The African Football League (AFL) kicks off in Tanzania on Friday, bearing little resemblance to the original concept.
It was launched amid much hype last year and called the CAF Africa Super League with record prize money for an African club competition, including $11.5 million (10.9 million euros) to the winners.
A total of 24 clubs — eight each from the north, west/centre and south/east regions chosen on merit — would compete and get $2.5 mn each in advance to buy players and cover travel costs.
There were supposed to be 197 mini-league and knock-out matches, culminating in a final African Football Confederation (CAF) president Patrice Motsepe said would be the “Super Bowl of Africa”.
But South African billionaire Motsepe has since admitted to the local media that the AFL has struggled to lure sponsors, resulting in a major downgrading of the first edition.
Motsepe said the name change came after unnamed “European friends” told CAF they should scrap “Super League” from the title.
“This advice was based on negative associations with the failed attempt in 2021 to launch a super league in Europe,” he said.
A planned European Super League collapsed within 48 hours after a backlash from players, supporters and governments forced nine of the 12 clubs who signed up to pull out.
First prize has been slashed to four million dollars, only eight clubs will participate and, instead of a “Super Bowl” climax, there will be a two-leg title decider.
The AFL named Saudi Arabian tourism body Visit Saudi as its major sponsor just seven days before Simba of Tanzania host African giants Ahly of Egypt in the opening quarter-final first leg.
TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo host Esperance of Tunisia and Petro Luanda of Angola have home advantage over Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa on Saturday.
The last first leg is scheduled for Sunday in the Nigerian city of Uyo, where Enyimba will confront Moroccan visitors Wydad Casablanca.
Each round features home and away matches with a hectic schedule, potentially including several trips covering the length of the continent, due to conclude on November 11.
Ahly and Wydad met in the last two CAF Champions League finals, winning one each, and they will be the teams to beat in the AFL.
The build-up has been beset with problems, including the South African Premiership banning Sundowns from taking part, saying it would lead to domestic fixture congestion.
Premiership officials later performed a u-turn and agreed that Sundowns — a club owned by Motsepe and run by his son Tlhopane — could take part.
A CAF official, who requested anonymity, told AFP Congolese customs officials have blocked the import of VAR equipment for the Mazembe match. There have also been delays in issuing visas.
Mazembe called the actions “inexplicable” in a statement, with the club risking having to move their home match from Lubumbashi to Dar es Salaam in neighbouring Tanzania.
Petro are contesting a two-year suspension by the Angolan football federation for alleged domestic match fixing.
Swiss-born Ahly coach Marcel Koller has criticised the schedule, saying many players will return to the Cairo club only two days before facing Simba due to the October internationals window.
“The dates of the African Football League fixtures are not suitable. The international players, whether Egyptians or another nationality, will suffer because of the dense schedule,” he warned.
Tunisian Ali Maaloul, Malian Aliou Dieng and South African Percy Tau are among the foreigners in the Ahly squad.