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Why North Africa Continues to Dominate in Continental Club Football

Why North Africa Continues to Dominate in Continental Club Football

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Egyptian sides Al Ahly and El Zamalek won the CAF Champions League and Confederations Cup respectively, marking yet another year of both trophies going to Northern Africa.

By Tuka Letura 

When the final stages of any of Africa’s top continental club competitions approach, there’s usually an almost certain guarantee that at least one North African team will make it to the finals. To think this way even without prior knowledge of who has progressed or hasn’t is not unusual, and their performances in the past have played a role in the reaction. But so have other factors. 

The 2023/2024 editions of the Confederation of African Football interclub competitions — the Champions League and the Confederations Cup — had their champions crowned recently. In the Champions League, Egypt’s Al Ahly became champions on home soil courtesy of a Roger Aholou own goal in the fourth minute of the second leg. This was after holding out for a goalless draw in the first leg at the Stade Olympique Hammadi Agrebi against another North African team, Espérance Sportive de Tunis. 

Similarly, the Confederations Cup featured two North African teams in the finals; RS Berkane of Morocco against El Zamalek of Egypt. Another Egyptian victory was on the cards this time, albeit on the away goals rule — which is still used in Africa. El Zamalek lost 2-1 to RS Berkane in Morocco, but a 1-0 victory at home and in front of a filled stadium was all they needed to become champions for the second time in six years.

North African teams succeed so much on the continent that when they aren’t champions, whoever is almost feels like an outlier. In the 60 editions of the CAF Champions League, 36 have been won by a North African team, with Al Ahly responsible for a third of that. Despite Al Ahly’s obvious dominance, the 24 other instances where a North African team has lifted the trophy equal the number the rest of the continent has put up combined. 

How North Africa Continues to Dominate  in Continental Club Football | Afrocritik
CAF Champions League Infographics | Tuka Letura

Since the 2000s, 18 of the 25 available trophies in the Champions League have gone to North Africa, exactly 72% of honours. Remarkable would be an understatement, because even that doesn’t quite detail how impressive this is. Similarly, the Confederations Cup, established in 2004 from the merger of the CAF Cup and the African Cup Winners’ Cup, has also seen a fair share of North African dominance.

The last seven years have witnessed seven straight triumphs for North African sides. Congolese side TP Mazembe’s back-to-back victories in 2016 and 2017 are the only times a non-North African team has won the competition consecutively or twice. Prior to the TP Mazembe haul, the last three winners were also North African. Malian side Stade Malin, AC Leopards of the Republic of Congo, and Hearts of Oak in Ghana join TP Mazembe as the only non-North African side to ever win the competition.

CAF Confederations Cup Infograph
CAF Confederations Cup Infographics | Tuka Letura

So far, 80% of wins in the Confederations and 72% in the Champions League have gone to North Africa. Despite substantial competition from across the continent, North African teams have consistently emerged victorious in the CAF Champions League. It begs the question, what factors contribute to this sustained success?

The teams’ performances mirror the strength of their national leagues. According to the latest worldwide league rankings by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS), only three African football leagues made it into the top 50. Egypt leads the African contingent, ranking 20th globally, followed by Morocco’s Botola Pro, eight places behind. The Algerian Ligue Professionnelle 1 trails further down in 44th place.

Iffhs club rankings
IFFHS Club Rankings

Expanding our area of consideration by ten, the next African league would be the Ligue Professionnelle 1 in Tunisia, ranked 52nd. Showing that the top four leagues in Africa are all from North Africa.

To reach this level of prominence requires significant financial resources, and with money comes influence, creating a cyclical relationship. Similar to the age-old chicken-and-egg riddle, one aspect inevitably leads to the other, regardless of which is considered first. 

Revenue in football can manifest in various forms, including but not limited to broadcasting rights, ticket sales, commercial activities, and player transfers. The Botola Pro in Morocco generated approximately 123 million Moroccan dirhams, equivalent to over $12 million, in both local and international revenue. This figure is comparable to the revenue generated by leagues in neighbouring countries. Regarding player transfers, Moroccan clubs spent over $850,000 on signing foreign players. However, the revenue generated from player sales, primarily to European clubs, was ten times greater than the expenditure in 2023.

Culturally, the fan following of North African sides has always been massive, from regular fans to ultras, and many clubs consider this when making decisions, which helps maintain a viable fanbase. This large fanbase results in a significant number of attendees at games, leading to increased revenue from ticket sales and merchandise.

Al Ahly fans scaled
Al Ahly fans at the stadium

Achieving such substantial local revenue also suggests that fans have sustainable purchasing power to also travel across their respective countries, and possibly to others during continental tournaments. Full stadiums not only generate more revenue, they also enhance the atmosphere and intimidate the opposition, which eventually helps their team win, and winning these tournaments further boosts financial gains. 

Currently, the winner of the CAF Confederations Cup receives $1.5 million, while the champion of the CAF Champions League takes home $4 million. Generating revenue at this level enables clubs to afford signing players with higher profiles and abilities, as demonstrated by Al Ahly’s acquisition of Percy Tau for a reported fee of £1.6 million from English Premier League side Brighton and Hove Albion, amongst many other high profile signings. Additionally, it facilitates player development, as the cost of facilities necessary to streamline this process becomes more attainable.

Access to better quality pitches and diverse training facilities for both young player development and senior teams gives clubs equipped with these resources an edge over their competitors. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Morocco could join Spain and Portugal in a joint bid for the 2030 World Cup, becoming the second African country to potentially host the ultimate men’s football event.

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This ability to generate substantial revenue allows leagues in North Africa to attract top coaches, as salaries are relatively higher compared to most leagues on the continent, with South Africa being the only significant competition outside the region. Pitso Mosimane, one of the best coaches on the African continent, recently concluded his tenure with Al Ahly before moving to the Middle East. Currently, Al Ahly is managed by Swiss and former Bochum and FC Köln manager Marcel Koller.

All these little factors pieced together mean that performance levels continue to rise, and the dominance is almost certain to continue. But South African sides have stepped up, especially Mamelodi Sundowns. Sundowns currently hold CAF’s newly launched African Super League title and are the sole non-North African representative from Africa in the 2025 Club World Cup. Joining them are Wydad (Morocco), Al Ahly (Egypt), and Espérance de Tunis (Tunisia). 

Within the timeframe considered for winners in both visualisations, Sundowns are the only team from a Southern African country with a continental trophy, specifically one CAF Champions League title in addition to the aforementioned Super League victory.

Given the consistent dominance of North African teams in continental club football, and considering the success they’ve achieved in these competitions over the years, one might ask, have continental tournaments become somewhat predictable and lacking in excitement due to the near-constant triumphs of these teams? Is there a legitimate concern that these tournaments have lost competitiveness and become boring?

Describing it as redundant would be both disrespectful and inaccurate. In football, victories are achieved through performances and winning games, and North African teams have mastered the art of winning, particularly in two-legged knockout fixtures, which still adhere to the away goal rule in CAF’s jurisdiction.

It’s also not a situation specific to Africa. In Europe, Spanish sides have clinched six out of the last ten editions of the Champions League, while eight of the last ten winners of the Copa Libertadores in South America have been Brazilian.

The competition remains as strong as ever, with the trophies available for the taking. The ultimate solution for leagues or teams willing to catch up is to invest heavily into bettering themselves and also try to nick a few tricks from their counterparts in the North. 

Tuka Letura is an experienced sports writer with over five years of experience in the craft. He uses data and statistics to provide analysis and commentary. From regional to worldwide competitions, he has covered a wide range of sports-related events and topics. He is devoted to sharing his enthusiasm for sports with his audience and engaging them with interesting anecdotes and viewpoints.

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