From the start, the 2016 CAF Champions League affords 55 clubs an opportunity to take on the world's best at December's FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. That opportunity is, of course, extended to only one team – the winner of the showpiece event of African club football, who will have played at least 14 matches by the time they finally qualify for the global event.
Africa's biggest club competition kicks-off this weekend with the first leg matches in the preliminary round, which already sees several big names in African club football competing, including previous winners like Vita Club, Enyimba, Wydad Casablanca, ASEC Mimosas, Union Douala and Club Africain.
Arguably the pick of the matches in the preliminary round sees 1991 winners Club Africain take on first-timers AS Tanda from Cote d'Ivoire, who stunned the more established clubs in the west African country by winning their first league title just a few years after first gaining promotion to the top flight. Their Tunisian opponents, who will be hosting the first leg, have had their request to have 55,000 fans in the stadium in Rades turned down by officials, who have said that only 15,000 tickets can be sold due to security concerns.
The other stand-out fixture sees Ghanaian club Ashanti Gold, who lost the 1997 final, take on Algerian club MO Bejaia. Last year all three Algerian clubs involved in the competition made it through to the group phase, but Bejaia will have to dig deep if they want to beat the Premier League winners. Ashanti midfielder Eric Opoku, who was given the league's MVP award, believes that they go into the game with a slight disadvantage. “[Bejaia] are well-organised and with their league still in session, they are fitter for the game than we are. We will have to defend more and play on the counter attack as we are behind in terms of match fitness,” Opoku told reporters ahead of the game.
Making his first appearance as a coach in the competition is former Real Madrid manager John Toshack. The Welsh football legend, who won the UEFA European Champions League during a distinguished playing career with Liverpool, won the Moroccan league with Wydad Casablanca last season. The Moroccan club will face AS Douanes Niamey from Niger in a tie they are expected to win.
Only one South African club has ever won the competition, and that was 21 years ago when Orlando Pirates lifted the trophy. Kaizer Chiefs and Sundowns FC are the two South African clubs representing the country this time around and are hoping to do better than last year, when they were both eliminated in the first round. But before they get to that stage, they have to knock-out Colcan Club and Chicken Inn respectively.
For Sundowns the visit to Bulawayo to face the Zimbabwean champions, Chicken Inn, offers players Cuthbert Malajila and Khama Billiat the opportunity to return to their home country, while Sundowns team manager Peter Ndlovu, who is regarded as one of the greatest-ever players to have come from the southern African country, is actually known as the “Bulawayo Bullet”.
Uganda's Vipers are hoping to keep the momentum of the east African country going. They have drawn a tough opponent in two-time African champions, Nigeria's Enyimba, whose captain Chinedu Udoji says the first leg will be key. “We are playing the current champions of Uganda, and we know they are a good side. We have no choice than to win, and we plan to play well and return to Nigeria with a good result."
The return legs will be played over the weekend of February 26–28, with the first round proper consisting of 32 teams being played over two weekends in March. April's second round will see 16 teams whittled to eight, which will set up the two groups of four.