The CAF Champions League (CAFCL) is an annual continental club football competition run by the CAF. The top club sides from Africa’s football leagues are invited to participate in this competition.
The winner of the tournament earns a berth for the FIFA Club World Cup, a tournament contested between the champion clubs from all six continental confederations, and also faces the winner of the CAF Confederation Cup in the following season’s CAF Super Cup.
Al Ahly of Egypt is the most successful club in the competition’s history, having won the tournament nine times.
Egyptian clubs have accumulated the highest number of victories, winning the title 15 times.
Starting life as the ‘African Cup of Champions Clubs’ in 1964, the first team to lift the trophy was Cameroonian side Oryx Douala, who beat Stade Malien of Mali 2–1 in a one-off final.
There was no tournament held the following year, but the action resumed again in 1966, when the two-legged ‘home and away’ final was introduced, which saw another Malian team AS Real Bamako take on Stade d’Abidjan of the Côte d’Ivoire. Bamako won the home leg 3–1 but it all came apart for them in the away game in Abidjan as the Ivorians went on to win 4–1 to take the title 5–4 on aggregate.
In 1967 when Ghana’s Asante Kotoko met the DRC’s TP Mazembe, both matches ended in draws (1–1 and 2–2 respectively). CAF arranged a play-off, but the Ghanaians failed to appear and the title was handed to Mazembe, who went on to win the title again the following year.
However, the Ghanaians got their revenge in 1970, when Kotoko and Mazembe once again met in the final. Once again, the first game ended 1–1, but against expectation, the Ghanaians ran out 2–1 winners in their away game to lift the title that had eluded them three years earlier.
The 1970s saw a remarkable rise in the fortunes of Cameroonian club football, which created the platform of success enjoyed by Cameroonian football at the international level today.
Between 1971 and 1980 Cameroonian teams won the cup four times, with Canon Yaoundé taking three titles (1971, 1978 and 1980) and US Douala lifting the cup in 1979.
In between the Cameroonian victories, the honour was shared with another team enjoying a golden age, Guinean side Hafia Conakry, who won it three times during this period (1972, 1975 and 1977).
Developments since 1997
Apart from the introduction of the away goals rule (in which the team wins which has scored more goals playing ‘away’ if there is a tie in the aggregate scoreline over the two legs), very little changed in this competition until 1997.
In this year, CAF took the bold step to follow the lead established a few years earlier in UEFA by creating a league stage in the tournament and changing the name to the CAF Champions League. CAF also introduced prize money for participants for the first time.
With a purse of US$1 million on offer to the winners and US$750,000 to the losing finalist, the new Champions League became the richest club competition in Africa.
In the new format, the league champions of the respective CAF member countries went through a series of preliminary rounds until the last 16 stage.
The 8 winners of this round were then drawn into two mini-leagues of 4 teams each, with each team playing each other on a home and away basis.
At the end of the league stage, the top two teams in each group meet in the semifinals, with the winners going through to contest the finals.
In 2017, the group phase was expanded from 8 to 16 teams and the mini-leagues from 2 to 4 and the addition of one extra knock-out round.
Since its inception, clubs from North Africa have been more dominant in the competition, with nearly 80% of the Champions League’s titles in Africa went to this region.
Nonetheless, in 2010, TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of the Congo became the first club to repeat as champions on two occasions. Their first pair of wins came in 1967 and 1968, before repeating the feat again in 2009 and 2010.
Structure and qualification
In 1997, the CAF Champions League replaced the previous pan-African competition – the African Cup of Champions Clubs – this had run from 1964–1996.
The competition is open to the winners of all CAF-affiliated national leagues, as well as the holder of the competition from the previous season.
From the 2004 competition, the runner-up of the league of the 12 highest-ranked countries also entered the tournament creating a 64-team field.
This was in response to the merging of the CAF Cup – the secondary pan-African club competition – where the league runners-up would previously play, with the CAF Cup Winners’ Cup to create the CAF Confederation Cup. The 12 countries would be ranked on the performance of their clubs in the previous 5 years.
The Champions League operates as a knockout competition, with a final group stage, with each tie (including the final) played over two legs – home and away.
There are 2 knockout stages – the preliminary stage and the first round (32 teams).
The 16 teams knocked out of the first round are entered into the Confederation Cup to play against the final 16 teams in that competition.
After the first round, the last 16 teams are split into four groups of 4.
The winner and runner-up in these groups are sent to play in a quarter-final and the possibility to play semi-finals, in chase of victory, for the chance of contesting the final.
No East African nation has won the CAF Champions League so far.