By Andrew Warshaw
June 3 – The image of African football, already tarnished by a series of FIFA bans of former senior officials and allegations surrounding current leader Ahmad Ahmad, suffered a damaging blow on the field Saturday when the showpiece final of the continent’s top club competition was sensationally abandoned after Wydad Casablanca of Morocco refused to continue in protest of VAR not being employed.
It was the first time in the 55-year history of the CAF Champions League that a match in the home-and-away final had not been completed and is likely to generate heated debate when the Confederation of African Football (CAF) holds a regional congress in Paris on Tuesday. Indeed, CAF have called a meeting of their executive committee to discuss the incident.
Esperance of Tunisia were awarded the trophy after the Casablanca team could not be persuaded to carry on after 60 minutes because the video assistant refereeing system, being used for only the fourth time in an African club competition game, was not available to judge their disputed equaliser.
Esperance were leading 1-0 in the second leg in Tunis and 2-1 overall when play was halted. Wydad believed they had levelled when Walid el Karti headed a cross into the net. TV replays confirmed he was onside but the goal was disallowed for an infringement.
The Moroccans surrounded the Gambian referee urging him to check with VAR, seemingly unaware that the system was not available. VAR had reportedly been set up on the side of the pitch but the players had not been told it was not working – even though the officials apparently knew.
After a 90-minute delay and all manner of discussion and debate, the final was abandoned and the match awarded to the home side.
At one stage, CAF president Ahmad and the bosses of both clubs urged the game to be restarted on the public address system. Ahmad spent almost 30 minutes in discussions with officials in a futile effort to get the players back out.
Esperance, seeking back-to-back titles, had taken the lead on 41 minutes when Youcef Belaili curled a shot into the net from the edge of the box at the Stade Olympique.
Ironically VAR played a major role in the first leg in Morocco last weekend, with referrals ruling out a goal by Wydad and later appeals for a penalty. The Egyptian referee of that match was subsequently banned for six months with CAF saying he gave a “poor performance” following complaints by the Moroccans.
Esperance have been unbeaten all season, becoming the first club to win the competition twice without losing a match. Conversely, Wydad could now face a two-year ban from competing in the African Champions League but are likely to get a more lenient sentence.
There are now also justifiable concerns about the Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off on June 21 in Egypt.
Wydad’s president urged CAF to investigate to “save the image of football in Africa”.
“Wydad was the victim of a scandal on Friday which has destroyed all what had been done to develop football in Africa,” Said Naciri told BBC Sport.
“We are asking the Confederation of African Football to investigate what happened in Friday’s game. We are calling for a fair investigation to save the image of football in Africa which was terribly tarnished.”
“We were waiting for the referee’s decision to check the VAR or use any camera. I can’t understand why the referee was waiting for instructions from other people to take his decision.”
“We will defend our right by all means. We will go to FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), giving them all the details and legal documents to defend our right,” he added.
Morocco’s Football Federation quickly issued its backing for Wydad.
“We will support Wydad by addressing FIFA and CAS because we cannot accept awarding the Champions League title to Esperance under unfair conditions,” said the president of Morocco’s football federation, Fawzi Lakjaa.
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