It’s been a miserable week for Tunisian giants Esperance.
After heroically battling their way to the Caf Champions League final, the North African heavyweights were defeated 3-1 by Al-Ahly in Alexandria in the first leg of the continental showpiece.
Not only has the result left them with a mountain to climb before the second leg, but the nature of the defeat has certainly left a sour taste at the conclusion of Africa’s premier club competition.
Indeed, considering the current battles and public-image issues the Confederation of African Football are currently entrenched in—from Nigeria to Sierra Leone, from Ghana to the Cameroon—the last thing they needed was a scandal enveloping their most high-profile club game.
Yet that’s exactly what’s happened after last Friday’s first leg, where Walid Azaro’s deplorable sportsmanship gave Ahly two unfair spotkicks—both of which were ‘supported’ by VAR and dispatched by Walid Soliman—and overshadowed what should have been something of a dream match.
Since then, the controversy—and particularly Azaro's shirt-tearing antics—has dominated the headlines.
Caf subsequently banned Azaro, fined Ahly and ‘invited’ head coach Patrice Carteron to attend a disciplinary hearing to discuss his own behaviour.
The Red Devils complained about the punitive measures—a protest which was duly supported by the Egyptian Football Association—while Esperance have also been left seething by the decisions.
The CAF disciplinary committe has decided to suspend Ahly's Oualid Azzaro for the next two games for his unsports behaviour at the#TotalCAFCLfinal 1st leg pic.twitter.com/ZWD4L6lojm — CAF (@CAF_Online) November 5, 2018
They now carry a burning sense of injustice after the first leg, aiming their ire not just at Ahly, but also at the officials.
“I am livid at what happened in Alexandria, but I have to keep it together for the sake of the team,” Esperance coach Moine Chaabani told journalists. “We were subjected to an extreme injustice.”
The Tunisian heavyweights will be without two key players for the return leg, both of whom, according to the manager, have been suspended unfairly.
“[Zouheir] Dhaouadi was booked for no reason,” he continued, “as was [Franck] Kom.
“It’s as if they were targeted [by the officials] from the off.”
It was a long road to reach this stage, Remeber all the Goals of Esperance Sportive de Tunis at Total CAFCL 2018 before their clash against El Ahly at #TotalCAFCLfinal on Friday pic.twitter.com/Msmj84ZfNW — CAF (@CAF_Online) November 6, 2018
The absences of the two key men, not to mention the scoreline and the perception that the authorities are conspiring against them, leave Esperance as rank underdogs as they approach the return match on Friday.
However, the North Africans have already demonstrated earlier in this competition, that they boast an almost unparalleled character, determination and ‘grinta’ to get over the line even when the odds are stacked against them.
Notably, in the semi-finals, they twice needed two goals to advance against Primeiro de Agosto, falling 1-0 away in the first leg and conceding after just eight minutes at home in the reverse fixture.
Youcef Belaili and Mohamed Ali Yacoubi levelled the contest on aggregate, before Lompala Bokamba restored the Angolans’ advantage—and gave them another away goal.
Inside the final 20 minutes of the tie, Esperance needed two goals to advance, notably against an Agosto defence that had superbly held Tout Puissant Mazembe at bay in the previous leg.
It’s to their immense credit that they recovered, and those late goals from Haythem Jouini and Anice Badri will have given them the belief that even this final is retrievable.
"We can recover from 3-1 behind -- there is still hope,” Chaabani concluded. “A key issue is keeping my players focused on football with so much else going on.”
Ahly certainly hold all of the aces as they approach this decisive 90-minute showdown, but Esperance will relish the prospect of answering the doubters and ensuring that African football ends a miserable week with champions worthy of the title.
They cannot be underestimated.