Cynics might suggest that the FIFA Club World Cup just pays lip-service to the global game and that it’s all about ensuring the winners of the Copa Libertadores and UEFA Champions League winners meet in the final after some meaningless eliminators. The romantic will try to insist that the competition is open to all, although it’s highly unlikely that a team from Asia, Central America or Africa is going to emerge triumphant. Others might dismiss it as a tournament too far.
This year it’s in Morocco, a country that has pulled out of hosting the African Cup of Nations due to the growing fear of Ebola. There will be two African representatives, host nation champion club, Moghreb Tetouan and ES Setif of Algeria. If all goes to plan, there could be a semi-finalist from Africa.
ES Setif are a complete unknown to most world football followers, but they were the last club to claim their place in the FIFA World Club Cup. At the start of November, they won the CAF Champions League for the second time by beating AS Vita from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ironically, Algerian football wasn’t fully behind Le Aigles Noirs – the Black Eagles – as people felt that ES Setif were not strong enough to compete in the latter stages of the competition. But as the old cliché goes, success has many fathers, and when the CAF Champions League was won, Algerian president said that ES Setif had given a “precious gift” to the Algerian people. It was only the fifth time that an Algerian side had won Africa’s Champions League – the last occasion was in 1998 when Setif also won it.
ES Setif won the title the hard way. Starting with a walkover in the Preliminary Round against South Africa’s Steve Biko FC, they then beat ASFA Yennenga from Burkina Faso, Coton Sport of Cameroon then came out of a group containing CS Sfaxien and Esperance de Tunis (both from Tunisia), and Libya’s Al-Ahly Beghazi. In their group games, they failed to win any of their three home fixtures.
Both the semi-final and final were against teams from Congo. TP Mazembe were beaten on away goals (2-1 at home, 2-3 away) and then the final ended in two draws, 1-1 at home and 2-2 away. Sofiane Younes, the veteran striker who scored the crucial goal in the second leg, was overjoyed at the final whistle. “We have to enjoy this and celebrate together, for this is a unique moment for us.”
Younes is one of a group of experienced players who, together with some promising youngsters, make up the Setif side. Coach Kheireddine Madoui is the youngest ever to win the CAF Champions League and he’s clearly highly valued by the club – after making noises that he might be leaving after the final, he has just had his contract extended for three years. But then Setif have a bit of cash to spend now after scooping that USD 1.5m prize money.
ES Setif will go into the FIFA Club World Cup with confidence high. In the Algerian League, they have lost just one of their 11 games, although they have developed a habit of drawing a lot of games (six so far) as witnessed in the CAF Champions League.
They’re a very consistent club – in the last eight years they haven’t finished outside the top three and they’ve won four titles: 2006-07, 2008-09, 2011-12 and 2012-13. They were founded in 1958.
One player to watch will be 23 year-old midfielder El Hedi Belameiri, who topped the CAF Champions League scoring list with six goals. He’s just 5ft 5in tall and was signed from France’s Amneville in 2013.
It’s a good time for Algerian football. Porto winger Yacine Brahimi has just been named African player of the year, the first Algerian to win that award. Algeria performed well in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil and gave Germany a fright. And ES Setif are the first Algerian team to play in the FIFA Club World Cup. With such momentum, who could begrudge them a little bit of success in Morocco this month?