The Golden Generation: ASEC Mimosas

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When football fans talk about famous academies, we usually talk about La Masia, Clairefontaine or the Bilbao Cantera. However, at the very south of the Ivory Coast in the city of Abidjan, ASEC Mimosas sit comfortably under the radar, to most football fans anyway, as possibly the single most extensive exporter of African talent of the last generation. To put it into perspective, at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, of the 23 players called up to the Ivory Coast national side, 11 of them had came through the academy at ASEC.
Stick on the TV and switch to one of the top footballing leagues around Europe and you’re bound to encounter a player that’s made his way from the ASEC Academy. Kolo and Yaya Toure of Liverpool and Manchester City, Gervinho of Roma, Salomon Kalou of Hertha Berlin, Romaric at Bastia…Didier Zokora, Emmanuel Eboue, Siaka Tiene, Aruna Dindane and the list goes on. Between them they have hundreds, if not even approaching thousands of combined international caps and a collective trophy cabinet the envy of many but yet few people are truly aware of the club and its achievements.

ASEC Mimosas hold the world record for the longest unbeaten domestic streak in football history, going unbeaten for 108 games between 1989 and 1994 and their domestic dominance has seen them win the title 17 times since 1990, along with an African Champions League win in 1998 and an African Super Cup win in 1999, a win which was quite possibly the crowning achievement of the club.

On the 7th of February 1999, ASEC faced off against African Cup Winners Cup holders Esperance of Tunisia. ASEC had home advantage but were considered huge underdogs for the match. The team which had beaten Dynamos Harare in the Champions League no longer existed, most of the players had already moved to North Africa or Europe as was, and still is, the norm for any African player seeking success. Coach Oscar Fullone was forced into fielding a team of untried, untested youngsters none of whom were older than 18.
Nobody gave ASEC a chance, least of all the opposing team and some of their own supporters even boycotted the match, fearful of the defeat that they felt was inevitable. Chokri El Ouaer, the Esperance goalkeeper, even found time to laugh and joke with his coaches and teammates at the expense of the young ASEC players. Hindsight, however is a wonderful thing and although it meant little then, a look back at the teamsheet would give current football fans some hope as to how the result would go. Featured among the starting lineup were none other than: Boubacar Barry, Kolo Toure, Siaka Tiene, Didier Zokora, Giles Yapi Yapo and Venance Zeze as well as Aruna Dindane on the bench.

Zeze put ASEC ahead after 36 minutes and the youthful athleticism of the young ASEC team really shone through well into the second half of the match. Kolo Toure, who had been fantastic throughout the match, right up until the 87th minute turned the villain as he conceded a penalty for a handball inside the box. Esperance keeper El Ouaer traversed the length of the pitch to take and convert the penalty and the match went into extra time.

Club president Roger Ouegnin talks about the sight at the beginning of extra time in Ian Hawkeys excellent account of the history of African football ‘Feet of the Chameleon’. “I looked at the boys and they weren’t rushing to the touchline to take a drink or have a rest, there wasn’t a worried look on their faces”. It was a stark contrast to the older, more experienced Esperance team who were growing weary at the thought of extra time. The ASEC players continued their quick pass and move game into extra time much to the frustration of the Esperance players before the substitute Aruna Dindane put them into the lead before Zeze eventually put the game to bed towards the end of extra time. The golden generation was born, the careers of some of Ivory Coasts best players had arrived and the club would lift the African Super Cup for the first and only time in their history.

ASEC went on to win their domestic league 9 times in the next 10 years but could never recapture that success on a continental level. The now famous players would eventually leave for pastures new, most of them to the top leagues in Europe to clubs such as Arsenal, Rennes or Anderlecht and the up and comers such as Salomon Kalou and Gervinho would be snapped up quickly as the big clubs across Europe began to rapidly expand their scouting operations.
It’s been a quiet period for ASEC in recent years. They’ve not won a league title since 2010 and even players born in Abidjan are getting snapped up by teams such as Toulouse or St.Etienne before they even get a chance to make it to ASEC. Despite all of this though, ASEC still continue to focus heavily on the academy players and it continues to reap its rewards as they continue to produce good quality players such as Cyriac Gohi Bi of Anderlecht, Jean Seri of Pacos de Ferreira, Didier Ya Konan formerly of Hannover, and Lacina Traore.

The golden generation are long since gone and there may never be another like it at ASEC, such is the way of modern football, but it is important that teams like this continue to exist and give talented footballers from the developing world a chance to showcase their abilities on a national, continental or even international stage and the success of ASEC is a testament to the rewards of placing an emphasis on the development of grass roots football. Something that could be learned by some of the larger, more developed footballing nations.

The Lions of Burma: Yangon United

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Professional football in Burma (or Myanmar) is an interesting beast. In a similar fashion to India, it’s never really been able to capture the hearts and minds of the local population in a way that the glitz and glamour of European football has.

This is understandable, given the volatile political and economic situation in the country but it has also not been helped by the lack of emphasis on sport in general. The original football league, the ‘Myanmar Premier League’, was based solely in the former capital city of Yangon (Rangoon) and was made up of government sides and the odd private club. A lack of any cohesive structure or consistency was always going to be an issue and the league unsurprisingly failed to take off.

To try and combat this, the Myanmar Football Federation set about petitioning the government for a right to create a new football structure which would be fully professional and encompass the whole of the country, as opposed to just Yangon. Permission for the move was finally granted in 2008 and the wheels were set in motion. The government allowed each club (Originally 8, now 14) 3 years tax exemption status and set a minimum investment amount for owners which would allow the clubs to get off the ground.

The first full season of the newly formed Myanmar National League took place in 2010 and was one by Yadanarbon FC from Mandalay. However, it’s the team that finished third that season and have since went on to win the 2011,12&13 seasons that I’m going to write about today and that’s Yangon United FC.

Yangon Utd were founded in 2009 and took part in the inaugural MNL Cup in 2009 which acted as the precursor to the first full league season. Founded by Burmese business tycoon Tay Za, the owner of the countries first and only private owned airline Air Bagan, the club is based in Yangon and play at the Bogyoke Aung San Stadium which, at 40,000 capacity, is the largest sporting venue in the country.

Za is a controversial figure both in Burma and in the wider world. He was an avid supporter and arms broker for the old military junta led by Than Shwe, notorious for its human rights abuses and has been under fairly strict financial sanctions from the US due to rumored links to North Korea.

On the pitch, however, things have been a lot more straightforward to Yangon United. After finishing runners up in the MNL Cup in 2009 and then 3rd in the first full season of football in 2010, the club have gone on to win the title in 2011,2012 and 2013 and at the time of  writing are currently heading towards a 2nd place finish this year.

The foreign player allowance, which currently stands at 4 per team, has been integral to the early development of the league and has led to some exciting acquisitions by clubs, especially Yangon, who signed 28 year old Brazilian striker Cézar Augusto Hermenegildo, a former Botafogo youth product, who has set the league on fire since joining with a fantastic return of  77 goals in 76 games as well as becoming the leagues first and only player to score four hatricks in the course of a season. Former Doncaster striker Michele Di Piedi and former Colombia U-20 international Edison Fonseca also turn out for teams in the league.

Since the nations admittance into the AFC Cup was granted in the 2012 season, Yangon (as well as other Burmese clubs) have gone on to make a decent impression on the continental game. Yangon themselves have made it through the competitions group stage before being eliminated in the last 16 in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Exciting progress for a club which has only been playing professional football for 4 seasons.

There’s still a long way to go for Yangon, and football in Myanmar in general, but the early signs are promising. If the new semicivilian government is willing to invest, and the FA can work towards implementing a structure which is consistent. There is no reason why this football mad nation can’t embrace it’s own domestic game.

Asian Champions League: Final Rounds Preview

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We are just 5 days away from the kickoff of the ACL semi finals where four teams from four nations remain: Sydney Wanderers (AUS), Al-Ain (UAE), FC Seoul (KR) and Al-Hilal (KSA).

Making it a little more exciting is that, since the format change for the 2002-03 season, only Al-Ain has won the trophy before, doing it in the very first season. This is also the first ACL appearance for Sydney as they bid to become only the second Australian team to make the final.

It has been an exciting journey for Sydney in their short history. Founded in 2012, they won the A-League in their inaugural season; which granted them qualification into this competition. Sydney would go on to finish top of Group H in the group stages, beating the likes of Guizhou Renhe, Ulsan Hyundai and Kawasaki Frontale. They eliminated Sanfrecce Hiroshima in R16 before shocking the continent by overcoming Chinese heavyweights, and reigning ACL Champions, Guangzhou Evergrande on away goals in the quarter finals. A tough semi final against last seasons defeated finalists FC Seoul awaits, but Sydney fans will be hoping for a few more chapters in this fairy-tale story.

FC Seoul come into the tie looking to make amends for their defeat to Guangzhou last year, as well as looking for a championship win to help soften the blow of a poor domestic season, having finished 6th in the league. Seoul have never won the competition, but have finished runners up twice, last year and also in 2001/02 during the old format

In the other tie, Saudi Arabian league runners up Al Hilal face off against Emirati side Al-Ain, a side which only qualified for the competition through Cup participation. Al Hilal are historically one of the strongest and most recognisable sides both within Saudi Arabia and in the continent as a whole, but their performances in the continental competitions have left a lot to be desired over the years. Despite a record 13 league titles, Al Hilal have not won, or even made the final, of the ACL since 99/00 when they last won the trophy.

Their opponents, Al-Ain made history as the first side to win the ACL under its new format in 2003 and were runners up in 2005 and are arguably the most successful club in the country with a record 11 league titles and remain the only club from UAE to win the ACL. Al-Ain came through a very tough group against Qatari side Lekhwiya, Saudi’s Al-Ittihad and Iranian side Tractor Sazi. They would go on to defeat fellow UAE side Al-Jazira and once again defeat Al-Ittihad in the semi final. The hopes of the Ain fans will rest upon the shoulders of one man in particular, Asamoah Gyan. Known to many for his brief spell in England with Sunderland, Gyan has been a dominant force since joining Al-Ain, and whilst some have questioned his motives over the move, few will argue about his exceptional return of 105 goals in 94 games. Gyan is the current top scorer in this years competition with 12 goals, only Muriqui of Guangzhou has scored more (13) in the competitions history and Gyan still has a potential 4 matches to get a few more.

One of the wonders of the ACL has always been the inability to call a winner from the start of the competition. No team has yet to win the trophy twice and with the elimination of Guangzhou, that will remain true. Will the fairytale have a happy ending for Sydney? Will Al-Ain and Gyan manage to capture the title? Who knows…and that’s the best part!

Fixtures:

SF: First Leg: 16th & 17 September

SF: Second Leg: 30th Sept – 1Oct

Final: 25th October & 1st Nov

Celebrating 50 years of the CAF Champions League

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In 11 days the semi-finals of the African Champions League get underway, the final four teams will battle it out to be crowned the champions of Africa. The clubs that remain in the competition this year are TP Mazembe (DR Congo), CS Sfaxien (Tunisia), ES Setif (Algeria) and Vita Club (DR Congo).  With the exception of CS Sfaxien, all of these clubs are former champions, with Mazembe being the most successful non Egyptian side in the history of the competition.

Nothing out of the ordinary there, really, but this year marks the 50th edition of the competition (although only the 18th under the current format). So as part of the build up to the final matches of the event, I want to look at the early history of the competition, as well as cast a spotlight on some of the great players who have won the competition.

The first incarnation of the CAF CL, African Cup of Champion Clubs, took part in 1964 and the final stage was hosted in Ghana. Details about the competition are fairly scarce, although what we do know is that 14 teams took part in the competition, split into 4 groups based on geographical regions and the winners of the four groups would then qualify for the semis.

The four groups to qualify for the semi-final were Stade Malien of Mali, who would go on to become one of the strongest teams in the country, Oryx Douala of Cameroon, Cotton Factory Club of Ethiopia and Real Republicans of Ghana. The final came down to Oryx Douala  against Stade Malien, with the Cameroonians coming out on top with a 2-1 victory in front of 30,000 fans at the Accra Stadium.

As I mentioned before, Stade Malien would go on to be one of the most successful sides in Mali, boasting 18 league titles, as well as a CAF Confederations Cup in 2009. However, the future was not too bright for the other sides involved. Within 3 years, Real Republicans would fold, Cotton Factory would fold in 2000 and Oryx Douala play their football in the second tier of Cameroonian football, but at least they’re still alive I guess.

After Stade d’Abidjan won in 1966 (There was no 1965 tournament), TP Englebert, who would later become the more recognisable TP Mazembe, became the first club to win back to back competitions in 1967 & 68. For the first 15 or so years, the competition winners were a mixed bag coming from Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Zaire, Ghana and Guinea.

However, the 1980’s brought about the rise of Egyptian club football and since 1981, Egyptian clubs have won 13 championships and finished runners up 3 times, with Ah Ahly winning the competition in 2012 & 2013. In fact, North Africa has dominated the continental championships since the 80’s winning 22 of the last 28 competitions.

So what of the players?

Egyptian legend Mohammed Aboutrika stands out as arguably the most successful players in the competition, part of the Al-Ahly side that has won 5 titles since 2005 and finished top goalscorer in the 2006 competition.

Tresor M’Putu, who is arguably still one of the best talents in Africa to this very day, was captain of the TP Mazembe side who captured back to back titles in 2009 & 2010 (despite seemingly not playing in either final).

Nigeria ‘keeper, Vincent Enyeama, is another high profile CAF CL winner having been a part of the Enyimba side that, against all odds, managed to complete a double in 2003 & 2004. Interestingly enough, despite being noted now as a great penalty stopper, Enyeama was substituted before every penalty shootout on route to winning the competitions, including the 2004 final.

It’s a shame that players like Abedi Pele, George Weah, Didier Drogba or Samuel Eto’o, to name a few, never really got a chance to taste Continental glory in Africa, but players are so quick to move to Europe. Hopefully as the game improves across the continent and leagues become more competitive, we’ll see some of the future stars of world football make an impact on home soil before moving abroad.

This year, TP Mazembe will most likely go into the semi-final against ES Setif full of confidence, knowing they’re the favourites for the competition, however wouldn’t it make for a great story if Sfaxien, the only club in the last four not to win a trophy, could pull of some upsets and win. I know that’s not always how football works, but we can dream.

 

Player to watch this tournament: Firmin Ndombe Mubele of Vita Club. The 20 year old striker already has 5 goals in the tournament including a hatrick against Kaizer Chiefs. Having made his debut for his country last year, a good showing for the young striker could be just what he needs to attract the attention of some of the bigger clubs on the continent or further afield.  (I understand this contracts my statements about players moving abroad too early, but unfortunately I also understand that’s just how football works)

Egyptian football returning to normality?

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It’s been a difficult few years for football in Egypt. 

The league was postponed during the 2010-2011 season due to the events of the Egyptian Revolution. The postponement lasted for almost 4 months but play would eventually get underway and the season would be completed.

In February 2012, after a match between Al-Masry and Al Ahly at the Port Said Stadium, with the home side picking up a 3-1 victory, the Masry fans stormed the stands and the pitch attacking rival fans with knives and bottles, amongst other weapons. The attacks were both tragic and devastating, leaving 79 people dead and more than 1000 injured. It is a widely held belief within Egypt that the attacks were premeditated and sanctioned by elements of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and still powerful members of the old regime and that the Ahly fans were targeted due to their involvement in the revolution, particularly in the battle of Tahir Square, seen by many as the day the Mubarak regime fell apart.

As a result of the riot and the protests that would come shortly after, the 2011-2012 season was suspended and fans were forbidden from attending matches for the foreseeable future, a ruling which has been in force ‘off and on’ ever since.

The 2012-2013 season got underway as planned but was suspended once more following Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s coup d’etat, in which el-Sisi removed Mohammed Morsi from power following on from almost a week of protests, the biggest in the countries history.

The 2013-2014 season brought with it a structure change. The league, which had traditionally been a standard round robin affair, was replaced with a new two group format. The new structure involved two groups of 11 teams, with the teams within each group playing each other twice. The top two teams from each group would then advance to a championship playoff. Ah-Ahly, the eventual winners, were in Group A, kept separate from arch rivals Zamalek, who they would face in the championship playoff, and Al-Masry. All domestic league games were played behind closed doors.

Which brings us to present day.

The 2014-2015 season is due to start in two weeks time. The league structure has been changed back to a standard 22 team, round robin league, but one question still remains; will fans be allowed to attend matches once again?

Signs are looking positive. Last week it was announced that Egyptian fans would be allowed to attend the nations next home game, an AFCON qualifier against Tunisia next week and this could be the first step into bringing normality back to the countries domestic game.

Egypt are the most successful AFCON nation and their domestic league is arguably the strongest in the continent. And whilst it is by no means an attempt to gloss over the cracks of recent history, having yet another season behind closed doors helps nobody and surely only serves to prolong any issues between the fans, the clubs and the FA.

 

A look ahead at the Copa Centroamericana

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The 2014 Copa Centroamericana kicks off on Wednesday as current holders, and the most successful nation in the competitions history, Costa Rica take on the competitions least successful side Nicaragua.

The competition has been brought forward a year to coincide with the 25th anniversary of UNCAF (Unión Centroamericana de Fútbol), the governing body of Central American football. The desire to celebrate the occasion, as well as to reap the financial benefits of such a move, has lead to the organisers decision to host the tournament in the USA for the first time, with games taking place in Washington, Dallas, Houston and the final being hosted at the memorial coliseum in Los Angeles. 

For those unfamiliar with the tournament, the seven nations involved are placed into groups, one of 3 and one of 4, with the top two teams advancing from each group to the semi finals of the competition. 

The top four teams all qualify for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup, the national tournament of North America. There is also a 5th place playoff involving the 3rd placed teams from the two groups. The winner of that game will play the 5th placed team from the upcoming 2014 Caribbean Cup for the final Gold Cup qualification place.

As an added bonus, the winners of the tournament will also qualify for the 2016 Copa America Cetenario, a competition to celebrate 100 years of CONMEBOL. The tournament will feature all 10 CONMEBOL sides and 6 North American sides, with USA as hosts and Mexico as automatic qualifiers.

So what can we expect from this years competition?

After a fantastic performance in the World Cup, reaching the quarter finals, and being the current holders of the competition, Costa Rica have to go in as heavy favourites to win the title once more, especially with players like Keylor Navas, Joel Campbell and Celso Borges confirmed as called up for the competition. The real excitement will most likely come from the race for 2nd and 3rd place which is realistically open to any of the remaining sides.

Honduras are, historically anyway, the second strongest team in the competition having won the title in 2011 and finished as runners up last year, however they are a side in transition at the moment and have named a squad consisting of 5 uncapped players and a further 12 players with less than 10 caps. It will be interesting to see how the less experienced players handle the pressure of expectations.

For me, Panama are the ones to watch this year, unlike the other nations which have squads based heavily around domestic based players, Panama have called up a side with a wealth of experience both at home and abroad, as well as on a national level. There’s four players with over 80 caps, as well as players representing clubs across South America and Europe.

Here’s my list of 3 players to watch out for at the tournament (In no particular order):

1) Joel Campbell (Costa Rica)- After a solid World Cup, the young Arsenal striker will be a familiar name to many. This tournament offers him the perfect environment to bang in a couple of goals and that should do his chances at Arsenal no harm at all.

2) Roberto Chen (Panama) – 20 Year old Chen plays his club football for Malaga in Spain although senior appearances have been few and far between since he signed from Panama side San Francisco last summer. He’s a noted prospect however and there’ll be much expected of him at the tournament.

3) Bryan Rochez (Honduras) – One of the most exciting prospects of the tournament in my humble opinion. This 19 year old striker has made a huge impact since making his professional debut for Real Espana, scoring 20 goals in the league last season. He’s big, strong, quick and with a good eye for goal. I fully expect scouts from around the world may well have their eye on him

Hopefully there’ll be a few more that catch the eye, It’s shaping up to be a very exciting competition, that’s for sure

 

ASEAN Super League – Bridging the gap?

 

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The idea of a club super league is something that gets bandied about a fair bit these days, whether it’s disgruntled clubs looking for something a little more financially viable, club presidents bemoaning the lack of quality opposition (read Florentino Perez) or your football manager player desperate for something new and exotic. It’s something that has always been seen as being easier in theory than in practice.

Things might be about to change, however, as the ASEAN Football Federation, which is itself a smaller grouping of the AFC, has put the wheels in motion for its plan to create a Super League comprising of 16 teams from 8 member states tentatively confirmed as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The competition has been proposed to help develop the quality of club football in Southeast Asia, an area where club teams, although widely supported at a domestic level, have struggled to consistently make an impact in Asia’s continental football competitions. You can’t help but imagine that the reported $50m value of the proposed leagues likely television, marketing and sponsorship revenue potential is going a long way to help the appeal of the competition.

Details of the exact specifics of the tournament have yet to be finalised but what we do know is that it will be franchised based (each nation paying a franchise fee of roughly $500k to help cover costs) hosted in Singapore and according to the Singaporean FA each team is being promised returns of upwards of US$5m. There’s been little revealed in terms of structure, but there has been equal calls for either a league structure or a familiar continental style group followed by knockout stages. The winner of the competition will likely gain entry to the Asian Champions League, something which is currently impossible for a number of teams due to the competitions qualification criteria.

Administration and other issues mean we’re still a year or two away from the competition getting underway officially and there’s still plenty of time for things to change, but this is an interesting proposition for Asian football. Does this set a precedent that could be followed in Europe? Could the financial benefits be detrimental to the competition of the domestic leagues, creating financial and talent gaps that are present in some European league? What about the fans, can they really be expected to travel to yet more games?

There’s a lot of questions out there, but a lot of potential too. Exciting times indeed.