Caf must adjust Champions League qualification process following early Akwa United exit

The Promise Keepers’ hopes of going far in the African elite competition have ended.

Akwa United

Still fresh from their maiden Nigeria Professional Football League triumph, Akwa United headed into their Caf Champions League preliminary round qualifier against Algerian Ligue 1 champions CR Belouizdad on a somewhat positive note, even though it was going to be difficult.

The Uyo-based side earned a 1-0 win at home for a slim advantage and it looked like they would see out a goalless draw in the return leg and pull through. The result remained that way for more than an hour in Algiers, or at least it was going to penalties as was the case after 70 minutes when Belouizdad led 1-0.

It was however game over for the Promise Keepers with Belouizdad adding a second in 83rd minute from the penalty spot for a 2-1 aggregate win.

It’s a painful way for Akwa to bow out. More painful in that it is just the preliminary round of the qualifiers.

Question marks have been raised though as to why United had to get such an opponent so early in the competition, especially as the NPFL and Algerian Ligue 1 are ranked 8th and 5th respectively in Africa.

Such high-ranking leagues should therefore avoid opponents from there so early. However, Caf rankings are based on the coefficient of the team and not the league. In this case, Akwa United ranked lowly as this is their first-ever appearance in the Champions League while Belouizdad are making their third appearance, going farthest last season where they reached the quarter-finals but lost 3-2 on penalties to Tunisian giants Esperance after a 2-2 aggregate score.

Regardless of Akwa’s low rank, this is not how the qualification process should be in Africa. As is obtainable in Europe, qualification starts between sides from the lowest-ranked leagues on the continent. The higher-ranked sides are given byes in the preliminary stages and begin their two or one round away from the group phase.

This might not work in Africa as the Caf Champions League comprises of just 16 teams in the group phase while in the Uefa Champions League, it is an extra 16 teams. This means more competition for places in Europe.

Notwithstanding, Caf can still place teams in the qualifiers based on league ranking. There are up to 50 active leagues across Africa, hence Nigerian sides can face lower-ranked league teams early in the qualifiers. The presence of multiple leagues across the continent also means the Caf Champions League group phase can field up to 32 teams. It is now in the group phase based on how the club’s performance has been in the competition that they will be seeded. Again this is what is obtainable in Europe.

So rather than face a powerful Algerian opponent so early, Akwa United should be saving that for the group phase. This early, they should be meeting teams from sides like Mozambique, Togo, Liberia, Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, Niger, Somalia, Gabon, Botswana, Central African Republic, Benin and Equatorial Guinea. What’s surprising is that some clubs from these countries faced each other in this same preliminary round.

It’s worth noting that once Nigerian sides or any other powerful team in the Sub-Sahara gets booted out early, there’s little or no interest from that country again and this is bad for the publicity the Caf Champions League greatly needs.

Caf must therefore look into this qualification format. Nigeria produces quality teams in the competition but are made to face stern opposition before the group phase commences. It's probably no surprise why the country has not seen a team reach the group stages since 2016 when two-time champions Enyimba did so but were eliminated from that same phase.

Since then its been first round exits for Rivers United and Rangers in 2017, MFM FC and Plateau United in 2018, Lobi Stars in 2018-19, preliminary round for Kano Pillars and first round for Enyimba in 2019-20 and preliminary round for Plateau United and first round for Enyimba in 2020-21.

Rivers United are the only Nigerian side remaining in the Champions League after they saw off Young Africans of Tanzania 2-0 on aggregate. They face Sudanese giants Al Hilal in the first and final qualification round and there’s that sense of déjà vu it will be a sixth consecutive season without a Nigerian representative in the group phase. Hopefully it will not be the case even as they will be underdogs for the tie.

This early pairing of giants doesn’t need to be happening. The Caf Champions League deserves very healthy and prolonged competition.

This is not denying that Nigerian teams don’t sometimes have the best of preparations going into continental games, but it doesn’t change the fact they get way tougher opposition before the tournament proper starts.

Caf needs to fix this following Akwa United’s early Champions League exit, otherwise sentiment will remain that the governing body deliberately favours sides from North Africa while those from Sub-Sahara will endlessly chase shadows.

Kunle is an avid writer with interest in topics on sports, politics and health. His articles have featured in Goal.com, Opera News and Vanguard News. He holds a Bachelors and Masters degree in International Relations and is an advocate for people living with Hydrocephalus and other neurological conditions.

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