Hours before Accra Hearts of Oak touched down in the Ghanaian capital on Tuesday afternoon, following the weekend’s chastening elimination away to Moroccan giants WAC in the CAF Champions League, the next stage of their continental campaign had already been determined.
The Phobians — still smarting from the fresh wounds inflicted on them by ruthless WAC in that 6-1 thumping (6-2 on aggregate, if that version of events soothes some of the pain) — had consequently been demoted to the secondary inter-club competition, the CAF Confederation Cup, and an opponent found by the time they limped into town.
For the final qualification round, there were quite a few particularly challenging sides that Hearts could have drawn: the likes of RS Berkane, JS Kabylie, Enyimba, CS Sfaxien, Al Masry, Coton Sport Garoua, and Orlando Pirates.
In being pitted against Algeria’s JS Saoura, though, Hearts have gotten off relatively easy. Compared to the aforementioned names, Saoura, a club founded — or, rather, re-established — only in 2008, are no pedigreed African campaigners.
Domestically, too, their profile doesn’t seem so daunting. Saoura lack the clout of Algerian football’s northern powers — the JS Kabylies, USM Algers and ES Setifs — and are, quite conspicuously, the southernmost club currently in the Ligue Professionnelle 1 (which they only joined in 2011).
But, hey, they’re still North African opposition, and Hearts — like any Ghanaian club would know only too well — have good reason to be wary, knowing they can’t take anything for granted. If there is any temptation for Hearts to permit any degree of complacency, a Ghanaian footballer with a clearer idea of Saoura’s profile urges them to resist it.
“The team is financially stable,” Kwame Opoku, the former Asante Kotoko striker who has spent the best part of this year with USM Alger, revealed to a Kumasi-based radio station.
“No one should underrate them. They invest well in the playing squad. In my first game played for [USM Alger], we played against them and I can say that they are a really good side. Just last two weeks they came down to beat us on our own turf and so you can imagine how good they are.”
Hearts, clearly, would need to bring their A-game. Head coach Samuel Boadu failed to do that well enough against WAC, not winning convincingly in the first leg at home and setting up to fail — woefully so — in the reverse.
This, then, is an opportunity to right those wrongs, to apply the lessons from the nightmare suffered at the hands of WAC, if any at all have been learnt. The Confederation Cup might be slightly less prestigious than the competition in which they originally set out to succeed, but it has a special place in Hearts’ hearts and history.
Hearts, in early 2005, became the Confederation Cup’s first-ever conquerors. That was a long time ago, of course, and Hearts have been overtaken in the all-time list of winners by other clubs, with one of those — record winners Sfaxien, no less — still in contention this term.
They don’t have to worry about Sfaxien and the other heavyweights now, though; just Saoura. And Hearts have a whole month of intense domestic activity — a luxury they didn’t enjoy in the build-up to the WAC tie, remember? — to prepare for that test.
It’s a test Boadu won’t want to fail, a second chance he won’t want to miss.
Yaw Frimpong — Ink & Kicks