The second in Goal’s series to celebrate the continent’s finest Caf Champions League winners
Guest Feature | Lotfi Wada
Esperance, African champions in both 2018 and 2019, are one of only three sides to retain the African title during the Champions League era, and were shoo-ins to make the cut in our top five African sides of all time.
After a strong group stage campaign, Esperance were matched up against local foe Etoile du Sahel in the first knockout round of the 2018 Caf Champions League.
Their 2017 Champions League failure, although offset by winning the Arab Champions League, was fresh in the memories of Esperance fans and players alike heading into this one.
With the Champions League crown eluding them since 2011, tensions rose for their match-up against Etoile, although a 3-1 win on aggregate settled the matter and qualified them for the semis.
A rematch of the mythic 1998 African Cup Winners Cup final against Primeiro de Agosto was to be played in the semis after the Tunisians were drawn against the Angolans.
Having lost the first leg in Luanda courtesy of a fabulous bullet from Bua, then losing their captain Khalil Chemmam due to a sacrificial red card, Esperance found themselves up against it.
There were also concerns about the quality of their goalkeepers, while Esperance also turned to a new man on the bench, with ex-defender Moine Chaabani replacing the legendary Khaled Ben Yahia, who had been sacked a fortnight before the return leg.
Although dominating the possession and the exchanges, more misery was put on Esperance’s shoulders when the in-form Geraldo made it 2-0 on aggregate.
With a porous defence, Esperance needed three unanswered goals to qualify for the final.
As you can guess from their position in our ranking of Africa’s greatest club teams, Esperance completed the unthinkable.
Youcef Belaili was the first to score, before a Mohamed Ali Yaakoubi diving header put Esperance one goal away from salvation.
The Blood & Gold’s chances continuously missed chances while the Angolan army side were threatening on set pieces and counters. Then, a few moments after an hour of play, Lompala Bokamba’s bouncing freekick beat a hapless Rami Jeridi to make things even more difficult for the North Africans.
With two unanswered goals required and a defence with more holes than Swiss cheese, Esperance’s task had been made even trickier.
Haythem Jouini’s tap-in at the far post re-established hopes in the heart of the Mkachkha fans amidst a volcanic atmosphere.
Esperance were again one goal away from the final.
The breakthrough finally came through star attacker Anice Badri a few minutes before full time.
A long ball deflected by Jouini landed in his feet, and the Lyon-born forward smashed it past Tony Cabaca to send Esperance to the final and to send their fans into joyous celebrations.
Chaabani’s gamble paid off, and the Bab Souika club were 180 mins from a third Champions League title.
To realise this dream, Esperance had to face rivals Al-Ahly in the clasico of African club football…and yet another showdown in their classic rivalry.
In a raucous atmosphere on the shores of Alexandria, Esperance crumbled under the diabolical pressure of the Red Devils and returned to Rades with an away goal scored but a two-goal deficit following a 3-1 defeat.
Most importantly, perhaps, they were to be without suspended key duo Chamseddine Dhaouadi and Franck Kom.
Come the second leg, Esperance were nowhere to be seen in the first half. Toothless with the ball, Taraji had to wait until injury time to create their first significant chance.
A long spell of possession ended when the ball found Saad Bguir in the danger area; the pint-sized midfielder didn’t think twice before firing past Mohamed El Shenawy.
It was the best scenario possible for Taraji, although they were nowhere to be seen with the ball.
Pumped by the goal and the possibility of keeping the dream alive, Esperance’s confidence and level of performance began to grow.
In the 54th minute, after a crisp passing spell, Sameh Derbali’s pinpoint cross found the head of the smallest man on the field and the unexpected hero of the night Bguir, who sent Esperance fans into ecstasy.
As Ahly sought a winner, the final stages of the match were shaping up to be the longest of Esperance’s season.
In the 86th minute, Badri interrupted a misplaced pass from Hossam Ashour to carry the ball all the way before unleashing a missile beyond El Shenawy.
The Champions League was returning to Bab Souika and demons 0f 2012 had been exorcised. Esperance had done the unthinkable against the greatest club of the continent, and pulled off what is surely the biggest remontada in the recent history of Caf club competitions.
Entering the 2019 as favourites, and having finally broken their Ahly jinx, Esperance sailed to the semis where they would meet Tout Puissant Mazembe.
It was a clash of giants, which saw Esperance triumphing courtesy of a gigantic performance from Moez Ben Cherifia. The Mkachkhas had qualified for their fifth Champions League final of the decade.
This time they came up against Moroccan giants Wydad Casablanca, old enemies following the duo’s tussles in the Arab Champions League final in 2009 and the Caf Champions League final two years later. Both were tightly contested, and both won by the Bab Souika.
The first leg in a boiling Mohammed V Stadium and on Ramadan night saw Esperance going back with a 1-1 draw which could’ve been different in both senses.
The return leg saw Esperance dominating the contest, and their monopoly of possession bore fruit in the 40th minute when the dazzling Belaili beat Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti to take the Tunisian giants to within 45 minutes of achieving their aim.
The second half wouldn’t go to plan as Wydad refused to come back on the pitch, citing grave injustice, after referees refused to use VAR to check a goal that had been ruled out which the Moroccans felt was legitimate.
They may have had a point, but the absence of the available technology on the day tied the hands of the officials, and Wydad refused to play on despite appeals from Caf President Ahmad Ahmad.
The match was suspended, and then cancelled, with Esperance ultimately lifting the title.
After Caf initially decided to replay the fixture, they then performed another U turn and granted the Red and Gold the title.
They got over the line in particularly contentious final, but Esperance had finally joined other excellent generations like Enyimba 2003/2004, Ahly 2005/2006, Mazembe 2009/2010 and 1967/1968, as teams who retained their continental crown.
They also became only the third team to win the Caf CL without losing a game following Esperance’s side of 1994 and Ahly 11 years later.