Tunisians triumphant in African Champions League final

Tunisians triumphant in African Champions League final
In Iran, meanwhile, hundreds of women fans were allowed into the stadium for the Asian Champions League final.
5 min read
13 Nov, 2018
Espérance de Tunis won the final 4–3 on aggregate [Getty]

This weekend was all about the final moments in the continental Champions Leagues. It started in Rades, Tunisia, with the end of the African competition, and continued to Tehran for the final whistle in the Asian competition.

The second legs of both competitions took over the MENA region for twenty-four hours, reminding the football world that there are still fascinating live-and-kicking soccer scenes outside the usual UEFA Champions League and English Premier League.

African Champions League, Radès

On Friday night, in Rades, Tunisia, Esperance de Tunis - Taraji by their Arabic nickname - hosted Egypt's Al-Ahly in the second leg of the CAF competition final.

Esperance arrived with a 3-1 deficit from the first leg in Alexandria.

The media storm, both in Egypt and Tunisia, went a long way in whipping up the atmosphere all week following a controversial refereeing display in the final's first leg.

Around 12,400 police officers and 4,500 soldiers were deployed to the Rades Stadium to make sure the event was tightly controlled, with 60,000 fans filled the stands.

Before the match, Taraji fans threw stones at Al-Ahly's bus and injured Hesham Mohamed, the Egyptian midfielder.

The match itself was the definition of a North African volcano. Non-stop singing from the stands and choreographed displays from the "ultras" - the hardcore fans - provided the perfect backdrop to such a battle.

While the game started defensively, the first half's extra time brought out the message - Taraji are here for revenge. Saad Bguir finished a great move by Anice Badri and Taha Khneissi and made it 1-0 for the Tunisians.

Al-Ahly had played without inspiration and it cost them the great advantage they had built up in the first game. In the second half, Taraji pressured the Egyptians back to their own goal and gained the second goal with another counter-attack that looked like it came from a video game.

It was Saad Bguir again, who headed the ball home from close range and made it 2-0. Taraji were already the champions, with time to spare.

Al-Ahly tried, but without Walid Azaro, sent off in the first leg for tearing his own shirt in order to get a penalty, they simply looked tired and unmotivated.

In the crucial dying moments, Esperance's Anice Badri took the ball, tricked three Al-Ahly players and sent a beautiful shot to the left of goalkeeper El-Shenawy. The scoresheet read 3-0, and the Tunisian volcano of Taraji exploded.

Taraji won their third African Champions League title - the 21st continental title for Tunisian teams in African competitions. 

Coach Moien Chaabani, in just his fourth ever match as a professional coach, is enjoying true continental glory at the age of 37. He is the youngest coach ever to win the African Champions League. His triumph makes it a third-time-in-a-row, that a local African coach has won the title.

Pito Mosimane won in 2016 with South African side Mamelodi Sundowns, and Hossein Amouta's Wydad Casablanca took the title in 2017.

Asian Champions League final, Tehran

On Saturday evening, Tehran was all groomed for Asian club football's event of the year.

The Asian Champions League final second leg, between Iranian champions Persepolis and Kashima Antlers of Japan took place in the famous Azadi Stadium, in what appeared to be the perfect venue for an emotional night in front of tens of thousands of fans.

The match entered the history books even before kick-off, with 850 women allowed to enter the stadium as fans - a first in Asian club competitions in Iran since 1979.

In addition, female journalists were also present in the ground, working freely with accreditation and IDs. The female fans were carefully selected from friends and relatives of players and football administrators - yet this is a massive step, especially in this kind of event, towards opening the Azadi for them in the future.

Persepolis was the first Iranian team to host an Asian Champions League final since 2007, when Sepahan lost to Urawa Red Diamonds, also from Japan, who went on to win the trophy. 

The last time an Iranian team won the tournament was in 1993, when PAS Tehran beat Saudi Al-Shabab in Manama.

The first half started in the usual stressed environment of a full Azadi packed with 80,000 fans in the stands. Persepolis attacked but weren't clinical enough to take their chances. Their players invested a huge amount of energy but couldn't convert it into an advantage on the scoreboard.

Iraq's Bashar Resan and Nigeria's Godwin Mensha tried to create the right chances, but the rest of the Persepolis team looked numb and indifferent under the huge pressure coming from the stands.

Persepolis ran and put in an effort, but the Japanese were playing slowly and smartly, waiting for their turn to sting.

As the minutes went by, Persepolis was losing the game - basically to themselves. Kashima Antlers set up the best trap seen in club football for years.

Persepolis tried avidly to find the goal but lacked the final touch in every move. Corner, free kick or counter-attack, it all seemed too much for Branko Ivankovich's players.

The game ended 0-0, giving Kashima Antlers their first ever Champions League title, and the second in a row for a Japanese team, after Urawa Red Diamonds won last year against Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal.

The Japanese squad were the better team throughout the two legs.

Yet, there were some positives in Persepolis' display:

Despite the transfers embargo that club has suffered from due to illegal listings of Mehdi Taremi, despite the limited squad, they made it up to the final, kicked Al-Sadd out, became the first Iranian club through to this stage since 2010, and challenged and changed the national debate about women in football stands.

Regardless of the loss, the red side of Tehran deserves nothing but respect. 

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here