By Neel Shelat.
The 2022/23 season is over, but as listeners of the Frantic Football Podcast will know, the football never stops. While transfers dominate the mainstream news, we have found four interesting stories relevant to on-pitch action from lesser-followed leagues and competitions across the world.
🇲🇦 Morocco: ASFAR end 15-year league title drought
The Botola Pro title race came to a dramatic conclusion in Morocco, as a stoppage-time penalty proved to be decisive.
ASFAR were looking on course to lift their first league title since 2008 as they took over the top spot less than a third of the way in and held on to it right till the end, but Champions League finalists Wydad Casablanca made things interesting by finding form at the right time and setting up a final-day decider.
The capital club still had the advantage as they started the day with a point’s lead, so their fate was in their own hands. 14th-placed Ittihad Tanger had nothing to play for so they would have been expected to overcome them quite easily, but things got very tense indeed.
ASFAR took the lead quite early on in both halves but were pegged back on both occasions — as late as 75 minutes in the second time. Wydad, meanwhile, comfortably established a two-goal lead in their match, so they were doing all they could. It looked like their efforts were going to be rewarded until the sixth minute of stoppage-time, when 23-year-old Reda Slim scored his second penalty of the match to bring the title back to Rabat.
After a very disappointing decade in the 2010s when they went completely trophyless, the good times seem to be back for ASFAR. They currently have the national titles in both the men’s and women’s leagues and are also CAF Women’s Champions League holders.
🇹🇳 Tunisia: Étoile du Sahel end Espérance’s streak
Regular readers of the column will know that we love our unusual league formats, so we have to highlight the one in Tunisia now. This is a fine time to do so too, because we finally have newly-crowned champions for the first time in six years in the form of Étoile du Sahel.
The last time a team other than Espérance won the men’s top-flight in Tunisia, the league followed a regular round-robin format. If the format was changed to make things more competitive then it has not quite worked, but it certainly has made things a little more confusing. Here is how it goes:
In the first phase of the season, the 16 teams are divided into two groups of eight (Groups A and B). Within each group, the clubs play each other home and away in a regular round-robin format to produce the final table of the first phase. The only definitive thing decided at this stage is a couple of the relegation spots, as the bottom clubs of both groups are relegated at the halfway point of the season. Of the teams above them, the top four in each group advance to the championship group and the remaining three play in the relegation group to decide the two other relegation spots.
Here is an example from Group A this season, where Espérance finished ahead of Étoile du Sahel.
Moving on to the championship group, the teams’ original points tallies do not mean anything, but they all do not start on zero points either. The group-winners start with three points, runners-up with two, final podium-finishers with one and fourth-placed teams with nothing. They play each other home and away again, deciding the title and continental spots.
Simple enough, right?
🏆 CONCACAF Gold Cup: Saint Kitts and Nevis make tournament debut
Another not-so-straightforward format is that of the CONCACAF Gold Cup qualifiers and its interrelation with the Nations League, but in fairness, it has helped some less-fancied teams get to the main event in the USA this summer.
The make-up of the 16-team tournament had 13 direct qualifiers: the top two in the four Nations League A groups, the winners of the four Nations League B groups, and an invitational entry for Qatar. The remaining three spots were decided in a qualifying tournament held just before the main event, made up of the remaining League A participants, League B runners-up and League C winners.
These 12 teams were drawn into three separate brackets, where they effectively played qualification semi-finals and finals. Of course, the draw was seeded, so Saint Kitts and Nevis’ first opponents were the more fancied Curaçao. It was not much of a surprise when they conceded 22 minutes in, but an 83rd-minute equaliser took the game to penalties, where they recovered better after both teams failed to score their first attempt.
They then came up against a French Guiana side that put four past Sint Maarten in their semi-final, so they were the underdogs again. This time, though, they were the ones who took the lead first. Nevertheless, the match went down to penalties again, where they celebrated a similar outcome as all of their takers held their nerve.
With that, Saint Kitts and Nevis celebrated qualification to the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time ever. They are yet to get a point or even score a goal in the competition and will not be making it out of their group, but the fact that they are there is a big deal in itself.
A good start to Claude Makélélé’s tenure as Saint Kitts and Nevis’ technical advisor.
🏆 UEFA U21 Euros: Georgia attract record crowds and advance to the knockouts
Youth football is having a great year in Europe in terms of fan attendance. After Hajduk Split attracted thousands of fans to their UEFA Youth League knockouts in Switzerland, the Under-21 Euros have seen a new attendance record set in the group stage.
The tournament is being held in Romania and Georgia, with Groups B and D based in the former and A and C in the latter. Georgia automatically qualified for the tournament for the first time ever by virtue of being co-hosts, and have made quite a splash so far. They were drawn in a very tough group along with Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal and therefore expected to finish last, but they have done the opposite.
All three of Georgia’s group games were played at the home of Dinamo Tbilisi, who had 13 academy graduates in their country’s squad. A 2-0 win over Portugal in their first match saw them become the talk of the town, so over 41,000 people gathered to watch them take on Belgium thereafter. A second-half comeback from two goals down meant that they would only need a point from their final game to advance to the knockouts, so excitement began to build.
This time, over 43,000 fans filled the stands at the Dinamo Arena to break the attendance record they themselves had set a few days back. The stands erupted when Zuriko Davitashvilli scored a stunning opener in the 42nd minute, so even though the Netherlands responded before half-time, Georgia ended the group stage at the top of the standings.
👌 😱 Le but du Bordelais Zuriko Davitashvili qui offre la première place à la Géorgie!
— L'UEFA 🇫🇷 (@UEFAcom_fr) June 27, 2023
A memorable knockout run could be in the offing for what clearly is an immensely talented Georgia U21 side.
Stats and images courtesy of Transfermarkt, FotMob and Sofascore.