in doing so, ending the hegemony of clubs from the two major centres—Harare and Bulawayo—that stretched back to the Zimbabwe’s independence.
Both Eding Sport, who were only founded in 2012, and FC Platinum are modern, ambitious and well resourced outfits, but both have experienced that outmanoeuvring their domestic rivals has been an easier task than scraping through the Preliminary Round.
That ought to be that for Plateau United. Three goals, a clean sheet; surely insurmountable for Eding Sport. Tremendous result.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) February 11, 2018
Not so much for Akwa United, who can't seem to buy a home win for love or money on the continent. #CAFCL #CAFCC
For Eding, internal strife and dubious refereeing contributed to their first-leg 3-0 defeat by Plateau United, and while it’s not impossible that they can turn things around in midweek, the odds are firmly against them.
FC Platinum, despite entertaining—and even encouraging—title talk, were outclassed 3-0 by Angolans Primeiro de Agosto, and will need a flawless performance in front of their own fans to advance.
Another heavyweight nation represented by an unfamiliar side in this year’s competition is Egypt, for whom Mis El-Maqassa join perennial contenders Al-Ahly after their impressive finish in last year’s Premier League.
However, they, like FC Platinum and Eding Sport, have their work cut out to advance, after falling 2-0 to Senegal’s Generation Foot in their first leg.
While Eding’s run appears primed to end this week, their opponents, Plateau United, are another fresh face in African competition, and have acquitted themselves much more successfully as they make their continental bow.
The Jos-based side were only promoted to the NPFL for the first time—at least under their current guise—in 2010-11, but their growth has been organic, and the work of coach Kennedy Boboye was critical to their maiden title challenge last term.
Despite Nigeria’s standing within the continental arena, they’ve only twice produced a Caf Champions League winner—Enyimba in 2003 and 2004—and haven’t had a team advance past the group stage since 2012.
While that target still feels some distance away, United ought to see off Eding, and will fancy their chances of reaching the group stage.
Similarly, MFM FC, who were only founded in 2007, remain in contention for the next round after holding Real Bamako to a 1-1 draw in their debut match in the competition.
After winning their maiden Ghanaian title in 2010, the Dormaa Ahenkro-based club were dumped out in the 2011 preliminaries after a 3-1 aggregate defeat by Wydad Casablanca.
They were also defeated in their first leg this time around—falling 1-0 to Libya’s Al-Tahaddy in neutral Cairo—but will expect that home support could see them through against the North Africans in the return leg this week.
Finally, while familiar faces such as Esperance, MC Alger, Al-Hilal and Al-Merrikh all struggled to down lesser opponents in their first-leg matches, another maiden title winner—Bidvest Wits—started strongly as they look to make amends for last season's brief Caf Champions League showing.
Admittedly, the Clever Boys were handed a favourable draw after being paired with Mauritian side Pamplemousses FC, but they still secured a 2-0 first-leg triumph after an encouraging display, and are unlikely to be too troubled in the reverse fixture.
For all of their resources and the relative strength of the PSL, South African sides have often struggled to match the might of their North African rivals in continental competition.
However, in 2016, Mamelodi Sundowns became the nation’s second side—after Orlando Pirates in 1995—to win Africa’s grandest prize, and SuperSport United’s run to the final of last year’s Confederation Cup proves that PSL teams can increasingly hold their own against Africa’s finest.
Don’t bet against Wits emerging as the last team standing of the many fresh and unfamiliar faces competing in this year’s Caf Champions League.