CAF Champions League: First leg of the final marred with VAR controversy

Al Ahly's Ahmed Mohammed celebrates his winning goal during the international friendly match between AS Roma and Al Ahly on May 20, 2016 in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.  (May 19, 2016 - Source: Chris Whiteoak/Getty Images Europe)

Al Ahly's Ahmed Mohammed celebrates his winning goal during the international friendly match between AS Roma and Al Ahly on May 20, 2016 in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.

(May 19, 2016 - Source: Chris Whiteoak/Getty Images Europe)

Al Ahly SC and Esperance de Tunis met in Borg El Arab in Egypt in the first leg of the CAF Champions League final last Friday. The match was nothing short of dramatic with an unprecedented total of three penalties being awarded during the game, two to Al Ahly and one to Esperance. There was a hive of controversy surrounding the awarding of Al Ahly’s two penalties by the match referee, Mehdi Abid Charef. The first penalty was awarded for a foul against Moroccan striker, Walid Azaro who fell seemingly unprovoked at slight contact by the Esperance goalie. A 56th minute goal by Amro Elsoulia extended Al Ahly’s lead to 2-0. Eventually, Esperance de Tunis made a comeback after a foul by Al Ahly goalkeeper Mohammed El Shenawy won them a penalty that was successfully converted by Belaili Mohammed in the 62nd minute. In the most dramatic fashion, Ahly regained their two goal cushion after Walid Azaro once again, won another controversial penalty for a foul by Chamseddine Dhaouadi which seemed to have been outside of the penalty area.


Many were in disbelief at how the referee could have made such a blunder especially since on both occasions, he consulted VAR extensively to ascertain the validity of the penalty claims. This was the first time that the FIFA sanctioned technology was used in African football, unfortunately, the occasion was tainted by the controversy of the two “imaginary penalties”. Many are calling out the Algerian referee for failing to spot out the insincerity of Al Ahly players’ penalty calls. Any hopes of a preliminary victory for Esperance in the first leg of the CAF Champions League final were dashed due to two controversial penalty decisions. Tunisian FA president, Wadiaa Jariaa, called for an emergency FA meeting after the game in a move that signalled the gravity of the situation.


We are all aware that incidents of this nature are not rare. In fact, the occasional bad judgement or very debatable penalty calls  by a referee are commonplace in the game of football. And as football fans we are outraged every time (that is, if it the decision is not in our team’s favor). However, some have put the blame on the low standards of African Football for this particular incident:

For a continental summit, we reach a peak of mediocrity. The credit and reputation of African football are at stake.
— Nabil Djellit, France Footbal
VAR display is seen prior to the serie A match between Frosinone Calcio and Bologna FC at Olimpico Stadium on August 26, 2018 in Turin, Italy.  (Aug. 25, 2018 - Source: Getty Images Europe)

VAR display is seen prior to the serie A match between Frosinone Calcio and Bologna FC at Olimpico Stadium on August 26, 2018 in Turin, Italy.

(Aug. 25, 2018 - Source: Getty Images Europe)

Friday night was meant to be the historic debut of the VAR system in continental football, and a sign that African football is keeping up with the latest developments. Unfortunately, it has left football fans questioning the utility of the VAR if referees still fail to make accurate calls especially when the stakes are very high. According to FIFA VAR is supposed to reduce human error and essentially make the game of football fairer and more equitable. Video Assistance Referring can be called upon in instances of disputed goals, penalties, red cards and to properly identify a player who has made an infringement. VAR has been a divisive topic, with some applauding the new tech and others calling for a more organic, non assisted approach to refereeing, where errors are expected.


Al Ahly lead 3-1 on aggregate and the eight time winners are closer to securing a record ninth title as they continue dominance as Africa’s finest team. An enthralling second leg match is set for November 9th in the Tunisian capital of Tunis. Espérance de Tunis will be hoping to come back from the 2 goal deficit to steal away the title hopes from Patrice Carteron’s men. They will certainly be more cautious not to give away any more penalties to their title rivals.


Tell us your thoughts on VAR, is it really making the game fairer or do you think that we need to wait for the referees to get accustomed to the tech before we banish VAR? How bad does that this incident reflect on African football, if at all? Perhaps it’s just one of the those things that people write off African football for when the actual issue may be the flaw of a particular something, in this case a technology.