Rabat – After what looked like an unending saga between Tunisia’s Esperance de Tunis (EST) and Morocco’s Wydad, the Board of Appeals of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) has finally decided to declare EST the winners of the 2018-2019 African Champions League.
“The Board underlined the fact that the absence of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has no legal effect whatsoever and that its sole purpose is to aid the referee to take the correct decision,” CAF said in a statement on Sunday, September 15. This comes to put an effective end to what has been a sporting whirlwind in the EST-Wydad controversy.
As far as Wydad is concerned, the harshest blow in CAF’s final verdict is the notion—deep-seated among EST fans and supporters from the outset—that Wydad is the primary culprit for the early stoppage of the second leg match. For CAF, with the score at 1-0 in favor of EST when Wydad’s protestations led the referee to stop the match, the only logical decision would be to declare EST as the rightful winner of the match.
The statement said, “The Appeal Board has noted that the stoppage of almost 90 minutes was due to the Wydad Athletic Club’s players’ failure to resume the match, the players were then instructed to resume play by the referee who has seen his attempts fail to no avail. Therefore the Appeal Board confirms that the match was forfeited by Wydad Athletic Club because their players refused to resume the match.”
While the strongly-worded rebuttal to Wydad’s protestations will definitely end the four-month-long sporting rollercoaster between the two teams, CAF critics will likely be emboldened in their longstanding criticism of the organization’s lack of leadership and character.
The whole controversy came about—and lasted this long—because of CAF’s decision that the second leg match had been mired in unforgivable irregularities and that the sole way to be fair to both teams would be a rematch in a “neutral” stadium somewhere in Africa other than Morocco or Tunisia.
In the days following the match, there were embarrassing reports of influence peddling and corruption coming from CAF offices, with some critics (including frontbenchers in the CAF hierarchy) accusing EST of deliberately neglecting to repair its stadium’s VAR system before critical matches.
For CAF to now come out and say that the controversy was a false debate from the get go is a striking confirmation of the body’s lack of coordination and cohesion in the way it operates, critics may point out.
The controversy between the two clubs started in mid-May in Rabat, when their 1-1 draw was marked with unmistakable refereeing errors that favored the Tunisian club. But the scenes of the second leg in Tunis in late May were even more confusing.
At 1-0 in favor of ES Tunis, Wydad’s Walid El Karti scored an equalizer which the referee wrongly ruled out for offside. Wydad protested and asked for the VAR to be used.
After more than an hour of heated discussions between players and the referee, and then between match officials and CAF officials, the referee ended the match. Minutes later, CAF declared ES Tunis were the winners, only to retract two days later and announce a rematch.
The two teams then took the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), each arguing that they deserved the trophy because of the second leg’s gross irregularities.
But CAS sided with EST, saying that the Tunisian clubs’ arguments were, from a sporting point of view, more grounded than Wydad’s. CAS left out room for debate, however, as it ruled that the final verdict in the case should be rendered by CAF’s “competent bodies.”
Wydad seized that opportunity, yet again protesting against CAS’s decision that their Tunisian opponents should be the rightful winners of the trophy.
As it upheld CAS’s verdict in its latest statement, the CAF Board of Appeals pointed out that, while Wydad’s VAR appeal had carried a certain weight of legitimacy, rules are that the referee’s verdict—with or without VAR—is the ultimate decision.
VAR, CAF argued, is there only to help the referee make his decisions. And once the referee has made up his mind, the statement emphasized, no disciplinary or appeals boards can overrule it.
“The referee is vested with the power to have the final decision on the field of play since the start of the game, and his decision is not up to review by the Appeal Board,” it stressed.
“The match officials’ reports were very clear that the Wydad Athletic Club’s players refused to resume the match even after several attempts conducted by the referee, to the point that the referee waited almost 90 minutes before he whistled the end of the match.”