Hand of God & all-powerful Engelbert - Champions League, Africa-style

The Hand of God. One of the most iconic and controversial moments in the history of football. So resonant was the moment, you can utter those four words almost anywhere in the world and people will instinctively know what you’re talking about.

“It was the hand of a rascal. God had nothing to do with it,” quipped Sir Bobby Robson in anger. But the phrase is set in stone.

Fortunately the practice of naming dubious handballs after the body parts of the Almighty hasn’t quite taken off in Africa as of yet. Otherwise we’d be running out of expressions. ‘The upper right forearm of God’ doesn’t really have much of a ring to it.

The following clips are taken from the first and second legs of this season’s African Champions League semi-final between Tunisian giants Espérance and Al-Ahly of Egypt, the most successful club in the competition’s history.The second clip shows Nigeria’s Michael Eneramo quite literally handing Espérance their place in this season’s CAF Champions League final, with a goal that eliminated Al-Ahly on away goals. In Espérance’s defence Al-Ahly also profited from a blatant handball in the first leg, so one could argue it all evened out in the end.

Nonetheless, the prevailing spirit of scandal encapsulates how the 2010 edition of Africa’s most prestigious club competition has played out.

The CAF Champions League has never been a stranger to unusual incident. This is after all a tournament whose third edition was handed over by the federation to one finalist after the other refused a deciding play-off, like a parent interjecting in a fight between two children over a lollipop and handing it to the one who’ll cry the least.

But the 2010 edition has been lively by anyone’s standards.

Unpredictable results, dodgy refereeing decisions, crowd trouble, fights and stadium violence have all been running themes this year particularly since the last eight group stage began in July (unlike the UEFA Champions League, Africa’s equivalent involves knockouts until the last eight before splitting into two groups of four. The top two then advance to the semi-finals whereupon knockouts resume).

And yet the end result will be the same as last year. Barring a major collapse, TP Mazembe, hailing from DR Congo will retain the title after they thrashed Espérance 5-0 in the first leg of the final. The second leg takes place in Tunisia this weekend.

CAF this week dished out a number of sanctions to leading African clubs after a Disciplinary Committee ruled on a string of misdemeanours that have blighted this season’s tournament.

Three of the four semi-finalists had their knuckles rapped. Espérance were fined a total of $65,000 USD after television images were beamed all around the continent showing their fans beating up stewards during their semi-final clash against Al-Ahly in Cairo. Nicknamed the ‘Blood and Gold’, Espérance were also fined for their fans lighting flares and clashing with Egyptian police, and for the “aggressive behaviour” of their players in their 5-0 final first leg defeat to TP Mazembe.

Algerian champions JS Kabylie were fined $20,000 and ordered to play their next game behind closed doors for the volley of projectiles that rained down during their semi-final defeat to TP Mazembe, a parade of flares that caused the game to be temporarily halted. The Congolese champions were also warned by CAF for “lack of proper security and organisational lapses during matches held in Lubumbashi,” while a number of other violent clashes and ugly incidents also went unpunished.

One of the major causes of all this trouble has been the renewing of long-standing international rivalries, wounds re-opened and picked at thanks to a last eight contingent that brought together several old foes.

Given the complex history and tense relations involved, games featuring Egyptian teams and those from certain parts of the Maghreb region of North Africa like Algeria and Tunisia are never the most amicable. Yet this season, five of the last eight were from one of these three nations. Supporters, players and authorities therefore had ample opportunities to renew hostilities.

For example, in a group stage match between Al-Ahly and JS Kabylie, the Cairo side’s team bus was stoned, the players had to wait in their dressing room for hours after the game for JS Kabylie’s fans to leave the stadium, and perceived dubious refereeing decisions prompted Al-Ahly’s Ahmed Hassan to claim he would “never visit Algeria again under any circumstances.”

Ahead of the Espérance vs Al-Ahly second leg (that of Eneramo’s handball infamy), Espérance president Hamdi Meddeb welcomed the Egyptian delegation at the airport to try and diffuse tensions. “Whether we win or lose, I will throw a dinner,” stated Meddeb. “We must exonerate ourselves from the harm caused to Cairo by some of our supporters.”

Sadly, Meddeb’s hospitable gestures fell on deaf ears. Eneramo’s punched goal stirred up all the old Maghreb-Egyptian tensions, causing Espérance coach Hossam al-Badri to lambast the referee and cry fix. "The match was over before the kickoff. I feel sorry because we play football in Africa where referees do whatever they want," al-Badri complained. He was infinitely quieter on the subject of his own side’s handled goal in the first leg.

Off-field outrage has littered this season’s CAF Champions League. The tournament’s denouement is missing TP Mazembe’s star and captain Tresor Mputu – voted Best player on the continent at the 2009 Glo-CAF Awards and described as “the treasure of Congolese football” by TP Mazembe team manager Frederick Kitengie.

Mputu received a one-year ban from FIFA for misconduct following his part in a brawl during a Cecafa Club Cup game – a relatively minor, unheralded competition for clubs from East and Central Africa.  It is the equivalent of Lionel Messi being banned from football for a year for misbehaving in a Catalan-club friendly tournament. It wouldn’t happen. That said, the incident was disgraceful.TP Mazembe’s 5-0 win over Espérance is made all the more remarkable by talisman Mputu’s absence. The Congolese club have a quirky and interesting history.

Created by Benedictin monks as a medium to provide relaxation and service for students of Saint-Boniface institute in Lubumashi, they were once named FC Engelbert after the brand of tyre that sponsored them, and then Tout-Puissant Engelbert or ‘all-powerful Engelbert’ after the team went a season unbeaten in 1944. Lubumbashi itself is a fairly non-descript mining city famous for two things - copper mining and home to the current continental champions.

Now named TP Mazembe, the club’s golden era came in the late 1960s when they reached the Champions League final four seasons running, winning it twice in a row in 1967 and 1968.

History now looks set to repeat itself with the all-powerful Congolese giants just one game away from retaining the trophy for the second time.

Or is there one last twist to this wildly unpredictable Champions League campaign?

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