Fifa President Gianni Infantino urged Confederation of African Football (CAF) delegates to “remain calm during these difficult times”. He said this in the middle of what turned out to be a tumultuous period for Africa’s football governing body.
Infantino, speaking at the Hyatt Regency Paris Etoile hotel on the eve of the 2019 Fifa Congress on 5 June, thanked the CAF delegates for their support before adding, “I know what is happening at CAF at this time, that there is some turbulence. I urge you to remain calm during these difficult times, with solidarity, unity and respect, and to try and find solutions to these problems.”
Infantino may as well have been speaking to the walls of the five-star hotel. Later, CAF President Ahmad Ahmad began his own address by claiming that “these two years leading CAF have not been easy”, before stating further that “dirty laundry should not be washed in public”.
This is the most challenging period for Ahmad since he took over from Issa Hayatou in 2017. The complications began just as Africa was primed to crown its 2018-2019 CAF Champions League winner. With Wydad Casablanca chasing a double and Esperance de Tunis pursuing a historic treble to cap off their centenary celebrations, the stakes were high for both clubs.
Naturally, the first leg of the North African derby on 24 May was chock-full of controversy, as Moroccan hosts Wydad Casablanca felt wronged by Egyptian referee Gehad Grisha. Wydad were denied a goal and Grisha waved off a shout for a penalty, even after twice consulting the video assistant referee (VAR). Backed by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, Wydad decided to file a complaint against Grisha following the match.
Hawk-Eye adds to the already tense atmosphere
CAF swiftly dished out a six-month suspension for “weak performance”, much to the chagrin of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA). The EFA filed an appeal affirming that “Gehad Grisha managed the match with courage and integrity” and that “there were no mistakes on his part worthy of such a punishment”.
Tension was, therefore, high prior to the second leg on 31 May in Tunisia. Problems began before the match kicked off and British tech company Hawk-Eye Innovations, which was responsible for providing VAR technology, must shoulder a portion of blame. In a leaked letter addressed to CAF, Hawk-Eye explained that their shipment of equipment was delayed unexpectedly at the Tunisian border and that a back-up plan was in place. On the morning of the match, however, it was apparent that the shipment would not arrive in time for kickoff.
According to Esperance captain Khalil Chemmam, both sides were notified of the absence of a VAR before the match.
“We were told by the referee before the game that there won’t be VAR. It seems Wydad’s captain did not understand French,” he told television network beIN Sports. French is essentially the second language in Morocco.
Not the first VAR problem in the league
The International Football Association Board’s Laws of the Game handbook states: “A match is not invalidated because of malfunction of the VAR technology.”
There was a precedent set during the second leg of the 2018 CAF Champions League, when VAR technology did not work in another match played in Tunis. At the time, the Nigerian match commissioner informed both sides of the technical failure and they proceeded to play.
In accordance with Murphy’s Law, Wydad Casablanca would end up being denied a perfectly legal goal because of an offside ruling. Walid El Karti used his body, as he does so well, to nudge Chemmam before heading in a cross. Much to everyone’s surprise, the referee’s assistant put up his flag and three-time African Referee of the Year Bakary Papa Gassama blew his whistle.
Play continued for several moments until the visiting side came to the slow realisation that Gassama could not call upon the VAR. With fiery Wydad coach Faouzi Benzarti goading his players off the pitch, the Moroccan champions decided to stop playing. For some bewildering reason, the match was not immediately resumed. In fact, the delay dragged on for 90 minutes before the Gambian official called it off.
Afterwards, Wydad Casablanca president Said Naciri was seen on Moroccan television claiming that his side did not refuse to resume playing, they were simply waiting for the match official to check with the VAR. Naciri said the order to call a halt to the fixture came from the president of the Mauritanian Football Association, Ahmed Yahya, in his capacity as a member of the CAF’s executive committee. That fact is reflected in the match commissioner’s report and was the basis for the CAF’s decision to replay the second leg, the date and venue still to be determined.
The verdict was met with ire across the continent and spurred an already concerted opposition to Ahmad. Esperance sent a member of their executive committee to Paris, along with two lawyers, to immediately draft a case to file at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A short while later, Liberia Football Association president and executive committee member Musa Bility gave in interview calling for an “internationally led audit”.
When asked to respond to unhappy colleagues on the executive committee in early 2019, Ahmad dismissed the dissent on numerical grounds.
“Twenty out of the 22 members share the same views. And just two don’t agree with what we are doing. One is vocal and the other one doesn’t talk as much. So, who is right?”
According to Osasu Obayiuwana, a journalist and broadcaster who has covered African football for the British Broadcasting Corporation and other publications for more than 30 years, “There are some people on the exco [executive committee] who share Ahmad’s position, that is normal. But there is a general acceptance within the exco, especially with fair-minded and objective people, that there are governance challenges that need to be resolved.”
After finally coming to a decision, albeit controversial, regarding the second leg of the Champions League final, one last crisis was sprung on the CAF as French authorities detained Ahmad on 6 June, the day after the Fifa Congress.
The exact cause of the detention has yet to be confirmed, but early reports link it to an underhand deal with French company Tactical Steel at the alleged behest of Ahmad, regarding the procurement of kit for referees. The Malagy official was released after several hours of questioning, but not without sustaining a monumental blow to his reputation.
With a Fifa ethics complaint and forensic audit hanging over his head, as well as a number of accusations levelled against him that include sexual harassment, it remains to be seen if Ahmad will make it after the turbulence of the past two weeks or if corruption allegations and infighting will bring his reign as CAF president crashing down.